A few months back, a fight for free expression was exercised by the Weinstein Company for the Sundance-indie favorite Blue Valentine to be theatrically released with an R-rating instead of the dreaded NC-17. Many things about this pseudo-fight are nothing special: there’s hardly anything surprising about fights with the MPAA or about the Weinsteins making a fuss – it’s how they’ve succeeded in the business for decades. But this fuss, and the anti-MPAA lobbying contained within it, seemed significantly more justified because it was exercised in the name of potentially getting an exceptional indie into more theaters across the country (and while the film does star two recognizable names, it is, economically speaking, very much a truly modest indie of the classic Sundance variety).
In the end, the Weinsteins got their way, and justifiably so. The NC-17 rating has become an economic form of censorship: nothing associated with the label, or the institution that bestows that label, has the power to actively stop distribution of NC-17 films, but because of the rating’s associations with sexually-explicit content, and because of the liability and extra measures required of theaters in preventing young people from sneaking their way into such films, many theaters (and some entire theater chains) will not exhibit films with such a rating. This would have relegated Blue Valentine, at best, to arthouse theaters in big cities. Such theaters are no doubt where Blue Valentine will play best regardless, but the key word here is opportunity – an R-rating provides more exhibition and promotional opportunities than the NC-17 rating, thus greater opportunities for various audiences to discover the film.
But what, exactly, was gained from the ratings switch?
From the PR folks at Weinstein Co. to film journalists in print and on the web, the decision was seen as something of a victory. But what was the battle that this decision gained victory against, and how does it change things for the future, if it does at all? After all, the NC-17 rating still exists with all its associated economic and promotional limitations and the MPAA still has the final word on movie ratings without ever being pressured into transparency about their decisions or set precedents for their ratings.
The previous common wisdom was that the MPAA, being a product of the studio system, possessed an institutional bias and an economic pressure in giving studio films the ratings they sought, while indies are rarely given such leniency (it could also be said reciprocally that indie dramas of this ilk have more freedom to be challenging in ways that studio fare often plays it safe). Blue Valentine represents an exception to this rule as much as it does the rule itself. As a real indie, it can engage in subject matter that studios rarely care to, and the fact that such a small film was able to have its way against such a powerful institutional force is something of a rare victory of small art against big bureaucracy.
But at the same time, the rating was changed because of a highly publicized lobbying effort by the Weinstein Company and their team of lawyers. This movie needed big guns to fight big guns. There are few better-known executive personalities in the film world than the Weinsteins, and when they get mad about something it reverberates on the already unstable earthquake-prone ground of Los Angeles. Yes, the Weinsteins have made a career of working with indie filmmakers, but their personas are undoubtedly Big Hollywood. Thus, even in this “victory” the MPAA’s institutional bias is arguably still there, if not emboldened. Had a smaller distributor like, for example, IFC picked up the title, it’s hard to argue they would have had as much an influence in the decision even if they made just as strong a case (they most likely would have released the film unrated regardless, as they so often commendably do). At best, Blue Valentine evidences that the shadowy MPAA can be shamed into changing a rating by influential Hollywood moguls if enough bad PR is attached.
The Blue Valentine case solves none of the greater problems inherent in the MPAA rating system, or the NC-17 rating in particular. There are still very few options distributors and filmmakers have when facing such a problem, and the rating will continually prove to be a threat to artistic freedom and specifically to the representation of sexuality in film. Which is why I can’t help but speculate the benefits of an NC-17-released Blue Valentine.
One of the much-discussed reasons for the Weinstein’s desire for a ratings change is awards consideration. Basically, somebody got scared that an NC-17 would hurt Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams’s chances at Oscar nominations (and the Academy Awards is the Weinsteins’s currency). Despite my ambivalence regarding all things Oscar, I find this paranoia hard to fathom. The Academy Awards have, oddly enough, had a long history of providing a bulwark against institutional censorship. Well before the NC-17 rating was even invented, controversial and challenging X-rated fare like Midnight Cowboy (1969), A Clockwork Orange (1971), and The Last Tango in Paris (1973) were met with Oscar love. (The Best Picture Oscar automatically got a re-rating to R for Midnight Cowboy without a single cut, A Clockwork Orange was later re-rated R, while the still-venerated Last Tango currently has an NC-17 rating.)
It’s true that no film that was initially distributed with an NC-17 rating has gotten major Oscar love, and the comparable awards “acceptability” of the late-60s/early 70s fare can arguably be attributed to differences in cultural mores, but a rating’s inaccessibility to audiences shouldn’t be confused with inaccessibility to influential critics and voters, and thus a reciprocal change in ratings standards.
I bring this up particularly because of the potential transformative power awards attention has in combating institutional censorship. In 1966, Mike Nichols’s directed his first film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, based on the Edward Albee play of the same name. In order to be true to the play, the film to retained the course language of the source material. You see, Virginia Woolf was, like Blue Valentine, a chronicle of a broken relationship going through a painful dissolution supercharged by two great actors (in this case, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton).
While not only a great film, Virginia Woolf was something of a deliberate powderkeg used to combat the former mode of Hollywood censorship, the Hays Code. Releasing a film without the Production Code Seal of Approval carried a stigma similar to releasing a film with an NC-17 rating or without a rating entirely, which provided a bulwark against the content filmmakers wanted to explore in the 1960s. In order to break the system, Virginia Woolf was made and released in full awareness that it would never get a seal. The film was also calculated to be one of Elizabeth Taylor’s defining performances, and it ultimately got her an Oscar and got the film a host of other nominations and critical recognition. What the film’s recognition despite disapproval from censors effectively did was make a case for the irrelevance of such a system of censorship in contemporary American society.
Had Blue Valentine been the first NC-17 film to receive two major acting nominations, that could have done a lot to combat the stigma of the ratings system within the industry itself, as well as give the film more clout and attraction to exhibitors that may otherwise avoid such titles on principle.
This would have also provided greater awareness for the film on home video, for in an age where online rental is bludgeoning video stores to death, the potential “moral” grandstanding of the Blockbusters of the world is no longer so threatening. Pragmatically, dismantling the ratings system altogether is not an option, but the NC-17 doesn’t have to be a death knell. That Blue Valentine will get a chance at reaching a larger audience is a fact worth celebrating. But this minor victory doesn’t change the fact that we need a film of prestige to step up to the plate and challenge the stigma associated with the NC-17 rating, or distributors are going to have to continue these needless appeals. If Blue Valentine isn’t going to be our Virginia Woolf, some other film needs to.