Love Is Strange is a movie about, well, love. It’s about the love shared by its central couple, George (Alfred Molina) and Ben (John Lithgow), but there’s more to it than that. It’s about all of its varieties and inflections, and the way that it’s expressed by husbands, nieces-in-law and friends. Beautifully lit spaces, subtly crafted dialogue and open, naturalistic performances from the whole cast help director Ira Sachs play with the manifestations of this title concept.
The MPAA ratings board, meanwhile, didn’t pay attention to any of this.
Love Is Strange was given an R rating. There’s no sex in the film, nor any notable violence. The reason this family drama wasn’t considered family-friendly was “language,” that ever-vague, often ironically meaningless word. What exactly does that mean? Sometimes it means too many “fucks,” or some similar breach of the arbitrary mathematics of swear-word policing. Here, though, it seems to be something else. An entire script in which the humanity of gay people is taken for granted may have been too linguistically salacious for the MPAA.
I am definitely not the first person to challenge this particular ruling (see: This Film is Not Rated). Plenty has been written about it already, even in the handful of days that Love Is Strange has been in theaters. Stephen Whitty in the Star-Ledger got things off to an excellent start by comparing the film to the weekend’s other R releases, Jersey Shore Massacre and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. The false equivalency between the aggressive violence and nudity of those two films and the warmth of Love Is Strange is clear and appalling.
This whole ratings system, set up by Hollywood studios to police themselves and avoid censorship, purports to be about the protection of children. Never mind the loaded nature of that logic in general, let’s look at some specific rulings with Love in the back of our minds.
Boyhood, likely the most beloved film of the summer, has an R rating. Never mind the fact that the film is a meticulously made chronicle of the life of a child, the MPAA has decided it isn’t suitable for children. That rating was also due to the endlessly dubious “language” excuse, as well as “teen drug and alcohol use.” Presumably, by avoiding the film, America’s young teens will continue to successfully avoid bad language and images of drugs and alcohol until they turn 18.
The list goes on. Blue Is the Warmest Color — the story of two young women exploring the ups and downs of their own love — was rated NC-17, becoming an opportunity to tell gay youth that they aren’t yet old enough to comprehend what is happening in their own lives. Bully — the 2011 documentary about bullying in schools — was given an R rating for its accurate depictions of bullying. The ruling made it more difficult to show in schools, where the kids already know that bullies use foul language. In the case of Bully, the Weinstein Company challenged the ruling. With Boyhood and Blue Is the Warmest Color, America’s teens have to either wait until the DVD or go to the IFC Center in New York City, which consistently and valiantly defies these idiotic rulings when it’s called for.
If anything, the scariest element of this problem is that it happens so frequently that we are no longer surprised. Yet Love Is Strange is a qualitatively different case from those cited above. The lack of sex, violence and drug use raises a red flag that eclipses all others. In this particular case, the MPAA is not judging the actions of characters, but rather the characters themselves. The implication here is that George and Ben, despite being human beings, are R-rated.
The logical conclusion of this line of thought is that gay people are R-rated. That a gay person, simply by existing on a screen, will conjure up the the specter of a dangerous sexuality that is not suitable for general audiences. What this rating displays, regardless of what any MPAA spokesperson may say to explain it, is a deeply homophobic assumption.
Love Is Strange begins with a wedding, that of George and Ben in the days following the long-awaited passage of a marriage equality law through the New York State Legislature. Soon after, George, who is a music teacher at a Catholic high school, is called into an awkward meeting with his boss. He is to be fired because his public declaration of love made it impossible to ignore his sexuality any longer. The Church has declared that he should not be allowed to teach children, and he is summarily fired.
One wonders if anyone on the MPAA ratings board, while watching the film and contemplating its suitability for children, realized that they were themselves acting with all of the empathy and humanity of the script’s only villain.