It's been a long time since "Midnight Cowboy" made history in 1969 when it became the first and only X-rated film to win the Academy Award for best picture. In the intervening 38 years, the Motion Picture Association of America has replaced the "X" rating with the alphabetically friendlier NC-17 and has invented the PG-13 rating. Thanks to the mass-marketing mind-set that has been made possible in large part by PG-13 blockbusters, the MPAA ratings process — centered around the decisions of a few dozen California parents — exerts more power today over the movie business than ever before.
It's a system that has infuriated more than a handful of critics (chief among them Roger Ebert) and filmmakers (notably Kirby Dick, who outed the members and procedures of the secretive MPAA in his recent documentary, "This Film Is Not Yet Rated"), who claim that the process is so insulated and subjective, and so biased against sexual content while being so lenient with violence, that few serious films featuring sexual content can be made without earning an NC-17 rating — and the stigma that comes with it.
All of which makes next Friday's big-screen premiere of Ang Lee's NC-17-rated "Lust, Caution" that much more remarkable. In the last decade, only a few scattered films have arrived in movie theaters with an NC-17 rating. "Descent," a film sporting two violent rape sequences, had its premiere at this year's Tribeca Film Festival before receiving an extremely limited release on only two screens (total American box office: $15,000). In 2004, the sexually ambiguous Pedro Almodóvar whirlwind "Bad Education" (American box office: $5.2 million), and the sexually liberated Bernardo Bertolucci film "The Dreamers" (American box office: $2.5 million) made brief appearances.
More common are films such as Darren Aronofsky's Oscar-nominated "Requiem for a Dream" and Larry Clark's 1995 notorious "Kids," which refuse to accept the NC-17 label altogether and enter theaters as unrated works. But the standard maneuver for films slapped with the dreaded NC-17 rating — such as Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" and the Hilary Swank breakthrough "Boys Don't Cry" — is to go to extraordinary lengths to re-edit and reshoot (or in Mr. Kubrick's case, digitally insert bodies to obscure an "objectionable" on-screen orgy) in an effort to reduce the number of pelvic thrusts, the amount of pubic hair, or the types of sexual positions to meet the MPAA guidelines for an R-rated film.
Many pundits point to "Eyes Wide Shut" as the classic case of the ratings system run amok. Critics decried the fact that a filmmaker as respected as Kubrick would be unable to bring his vision to a wide audience. But the MPAA, which refused to comment on the motive behind its rating for "Lust, Caution," beyond the official citation of "some explicit sexuality," responds to such critics by noting that the NC-17 rating is a viable designation in its eyes, one that is taken seriously and assigned fairly.
It is not the NC-17 rating in itself that led Warner Bros. to avoid releasing "Eyes Wide Shut" in it is original form, industry watchers note, but rather the perceived stigma attached to the rating that has led so many studios to view it as a mark of death. According to Chad Hartigan, an analyst with Exhibitor Relations, which collects and provides box-office data to the entertainment industry, it always comes down to marketing.
"The biggest problem with the rating is that it takes away a lot of your marketability," he said. "I've heard of some newspapers that won't run ads for NC-17 films, some theater chains will not see it as a marketable property. It makes it very hard to get the word out and recoup your costs."
However, the president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, John Fithian, said such assumptions about movie theater chains are unfounded. Mr. Fithian, who will appear at a meeting of theater executives next week, said he intends to raise the subject of "Lust, Caution," a title that many exhibitors are seriously considering booking at their locations.
"We are strongly supportive as an organization of the use of NC-17," he said. "It is vitally important to the integrity of our business that all the ratings are used appropriately, and that we are not putting too much pressure on making films rated R that shouldn't be. I've talked to several film buyers and theater company CEOs and the response has been very positive; the vast majority of theater operators, not 100% but the vast majority, will play NC-17s if they believe it's viably marketable."
And this is why "Lust, Caution," a Shanghai-bound espionage thriller set during the days of World War II, about a woman who must seduce a powerful political figure, may be the most commercially "viable" NC-17 title since the rating's inception — an award contender with the potential to challenge the perceptions that go hand-in-hand with an NC-17 label. Having already stormed the Venice Film Festival, where it was awarded the top prize of the Golden Lion, "Lust, Caution" is free of the sorts of sexual content (rape, incest, orgies, gay sex scenes, etc.) that lead some to write off other NC-17 works as subversive or transgressive. Instead, the movie features heterosexual sex that is more frequent, lengthy, and aggressive than the MPAA will tolerate in an R-rated film.
"It seems like a totally legitimate, straightforward film, if you will," Mr. Hartigan said. "And while other respectable filmmakers have gone with NC-17 before, such as Almodóvar with ‘Bad Education' or [David] Cronenberg with ‘Crash,' some of these other NC-17 films have had a more ‘perverse' approach than what it seems like Ang Lee has done here. In fact, it seems even more straightforward than what he did with ‘Brokeback Mountain.'"
Unfazed by the rating, the studio that produced "Lust, Caution," Focus Features, publicly stood by Mr. Lee and his final cut from the outset, announcing almost instantly that "when we screened the final cut of this film, we knew we weren't going to change a frame." In a subsequent statement, by James Schamus, the studio's CEO — and, not incidentally, also a writer on the film — said that "as with so many of his previous films, Oscar-winning director Ang Lee has crafted a masterpiece about and for grown-ups."
Mr. Hartigan believes the film will almost surely benefit in its September 28 markets (New York and Los Angeles) from the publicity surrounding its rating, but he said that the industry is less sure of the film's box-office potential beyond it's limited October 6 expansion to a half-dozen additional markets.
One optimistic indicator of the way the exhibition industry is thinking about the film's potential, beyond week number two, is Mr. Fithian's enthusiasm for "Lust, Caution," which he thinks has the potential to cross over in ways that "Bad Education," "The Dreamers," and "Descent" could not.
"Even within the confines of an artistic, foreign film, I still think it has the potential to demonstrate to the world that the NC-17 is a viable rating, and that serious filmmakers like Ang Lee can make and distribute their films this way."