Film director Alan Parker spent Friday morning in the editing room, surgically removing a little more than nine feet of film from his X-rated "Angel Heart." Then he spent the rest of the weekend wondering whether the ratings board of the Motion Picture Assn. of America thought he had gotten all of the tumor.
"I feel sick at my stomach and desperately frustrated," Parker said Sunday, as he cooled his heels in his suite at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, waiting to hear whether the new cut of "Angel Heart" had been rated R or X. "They (the ratings board) can't seem to make up their minds."
The MPAA's six-person ratings board saw the new version of "Angel Heart" Friday afternoon, but as of Sunday, they had apparently not made a decision. Parker said the relevant reel, containing the movie's only lovemaking scene, was being shunted back and forth between the board's Sherman Oaks office and the New York office of board president Richard Heffner.
Neither Heffner nor anyone from the Sherman Oaks office could be reached for comment Sunday. But Parker said it is possible that if further editing is required, Tri-Star Pictures may have to postpone the film's scheduled March 6 opening. It will take a few days to get the 800 prints manufactured.
"They have not told me what it is specifically that they object to," said Parker, an Academy Award nominee for "Midnight Express." "I am not really sure what is acceptable and what is not. . . . It's like carving up a body. You get down to where there's only a foot left and they say, 'Ah, that's it.' "
It is easier to identify which part of "Angel Heart" offended the board than it is to understand what can be done about it. The dispute is apparently over one graphic lovemaking scene between actors Mickey Rourke and Lisa Bonet. But neither the nudity nor the simulated sex is as strong as what we have seen in other R-rated movies.
Is it because the episode is interracial? Or because of the bloody occult images accompanying it? Or is it--as some of the news media have implied through their coverage of the story--the fact that Bonet is the daughter on TV's clean-cut "The Cosby Show"?
No one knows except the ratings board members, and they apparently aren't telling.
Parker, who put more graphic images on the screen in his R-rated "Midnight Express," is in a peculiar spot. He had creative control over the $18-million movie, but he had also agreed in his contract to deliver an R-rated negative.
The contractual R has become routine in recent years. Because some theater chains refuse advertising for X-rated films and because many newspapers and television stations refuse advertising for them (the policies were established because the X is considered synonymous with pornography), the rating has become the commercial kiss of death.
"It would be silly for me to think they would release it as an X," Parker said. "They (Tri-Star) have been very supportive through this whole ordeal, but they're not stupid. They have to get an R."
Parker hinted that if the ratings board demands more cuts, without providing specifics, or if they ask for specific cuts that spoil the movie, he will appeal to other film makers for support. Many film makers and critics believe the MPAA will not consider changing the X rating (to an A, for adults, which would allow studios to advertise) because there is no pressure from the creative community.
There are not many directors working with the kinds of serious themes that are apt to get them into trouble with the MPAA's censors. But with "Angel Heart," it is not the director who appears to have gone too far.
"The problem is there for everyone, not just me," Parker said. "I do make strong movies, but I am not a pornographer. This movie is shocking; it is supposed to be. But if I don't know what their problem is, I can only guess. I don't know how anybody can make a movie that way."
Gilbert Cates, president of the Directors Guild of America, said the DGA has no official position on the MPAA's ratings system, but said, "We're against any kind of censoring of material." Cates added that if Parker "is being forced to make changes, we will go to the mat with him."
Elliot Silverstein, head of the DGA's creative rights committee, has not seen the movie. But he said that if the ratings board will not tell Parker exactly what he needs to do to get the R rating, "they should be taken to the whipping post."
"It's like (Franz Kafka's) 'The Trial.' A man is hauled into court and told to defend himself. 'Against what?' They tell him, 'If we stay here long enough, we'll find out what you're guilty of.' They (the board members) are derelict unless they specifically say what it is they object to."
Film producer Robert Radnitz ("Sounder"), a longtime foe of the ratings system, repeated his assertion that the system has run its course and said it no longer deserves the respect of the film-goers for whom its creator--MPAA president Jack Valenti--said it was designed.
"They call it self-regulatory, I call it censorship," Radnitz said. "What they are really attempting to do is head off federal legislation. But censorship is censorship. It's a First Amendment issue, and I wish somebody would take them (the MPAA) to the Supreme Court and test it."
Parker said he trimmed 10 shots from the lovemaking scene in "Angel Heart," a total of six seconds running time.
"This film will play uncut almost everywhere in Europe," Parker said. "In most countries, sex is not something that gives you a problem. Violence is. It's almost the reverse of the way it is here, where you can blow 10 people's heads off in two minutes and it's OK."
Parker said he hasn't decided what his next movie will be, but "whatever I do, it will be PG. It's too much aggravation. . . . It's hard enough making films without having to go through all this."
Parker was allowed to argue his position at the first appeals board session Feb. 13. Eleven of the 21 members showed up. He needed a two-thirds majority--eight votes--to have the X overturned.
"It's very difficult to know what kind of speech to make," he said. "Do you defend it on free speech? Do you try to convince them you're not a pornographer? As I looked at those blank faces staring back at me, I suddenly realized I had no idea who I was talking to, or what their points of view were."
The final vote was 6-5, "in favor of acquittal," Parker said. It was two short of the necessary two-thirds majority. At the second appeal, the vote went against him 8-6. Now, the edited film is back in the hands of the ratings board.
"The irony is that we fought for creative freedom and won it within a system that isn't supposed to give it," Parker said. "We fought the moguls with their big cigars and their philistine tastes and we got some creative freedom.
"Now we wait while six people we don't even know sit the dark with their cleavers."