R vs. NC-17--What’s the Difference? : Filmmakers, Exhibitors Are Bewildered by Inconsistent Ratings


Ads call Madonna’s new movie “the erotic thriller of the year.” But anyone under age 17 can see the pop star bare her breasts and make steamy love to Willem Dafoe in “Body of Evidence”--if they are accompanied by an adult. It’s rated R.

On the other hand, the movie industry’s toughest warning to parents was given to the upcoming “Wide Sargasso Sea,” an art-house film that has only modest lovemaking scenes compared to “Body of Evidence” or last year’s R-rated “Basic Instinct.” The lovemaking only occurs after the couple is officially married--an unusual situation in today’s movies. But the film has one very quick distant shot of male frontal nudity. For that, the filmmakers say, the movie was made off-limits for children and given the NC-17 rating.

Last week, first-time director Jennifer Lynch’s film “Boxing Helena” received an NC-17 recommendation. The movie is a graphic story about a woman whose arms and legs are amputated by her doctor after an auto accident, and then lives in a box. The film has two sex scenes.


“All I can do is look to see the content of other films that got an R rating, like ‘Basic Instinct.’ And my film ‘Boxing Helena’ doesn’t nearly go as far as that one did,” said producer Carl Mazzocone.

Such inconsistent examples add to a growing sense of bewilderment about what an R rating means anymore. In interviews with a number of filmmakers and theatrical exhibition sources, the line between an R rating and an NC-17 rating is confusing to most. They say “Body of Evidence,” Louis Malle’s current “Damage,” as well as “Basic Instinct” have pushed the limits of what has generally been accepted as R-rated material.

All three were originally given NC-17 ratings. Yet after much haggling, and minimal trimming--sometimes the difference is only a matter of seconds--the filmmakers were able to win R ratings. The board that awards the ratings is an anonymous, 11-member group of parents who are employed by the Motion Picture Assn. of America and the National Assn. of Theatre Owners.

The ratings confusion greatly bothers MPAA Chairman Jack Valenti, who sees the primary function of the system as information for parents. “Look, all we’re saying with these ratings is that we want to warn you that this is adult material.

“I’m sure the board has made errors. We’ve rated over 10,000 films,” Valenti added. But he said the alternative to the industry-supported system would be “an epidemic of systems around the country.”

Indeed, although there is widespread dissatisfaction, no one interviewed wanted to do away with the industry’s voluntary system. The fear is that the vacuum would lead to a multitude of government and religious standards.

Some observers believe the ratings board has become tougher in its views in the wake of criticism it received after rating last summer’s comic/violent “Batman Returns.” The movie was given a PG-13--meaning that parents are strongly cautioned about the material.

Stephen Deutsch, president of production for Dino De Laurentiis Communications, the producer of the MGM-distributed “Body of Evidence,” called the ratings process a “Kafkaesque experience.” He said the ratings board “is reeling from ‘Batman Returns’ criticism that it applies toughness to sexuality more than violence. I believe if they had ‘Basic Instinct’ to rate over again it would be NC-17.”

In the case of “Body of Evidence,” changes were made in a scene during which Madonna masturbates and makes love with Dafoe on the hood of a car. Deutsch said the cuts were made because De Laurentiis and MGM did not want to be “the first big test case for NC-17.”

Only one major studio movie, Universal Pictures’ “Henry and June,” has been released as an NC-17 since the rating was created in 1990.

“Henry and June,” without any major stars, did not fare well commercially. But if any movie could challenge the NC-17 commercial taboo, it was believed the movie starring Madonna was the first serious contender, had the producers opted for that route. But since opening on Friday, the film has grossed only a modest $6.2 million, according to industry estimates.

“I would not take my 12-year-old daughter to see ‘Body of Evidence,’ ” said Deutsch, “because I don’t think she is mature enough to understand the sexuality in the film.” On that score, he said he is satisfied with the R rating the film received.

“On the other hand I went to see ‘The Bodyguard’ (R rated, starring Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston) which is a love story and ‘Trespass’ (also rated R) which has people being machined-gunned to death. I don’t understand how these can be compared. I would take my daughter to see ‘Bodyguard.’ ”

Ira Deutchman, president of Fine Line Features which will distribute “Sargasso Sea,” said he has no plans to contest the rating. “All it says is that it is not suitable for children. If we stop treating the NC-17 as a pariah, it will stop being seen as a pariah.”

But that is not to say he isn’t puzzled about some ratings. “I would have made the (ultra-violent) ‘Die Hard’ movies NC-17,” he said.

Most producers view an R rating as the more commercially acceptable tag because the major movie theater chains will not book films rated NC-17, some major video dealers will not stock them and leading publications usually refuse advertising.

One of the few to reach the market carrying an NC-17 label is “Bad Lieutenant,” distributed in limited release by Aries Film. But the intensity of the sexuality and nudity in the movie starring Harvey Keitel made the rating clearly understandable to most people.

Another movie due out soon, “Dead Alive,” is described as an extremely gory horror film from Trimark Pictures. But Trimark on Friday said it would not seek any rating for the film, since it feels that it will likely receive NC-17.

The rating for “Body of Evidence” was generally accepted among moviegoers who saw it at the Beverly Center Cineplex Friday.

Deborah Felix, 43, who brought her son Greg, 15, with her, said, “He’s seen (the R-rated) ‘Fatal Attraction,’ so this was no big deal.”

But Greg, who could not have attended without his mother, said he thought all people his age should be able to see the film.

Michael Michaud, 36, said: “I think the rating is OK. I thought that the trailers that depicted that street violence were much more offensive than the movie we saw,” he said. “There were two that were very violent . . . and that’s more offensive to me than sex on the screen. There’s this American myth that violence is an acceptable form of communication. That, I think, is much more dangerous than watching someone have sex on the screen.”

Ratings board chairman Richard Heffner has heard all the criticism before. Asked whether the board has grown stricter, he said, “It’s the material in the movies that is getting tougher, not the board.”

Heffner said the board’s basic concern is “what do we believe most American parents will accept for their children.”

Calendar section intern Robin Rauzi contributed to this report.