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‘Young Adam’ gets an NC-17

Special to The Times

The British drama “Young Adam,” starring Ewan McGregor and Tilda Swinton, has become the second film distributed by a major studio subsidiary this year to receive the rarely imposed NC-17 rating from the Motion Picture Assn. of America.

As happened with Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers,” the NC-17 rating was awarded to “Young Adam” because of its sexual content. The film’s distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, appealed the decision, and its veteran London-based producer, Jeremy Thomas (who also produced “The Dreamers”), flew to Los Angeles this week to try to have the rating overturned. But an MPAA ratings appeal board Thursday upheld the decision by an 8-2 vote.

“Sony Classics are going to release the film as an NC-17, though they’re not happy about it,” Thomas said, speaking by phone Friday. “But I’m not going to appeal it again.”

Tom Bernard, co-chairman of Sony Pictures Classics, said the NC-17 rating will have an effect on the film’s commercial appeal. Bernard contended that the rating is unfair because it does not distinguish between a quality art film and hard-core pornography.

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“It matters tremendously,” Bernard said. “Your movie is in the same category as the porn movie of the week. So if it’s ‘Debbie Does Dallas’ or ‘Deep Throat 7,’ you have the same rating as a high quality art movie like ‘Young Adam.’ ”

The film, which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival last May, didn’t find a distributor until Sony Classics secured the rights in September at the Toronto Film Festival for a little more than $500,000.

“Young Adam” will open April 16 in New York and Los Angeles and in other markets thereafter.

The rating, which means that no one 17 or younger will be admitted to “Young Adam,” has historically been reserved for films with explicit sexual content that includes full frontal nudity and/or scenes vividly depicting intercourse, and more rarely for violence. But until this year, the NC-17 had fallen into disuse.

According to Thomas, a single scene in “Young Adam” was enough to earn the NC-17.

“It’s one in which Tilda and Ewan’s characters make love for the first time, on a riverbank,” he said. “But they’re fully clothed, so I’m surprised. There were other scenes in the film that I’d have felt less confident about defending. Anyway, this was a scene we didn’t want to cut.”

According to sources familiar with the ratings debate on “Young Adam,” the sticking point was the duration of that scene, which includes McGregor’s character engaging in oral sex with Swinton’s character. The film has other sexually explicit scenes, including a sensual food fight between McGregor and costar Emily Mortimer, but the amount of time the oral sex scene lasted is what sent ratings board members over the edge.

“The other scenes were disturbing but this just lasted too long for their comfort,” one source said. “There comes a point where they start wriggling in their seats and then you have lost them.”

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Joan Graves, head of the rating board, was unavailable to comment.

The MPAA’s rating board, made up of parents, does not have strict guidelines for what qualifies as an NC-17. The board usually watches three to four movies per day. It is, as MPAA President Jack Valenti has admitted, an extremely subjective process.

In “Young Adam,” a bleak drama set in Scotland in the 1950s, McGregor plays Joe, an amoral drifter working on a canal barge owned by a married couple, Les and Ella (Peter Mullan and Swinton). After Joe and Les find the half-naked body of a young woman floating in the canal, Joe seduces Ella, and it becomes clear he may be involved in the woman’s death.

“It’s not a pornographic film,” Thomas insisted. “Unfortunately, this NC-17 [rating] gives it the imprimatur of a film that it’s not. And it has commercial consequences. I suspect ‘The Dreamers’ [distributed by Fox Searchlight] suffered in the United States because of the NC-17.”

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Fox Searchlight executives declined to comment, although they previously stated they were able to advertise the film in papers and to book theaters with virtually no restrictions.

However, “The Dreamers,” which was released in February to mixed reviews, grossed only $2.2 million. It is unclear whether that was due to the NC-17 or if the film just did not spark enough interest to sustain it.

Thomas, who has been Bertolucci’s producer for decades, agreed it had been an extraordinary year for him in terms of American ratings controversy.

“I’m sorry about that,” he said ruefully. “But what do you do? I know ‘The Dreamers’ was a film with many reasons for them to give it an NC-17. In the end, that never went to appeal. But I feel ‘Young Adam’ is different.

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“I just make films for grown-ups -- and this NC-17 is another obstacle.”

Thomas, who won a best picture Oscar in 1988 as producer of Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor,” has made other controversial films, including David Cronenberg’s “Crash” and “The Naked Lunch.”

He noted that the climate of tolerance is different in the United States from Europe. “I see a film like ‘Kill Bill,’ which is full of violence, and it received an R.... I don’t understand the moral balance between them. But I suppose that’s what [American] parents would rather have -- a level of violence rather than sexual content.”

“Young Adam” was enthusiastically received by critics when it opened in Britain in September, and director David Mackenzie was named most promising newcomer at the London Critics’ Circle film awards last month.

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Times staff writer Munoz reported from Los Angeles, correspondent Gritten from London.


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