One new movie generating Oscar buzz shows a woman engaged in a steamy sex act with another woman in a scene that lasts just over a minute without any nudity. Another new movie also piquing the attention of Academy Awards voters shows a man performing an identical act on a woman in a scene that lasts just over a minute without any nudity.
Filmgoers who watch both movies, especially those oral sex scenes, would be hard-pressed to describe how one is more explicit than the other.
Yet the first movie, "Black Swan," a supernatural drama from Fox Searchlight that opened this weekend, was given an R rating by the Motion Picture Assn. of America, which means it can play in nearly all theaters across the country. The second film, "Blue Valentine," which opens Dec. 31, was given a dreaded NC-17 because of what the Weinstein Co. studio says is that scene.
An NC-17 rating means anyone younger than 17 cannot see the movie in theaters — even if they are accompanied by an adult. Many theater chains have a policy of not exhibiting NC-17 films, and some media outlets refuse to carry ads for NC-17 movies. That means the box office receipts and cultural impact of an NC-17 film are likely to be much more limited than an R-rated movie. No NC-17 rated film has ever won a major prize at the Oscars.
The "Blue Valentine" rating is the latest in a string of controversial decisions by the MPAA and its Classification and Ratings Administration board that have raised the anger of filmmakers and moviegoers. Critics of the system say that the raters take a much harsher line on sex, language and drug use than they do on violence and that the panel's standards are murky and inconsistent.
"I don't have an answer for why that movie ["Black Swan"] would be OK and ours wouldn't," said "Blue Valentine" director Derek Cianfrance, who called the NC-17 rating "a form of censorship." "There's not an ounce of skin, and it's not gratuitous in any way. I'm confused and baffled."
Last year, Universal Pictures cried foul when "It's Complicated," a comedy about romance in middle age, was given an R rating because of a scene that showed the comedic effects of Meryl Streep and Steve Martin smoking pot. This year, the MPAA has drawn fire for giving an R rating to "The King's Speech," an uplifting tale about overcoming stuttering, because of a scene in which the British monarch's therapist has him utter a string of expletives in the course of a treatment session.
"While we respect the MPAA, I think we can all agree that we are living with an outdated ratings system that gives torture porn, horror and ultraviolent films the same rating as films with so-called inappropriate language," Harvey Weinstein, co-chair of the Weinstein Co., said in a recent statement.
The Weinstein Co., which is releasing "Blue Valentine" as well as "The King's Speech," is appealing the NC-17 rating, with a decision expected next week. A spokesman for the MPAA declined to answer questions for this story, citing the group's policy of not commenting on a pending appeal.
The MPAA is a film industry trade group consisting of and funded by the major Hollywood studios. The private nonprofit group, which is searching for a new leader, is best known for its ratings system as well as its lobbying and anti-piracy activities. Critics like the documentary filmmaker Kirby Dick say the composition of the MPAA has caused it to treat studio films more leniently than it does independent movies.
In "Black Swan," Mila Kunis' character, Lily, performs oral sex on Natalie Portman's Nina character in Nina's bedroom after a night of drinking and taking Ecstasy, in a scene designed to show that Nina is letting go of her inhibitions.
"Blue Valentine" shows Ryan Gosling's character, Dean, performing oral sex on Michelle Williams' Cindy as they begin their courtship, a moment that highlights Dean's affection for Cindy and her willingness to let down her guard with him.
The scenes are shot slightly differently — the "Blue Valentine" moment is done in one take, mainly from the side of the bed, while "Black Swan" cuts between Kunis' actions and Portman's reactions.
Cianfrance and a Weinstein Co. spokesman said that they have no plans to remove or alter the "Blue Valentine" scene if they do not win their appeal. They have also chosen not release the film as "unrated," a path that many art house films follow, usually to far more circumscribed audiences.
While awaiting its appeal with the MPAA, the Weinstein Co. has taken its case to the court of public opinion, sending out numerous press releases in the last few weeks in which executives and use words such as "travesty." The company has hired voluble attorneys such as Bert Fields and David Boies to contest the rating. And on Saturday, the company has scheduled a special screening of "Blue Valentine" for Hollywood movers and shakers and has urged them to sign an online petition speaking out about the rating after they see the film.
Although "Midnight Cowboy" captured the best picture prize in 1969, when the MPAA still used an X to denote its most severe rating, no NC-17 film has won an Oscar in an major category. The MPAA instituted the NC-17 rating 20 years ago in part to remove the stigma of the X, but observers say it has had little effect.
Studios still take great pains to avoid it — Universal cut scenes in the 2009 film "Brüno" to get an R rating. The highest-grossing NC-17 film of all time is "Showgirls," which took in a modest $20 million in the U.S. in 1995 ($27 million in current dollars). Most experts consider that movie an exceptional case, noting that the film's camp value helped it overcome the severe rating.
Those behind "Black Swan," including director Darren Aronofsky, said they have a notion as to why their film did not receive an NC-17, even as they remain confounded by the MPAA's policies in general.
" 'Black Swan' doesn't strike me as an NC-17 because there's no nudity. Darren does a lot by implication, and there's a dreamlike quality. It's all not taken very seriously," said Nancy Utley, the co-president of Fox Searchlight. But she acknowledged that some of the MPAA's ratings decisions can seem arbitrary.
Aronofsky, for his part, has a larger issue with the MPAA.
"I've heard the 'Blue Valentine' scene is more emotionally authentic," he said this week at a party for "Black Swan," saying that he hadn't seen Cianfrance's movie. But the director — who previously had a run-in with the MPAA after receiving an NC-17 rating for his 2000 addiction drama "Requiem for a Dream" — said the group had a relatively liberal policy on guns and violence but a far stricter approach to sex and nudity, "which to me seems totally backward."
If "emotional authenticity" is a factor, those involved in "Blue Valentine" say the reasoning for behind the NC-17 rating is all the more flawed.
"The MPAA's decision on 'Blue Valentine' unmasks a taboo in our culture — that an honest portrayal of a relationship is more threatening than a sensationalized one," Williams said recently in a statement.
Cianfrance said feels he has been punished for making a convincing movie.
"The essence of our film is that it's intimate and emotional and the sex doesn't feel fake. It's an honest relationship between two people, and it feels real because I have great actors," he said. "It's as if the MPAA is saying, 'Your actors are good — but they're too good.' "