Column: Sex, drugs and bagels: How the MPAA rates movies amidst our radical cultural shifts


We’ve seen them for so long — on movie trailers, on film posters — that they’ve become popular culture wallpaper. That always influential and sometimes controversial parental advisory ratings system — five grades, from G to NC-17 — replaced the movies’ rigid old Hays Code. It judges movies not according to whether they’re any good, but for violence, sex and nudity, foul language, drinking, drugs and smoking. Who are those “raters” who assign the letters that change the box office take? Around 10 or 12 parents, who watch three movies a day, five days a week, every week of the year.

For 31 of the 51 years that the Motion Picture Assn. of America ratings board has been issuing those grades, Joan Graves has been in that screening room — 19 of those years as the board chair. She’s just retired, and if you think she never wants to see another movie — sorry, no spoilers. Let’s rate this interview PG.

How did you get selected in the first place? It’s not like you can answer a want ad.

A friend I knew recommended me to Richard Heffner, who was chairman at the time. And I love movies, and I love being a parent, and the more he described it, I thought it would be a fun opportunity.

How has the job changed for you and your colleagues over those 30 years?

I think it changed a lot when Dick Heffner left, because he had had a very hands-off stance with filmmakers. But I had talked to so many directors and screenwriters who were so frustrated because they didn’t know a lot about the system, and they were more and more having to sign contracts before they even started a film to deliver a certain rating or less.

We started a little bit of an outreach saying, if you have questions, please call us. We appointed a filmmaker liaison, as well as myself, who would talk to any filmmaker who called, either in the script stage or after they’d signed the contract, or even as they were filming a scene, if they had questions about certain things that would cause certain ratings.

Of course, we couldn’t guarantee anything, but we could certainly guide them if they wanted to stay within certain ratings.

Is there or has there evolved a formula for ratings, so many bare breasts gets “X” — I don't mean an X rating, but so many breasts get this rating, so many F words gets

No. There’s the famous language rule, of course, that more than one use of the F word is an automatic R, unless there’s an extraordinary 2/3 vote [of the board].

The board watches the film together, all at the same time. They vote separately before any discussion. It’s all individual opinions first, and then the senior rater announces the vote. And we have a discussion.

When we saw a lot of violence, the board would want popcorn. When there was a lot of sex, they’d want chocolate. And when they were bored, they’d want bagels.

And it’s really the impression of [board member] parents, who come from all over, who are supposed to rate the film the way they think a majority of parents would rate the film. So there are not a lot of rules.

Do you all sit in the same room, or is this done online?

All in the same room.

Do you even get popcorn?

Yes. In fact, one of the most humorous things that I noticed right off the bat was when we saw a lot of violence, the board would want popcorn.

When there was a lot of sex, they’d want chocolate. And when they were bored, they’d want bagels.

What are some myths about what the board does?

I think the biggest myth of all is that they’re kind of blue-haired censors, and we’re not a censor board at all. The rating indicates the level of content, and the descriptor indicates what’s present at that rating level. Our goal is to give the parents a snapshot view of content in the film so that they can decide what’s best for their individual children, or according to their family values. We don’t prescribe what’s good or bad.

The tastes in films I presume are different regionally? What did you find?

They are. When I used to get calls, I’d always ask where the caller was from. By asking where they were from, I was able to get a little glimpse into the differences [across the country].

Southerners are much more concerned about blasphemy than the rest of the country. The Midwesterners were more attuned to the nudity. And the two coasts with bigger cities were more attuned to violence.

People know who you are; you’re not like a secret restaurant critic?

No, no, not a secret at all. We’ve got a website and the senior raters are available to talk to the public, as am I. You get kooky calls, there’s no question. And people that rant and rave — you can tell right away that they’re not calling because they’re a parent and have been confused about making a decision. They call because they want a certain thing out of movies or they have an agenda.

So it was my job to ferret that out before passing any messages along to the board.

As there has been more openness about same-sex relationships, has that changed ratings decisions? Does the same kind of scene in a same- sex relationship get a different rating than a heterosexual relationship with essentially the same content?

I know it used to. I think that’s changed a lot in the last two decades. Just as America’s changed, so has the rating system. Now I think it’s considered equally: it’s the graphics of either heterosexual or homosexual [scenes] that would push it into R, not any thematic or subject matter.

One of the other things I appreciate about our system is we’re never [rating a film] more than PG-13 for [only] themes. It’s just the graphics or the very vivid description of something that could push it into R.

Have you seen a “ratings creep,” as the country may get more sophisticated — for example, more accustomed to same-sex relationships?

Oh yeah. And then it creeps both ways. I know that the drug content now is [rated] more harshly than it was, say, in the ’70s, when all the parents thought taking drugs was fun for all. They realized some of the consequences weren’t as wonderful as they thought. And [film raters] are much more sensitive to drug content than they used to be.

The phrase “X-rated” has entered the vocabulary; it started as a film rating, which is now NC-17. And the phrase “adult film” is used synonymously with pornography, whereas I think of an adult film as something very sophisticated and intense.

That is one of the flaws of how the system evolved, and I think it was traceable to the fact that when they first trademarked our ratings, they didn't trademark the “X,” feeling that it was an adult rating, so anybody could indicate something was adult; they didn't need to trademark it.

What happened is the sex industry took it over. And what was before considered just an adult quality film, which you’ve just described so well — like [best picture winner] “Midnight Cowboy,” which got it years ago — the “X” got the patina of a sex rating. They said “double X” or “triple X,” and everyone began to think of sex as the “X” rating.

And that’s why we changed it to NC-17, and we trademarked it because we wanted to enforce it as an adult rating.

Now what happened to [NC-17], unfortunately, was that it hasn’t achieved the success that I hoped, because a lot of filmmakers or submitters do not accept it. When they’re given an NC-17, they edit the film to get down into the R category. They don’t like to go to market with it, because in their mind it has more restrictions. But in actuality it should be a viable rating and I regret that it hasn’t been more viable.

Boy, when I look back, we were watching some porn, but some of that almost-porn would try to get an R rating — it would be wall-to-wall naked bodies, but they wouldn’t be doing much.

But then, with the sex home entertainment market — that took it away from us, they didn’t need ratings anymore because you could get [porn movies] in your home, and the adult movie theaters would just apply the triple X and handle it themselves.

But in the beginning, we saw a lot more sexual content [in movies submitted for review] than we do now.

There used to be an “M,” which I guess is now the PG-13 — M for mature audiences. Why did that go away?

It was before I was involved, but from what I hear, the public was misunderstanding it, and it sounded like it was more strident than in fact it was meant to be, that you had to be more mature to see it than in fact you needed to be.

I thought it meant it was for those over 65!

Well, now that I'm there...

There have been several signature controversies during your tenure. One was “The King's Speech,” which used more than the acceptable number of F words, but they were being used in the movie in a therapeutic fashion.

Well, that was a very, very influential film for us. There was such a flurry about, how could they do this, this is such a good film, that we did quite an involved survey on language alone, to find out what parents really thought, and if we were truly reflecting what they thought.

Because we thought maybe we were not adjusting according to how the times were. And what we got back was very interesting: Parents didn't want any F words in PG-13. They didn't care whether it was a historical bit or whether it was a documentary — they wanted to be told it was there and they were going to make the decision about whether to take their kids or not.

They made it clear to us that we were following the right path and applying that rating, even though it did seem very odd to us at the time, I must say.

When you all sit down after the film to vote and start discussing it, do individual members think, “This is the hill I’m going to die on” for some particular film, that “I feel so strongly about the rating for this film”?

You do get films like that, there’s no question. Not a lot of them, and not as many as you would think, but there are films like that, that we are absolutely divided on, and each side is strong.

And then we go into a mode of having any rater who hasn’t seen it, see it, so we can get everybody weighing in on it.

It doesn’t happen very often, because usually it’s pretty obvious, and it’s usually between PG-13 and R, although sometimes PG/PG-13 is the difference.

It must be fun, as well as sometimes frustrating.

It is fun. Creative people are usually fun. When I first started, I was called a couple of horrible names by the filmmakers whom I was delivering the rating to. But those days are long gone. I think that the nice thing about the system now is the filmmakers don’t hate it anymore. I think they realize it is a good tool for informing parents, and that the protection is keeping government out of the system — because anytime parents are outraged or angry and want something done, they go to the government, and the industry has been protected from that.

Have people tried to game the system?

We have had some filmmakers, some decades ago. There was one film we saw 11 times and they would change a frame — one frame — and then be qualified for a screening. That ended up with a rule change that we won’t see a film more than two times, and within a certain amount of time.

Now that you’re retiring, are you thinking, I never want to see another movie?

Oh, never — no, the opposite. I just hope that I know of the good ones that I might have missed. When I was working, I would go to the real theater, because it was important to me to see how the audience would react to certain things when you see it on the big screen.

And I do love movies. I must admit I like the smaller, relationship movies more than the big tentpoles.

And I love foreign films. So many of those are not rated. But it’s so hard to catch [in theatrical release]. You make sure you’re aware of the ones you want to see. The L.A. Times reviews Fridays are my major source, and [film critic] Joe Morgenstern.

There are a couple of documentaries — I have the titles written down somewhere — that I want to see. Documentaries are the genre that’s really fascinated me in the last decade.

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