Playing it Safe
turns its back on R-rated moviesand the adult audiencein
the quest for ever-greater profits
of the best movies in current release is Narc, a tough-minded,
hard-hitting police drama about a murdered undercover cop.
The film’s action is bloody and disturbing, but grounded in
context; the story is compelling, and the characters are real
human beings. Narc is R-rated adult entertainment in
the traditional sense: a mature drama for adults. It likely
will earn an Academy Award nomination for its star, Ray Liotta.
But if it weren’t for Tom Cruise, there’s little chance that
it would be playing at your local multiplex.Narc was
made independently by committed filmmakers (director Joe Carnahan
and actor-producer Liotta) with no money. Cruise, who just
happens to be the biggest movie star on Earth, loved the film,
signed on as an executive producer, and brought it to the
attention of Paramount. The rest, as they say, is history.
A little film that might have gone straight to video—the Hollywood
equivalent of Palookaville—has instead been given a chance
to find the audience it deserves.
The question is, why wouldn’t a studio make a film like this
to begin with? Because tough, R-rated adult films don’t make
as much money as PG- or PG-13-rated films—the audience is,
after all, limited to adults.
No one would have predicted that things would turn out this
way when the current ratings system was formulated in 1968.
Films like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, with its
suggestive dialogue, and Bonnie and Clyde, with its
brutal mix of comedy and violence, were prompting cries for
censorship. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA),
the studios’ trade group, realized that the old film censorship
system—in place since 1934—had broken down. To forestall the
ever-present threat of government involvement, the MPAA created
a ratings board to “objectively” rate films.
An R rating literally means “accompanying adult required for
all viewers under 17.” While it indeed translated into a fair
amount of gratuitous nudity and violence, it allowed—inspired—a
new frankness and an adult approach to film that had not been
seen in Hollywood since the films of the early 1930s. Narc
harks back to the “golden age” of R-rated movies of the 1970s.
Filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Brian
De Palma, William Friedkin and Martin Scorsese made, year
after year, challenging films for adults that explored the
limits of sex and violence. Some were wildly—others only mildly—successful,
but the point is that there was a wider variety of films being
Then, in 1977, Star Wars happened. Suddenly, studios
realized that films targeted at all-ages audiences could earn
a lot more money than even something like The Godfather
or The French Connection. So, the blockbuster phenomenon—born
two years earlier with Steven Spielberg’s PG-rated Jaws—came
Hollywood today has gone beyond mere blockbusters. Now the
focus is on creating a franchise that can be promoted and
sold by the various arms of the corporate octopus—the end-product
is usually a franchise first, movie second. Compare the top
five moneymaking films from 10 years ago with last year. In
1993, they were Jurassic Park, Mrs. Doubtfire,
The Fugitive, The Firm, and Sleepless in
Seattle. Of these, only Spielberg’s dinosaur flick was
planned with multiple sequels in mind; only the John Grisham
adaptation (starring Cruise, of course) earned an R. For 2002,
the top films were Spider-Man, Star Wars: Episode
II—Attack of the Clones, The Lord of the Rings:
The Two Towers, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,
and My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The four studio films—whatever
their relative artistic merits—are franchises. And not a single
one is rated R.
Don’t expect the climate to improve for R-rated films. Having
caught on to corporate economic imperatives, pressure groups
are trying to exploit the fact that an R rating is much less
commercially desirable than the kid- and profit-friendly PG
or PG-13. Stanton A. Glantz, a professor of medicine at the
University of California, San Fransisco, leads the organization
Smoke Free Movies. With a fervor reminiscent of a temperance
league, the group has garnered the goodwill of the American
Medical Association. The AMA and officials from the World
Health Organization support their crusade, which is to have
every film showing people smoking rated R.
With moral single-mindedness, Smoke Free Movies keeps track
of which films “promote” smoking; most recently, the pipe-puffing
denizens of Middle-earth in The Lord of the Rings:
The Two Towers have met with their disapproval. As Variety
film critic Todd McCarthy pointed out last March, Glantz even
dismisses the need for historical accuracy, and would prefer
a World War II film in which Franklin Roosevelt would be shown
without his omnipresent cigarette holder. (Anti-smoker Adolph
Hitler, McCarthy noted, could be presented correctly.)
hard to believe that as recently as a dozen years ago, mainstream
filmmakers pushed at the limits of the R rating—and it was
all about sex. Director Philip Kaufman made Henry &
June, about the sexually liberated writer Henry Miller
and his relationships with his wife, June, and the writer
Anaïs Nin in 1920s Paris. The film does not feature explicit,
hardcore sex, but has long, suggestive and convincing scenes
of actors Uma Thurman, Fred Ward and Maria de Medeiros getting
hot-and-heavy in a convincing manner. It’s about sex.
Traditionally, sex is tougher to get by the ratings board
than violence, and Henry & June was too much for
a conventional R. There wasn’t any way to recut the picture
to make it R-rated without gutting the director’s intentions.
An X rating was a commercial impossibility, and Universal
Studios was not going to release an unrated film to a handful
of independent theaters. So the MPAA came up with the new
rating NC-17, for films to which no one under 17 would be
admitted, and slapped it on Henry & June.
NC-17 was then trumpeted as giving filmmakers new freedom
by replacing the porn-tainted X. Unfortunately, it didn’t
work out that way. NC-17 received the same cold shoulder from
exhibitors and the media as the old X. As venerable director
Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa) told USA Today:
“If you have an NC-17 rating in this country, you can’t advertise
on network television, there are certain newspapers you can’t
advertise in, there are certain theaters you can’t even play.”
The major studios responded by adopting a policy of not releasing
NC-17-rated films at all, and now negotiate this prohibition
into contracts with producers. This has led to some absurdities.
Luc Besson’s 1993 film The Professional (which introduced
Natalie Portman to a wide audience) was released here in a
shortened R-rated version. Later, the complete film—which
is about a hit man, a little girl, and a corrupt cop—with
its original European title Leon the Professional,
was released on video. You can buy it for home viewing, but
its American distributor can’t release it theatrically to
revival cinemas or film societies, because the more violent
and intense complete film would earn an NC-17 rating.
is Hollywood now? NC-17 is dead. R is on life support, as
those PG- and PG-13-rated franchise or “tentpole” (the latest
catchphrase) pictures suck up the economic oxygen that used
to support more adult fare. Studios are more than ever just
small parts of media conglomerates like AOL TimeWarner (Warner
Bros., New Line Cinema), Sony (Columbia, TriStar), the News
Corporation (20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight), Viacom (Paramount),
and the Walt Disney Company (Disney, Touchstone, Miramax)—and
the folks running them have very different priorities than
their predecessors of even a few years ago.
It can be argued that this doesn’t matter. Independent filmmakers
will continue to fight to make terrific, tough films like
Narc. Not every worthy film, however, is going to catch
Tom Cruise’s fancy. Without significant distribution, many
movies will disappear without a trace—or not be made at all—and
the audience for real “adult entertainment” will remain underserved.