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Now Playing it Safe

Hollywood turns its back on R-rated movies—and the adult audience—in the quest for ever-greater profits

By Shawn Stone

One 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 made.

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 of age.

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.)

It’s 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.

Where 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.

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