‘Helena’ boxed in by NC-17

“Boxing Helena,” which survived the last-minute exits of Madonna and Kim Basinger after both got cold feet about portraying a limbless leading lady, has suffered another stinging setback. Just a week before the film makes its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, it is headed for an NC-17 rating.

The film, starring Sherilyn Fenn and directed and scripted by Jennifer Lynch, would be the latest on a growing list of films judged NC-17 by the MPAA’s ratings board.

The rating replaced the X, but filmmakers frequently complain that it’s still something of a scarlet letter: Many newspapers still won’t take the advertising, some exhibitors refuse to book the films and leading video chain Blockbuster refuses to carry NC-17 videos.

An MPAA rep said the film hasn’t been certified NC-17 yet, meaning the filmmakers haven’t accepted the rating. They are allowed to appeal and, she said , the board discusses with filmmakers what needs to be cut.

“Boxing Helena” is about a doctor (Julian Sands) who amputates the arms and legs of his lover (Sherilyn Fenn) when she is hurt in a car accident. He keeps her in a box until she falls in love with him.

The graphic nature of this love story reportedly isn’t what’s troubling the ratings board, though. It’s two sex scenes: one featuring Fenn and Bill Paxton, and the other between Sands and Fenn.

“The board feels very strongly that the elements in the film discussed openly with the filmmakers will leave most parents to say this is out of bounds and NC- 17,” said Richard Heffner, ratings board head.

Like the title character in their film, Lynch and producer Carl Mazzocone feel the ratings board doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

“I have learned through tragedy after tragedy, ad nauseum on this picture, that it doesn’t pay to get physically or emotionally upset, so I went into this ratings business with the attitude that I would get a hard time for the amputations,” said Lynch, the daughter of director David Lynch.

“What upsets me is that in the area they’re describing, the sex scenes, I just don’t see what they’re talking about.” Mazzocone said that when he was told of the ratings by an MPAA rep, he was given only vague reasoning at to why it got the rating, and what he should cut. Though he probably will appeal, Mazzocone said the timing of the rating has boxed him in.

“I contacted the MPAA back in October to screen the picture when it was in the work print stage, and it was easy to make changes. I was told the soonest they could see it was August 1993. I made some calls, and got it moved to January.

“But for me to make changes now, when I have an obligation to deliver my film on Jan. 20, and have broken down all the editing suites, is cost-prohibitive,” he said.

“We’re not given a set of parameters and … without those guidelines, I can only go by other sexy movies that got an R, like ‘The Lover’ and ‘Basic Instinct.’ I can honestly say this movie doesn’t have near as much as those movies did.”

Ratings board head Heffner seems weary of the renewed attacks on the ratings system.

“It seems to me we have become fair game for every outrageous distortion of what it is in fact we have said or done. To maintain the integrity of the ratings system, all I can do is when people set the record wrong, I intend to set it right,” Heffner said.

Mazzocone said he’s been given few specifics and, because of the time, the film will be delivered to his foreign backers as is. Though he said he’s been contacted by every distributor, he held off on a domestic distribution deal until Park City.

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