On June 19, my film “The Cooler” went on trial before the Motion Picture Association of America Ratings Appeals Board. Its crime: explicit sexuality.
We had been slapped with an NC-17 by the ratings board a few weeks earlier and our distributor, Lions Gate Films, had filed an appeal with the MPAA. Maria Bello, the female lead of the film, and myself were on hand to defend our work to a room of 15 anonymous appeals board members at the Sunset Screening Room in Los Angeles.
The film would be screened for the appeals board members, and then Maria and myself (only two people are allowed to represent the film in the appeal) would get to address the board members for 10 minutes.
Joan Graves, chairman of the Ratings Board, would then get to state the MPAA’s reasons for rating the film NC-17 — to which we would be allowed a few minutes rebuttal time, followed by Joan’s rebuttal to our rebuttal.
Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Films Releasing, is a veteran of the ratings board wars and will be the first person to tell you that Lions Gate has never won a ratings appeal — ever.
Maria, Tom and I discussed strategy over breakfast during the screening. I didn’t have much of an appetite knowing that at that very moment, my film was undergoing intense scrutiny from 15 strangers . An hour and 43 minutes later, we returned to make our case before the board. I don’t know why, but I felt like I was in high school again and was now facing the wrath of the principal.
I’ve been obsessed with movies since I was old enough to be cognizant of the art form. It was my dream, even as a child, to live in America and write and direct films. For someone who grew up in South Africa, a huge part of that dream was fueled by the desire to escape the chokehold of government censorship that came between me and the great works of the cinema.
Few films escaped the shears of the South African censorship board, even something as innocuous as the James Bond series was subjected to the nip and tuck of small mindedness if it involved interracial romance such as in “Live and Let Die.”
I could go on and tell you about the snipped ending of “The Omen,” where evil doesn’t win out or the several stages of reediting that “Mad Max” succumbed to each time a member of the Dutch Reform Church took offense at some of the violence. I think “Max” was close to 10 minutes shorter by the time it ended its theatrical run in South Africa.
Films like “A Clockwork Orange,” “The Exorcist,” “Last Tango in Paris” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” were banned outright. It was a criminal offense to view or own them. And I should know, because in 1982, my last year of high school, the Johannesburg vice squad raided my house and arrested me for being in possession of these titles. They also confiscated 300 videos from my personal collection, many of them being the uncensored versions of American films that I had smuggled into the country.
I remember clearly the first time we heard the word “fuck” in an American film in South Africa. It was in Sidney Lumet’s “And Justice for All” (1979). They were just starting to relax the censorship standards in the country — barely. I’m not sure the first time one was able to see bare breasts on the screen in South Africa, but it was definitely quite a few years after that.
Censorship is alive and well in American film, too.
There is no viable adult rating in American theaters. The R rating is a glorified PG-13 rating. As explained to me by a member of the ratings board, parents want to be able to accompany their teenagers to R-rated films and not be offended by anything up on the screen.
But I was under the impression that an R-rating was to warn parents that mature subject matter was the order of the day. Instead, I’m told that real mature subject matter — like explicit sexuality (in the case of “The Cooler,” a glimpse of Maria Bello’s pubic hair in a lovemaking scene) falls under the domain of the NC-17 rating.
But the dirty little secret no one on the ratings board wishes to own up to, is that there is no NC-17 rating in America — because no theaters (outside of New York, Los Angeles and perhaps a few other major cities) will exhibit NC-17 films, and no newspapers and TV stations will advertise them.
That leaves zero incentive for studios and distributors to release films branded with the NC-17 rating.
Joan Graves admitted to me that the heads of two major studios have personally assured her that they will never release NC-17 films into the marketplace as they have no intention of offending their stockholders. But she still clings to the notion that the NC-17 rating is available to all filmmakers and distributors and the decision to cut films for a lesser rating is completely voluntary.
The sad reality is, if a film has any commercial prospects, the NC-17 rating is the kiss of death. And if we don’t have the freedom to make films that feature adult content, then provocative ground-breaking films — the same kind of films that smashed down the walls of censorship in the late ’60s and ’70s — are dead.
My film got slammed with an NC-17 for a scene of “suggested” oral sex. The scene starts with a close-up on Maria Bello’s face as she experiences an orgasm and cuts to a wide shot of Bill Macy rising up from between Maria’s legs, offering up the briefest glimpse of Maria’s pubic hair. We don’t see between her legs and we don’t see Bill servicing her in that shot either. It doesn’t matter that we’re witnessing two characters in love, involved in a committed relationship, expressing an act that’s as common in human sexual interaction as eating lunch or brushing one’s teeth. Well, almost.
The love scene itself moves the story forward as it illustrates the arc of the couple’s relationship — Macy’s character is developing more confidence in bed, while Bello’s character is emotionally opening herself up to a man for the first time in years.
My theory on why the board hit the NC-17 alarm is different to the reason they’re suggesting. I don’t think they’re offended by a glimpse of pubic hair. I think they’re uncomfortable with realistic depictions of sexuality — the rawness of watching a woman achieve an orgasm by focusing on her face was much too real for them.
Why was this so hard for the board to take? I believe it’s because we’re continually treated like children in American theaters and see few realistic depictions of sexuality. When we do see it in films like “Monster’s Ball” (which had it own skirmishes with the MPAA), it’s considered shocking because it’s unfamiliar.
The awful truth
The truth needs to be told and the MPAA needs to be held accountable: the MPAA, in conjuction with NATO (National Association of Theatre Owners), is creating de facto censorship in America because of the suffocatingly narrow and arbitrary definition of what’s considered R-rated subject matter.
I say arbitrary because a few weeks after my film was branded NC-17, I saw a screening of Francois Ozon’s “Swimming Pool,” and I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were copious amounts of full frontal nudity on display, far more explicit than that in “The Cooler.” You also see a woman simulating oral sex on a man. There’s even a scene of a guy masturbating through his pants and you can see that he’s erect. My jaw almost hit the floor. They walked away with an R.
In my quest to escape censorship I’ve come full circle, with the ultimate irony being that in post-apartheid South Africa there is very little censorship left. “The Cooler” will be released uncut there with an adult designation, as it will in most other countries in the world.
It didn’t matter what Maria and I argued that day in front of the appeals board, they weren’t able to see beyond the misguided prejudices of the ratings mandate. They didn’t buy our arguments.
Mary Ann Grasso, executive director of NATO and an appeals board member, implored me to release “The Cooler” with an NC-17 rating because NATO was looking for a good film to break through the stigma of the adult rating. And our film, in her opinion, was the one to do it. Tom Ortenberg says he’s heard it all before.
Here’s how it played out: the board voted to uphold the NC-17 rating by nine against six. We needed a two thirds majority, which would have been ten against five.
But these days, it’s almost as much of a fight to get to make an R-rated film in the first place. The studios are all-embracing of the PG-13 rating (for obvious reasons) — so much so that the arrival of several high profile R-rated films this summer (“Matrix Reloaded,” “T3,” “Bad Boys II”) is front page news in the trades, and everyone is crazy nervous about diminished box office returns.
What’s going to happen to contemporary equivalents of “The Godfather,” “Chinatown,” “Alien,” “The Long Goodbye,” “The Wild Bunch,” “The French Connection”? Is there no place for mature entertainment on the bottom line?
You’ll probably find an unrated version of the “The Cooler” on DVD a few months after its theatrical release — and the only difference will be about two seconds of footage. As a filmmaker, I’ll be glad my original vision is finally out there. But I’ll always mourn the fact that it couldn’t be seen in theaters that way.
Somebody, please tell me, what’s wrong with this picture?