As soon as word got out that “Blonde,” Andrew Dominik’s Marilyn Monroe drama starring Ana de Armas, was going to be rated NC-17, the film became an instant source of months-long controversy and fascination. Such is the effect of the NC-17 rating, which prohibits anyone under the age of 17 years old from buying a ticket.
The NC-17 rating was officially created in 1990 to replace the X rating, which distributors had long disliked since it evoked pornographic films and not simply adult-skewing dramas with explicit scenes. But even creating a rating a lower than X did nothing to stop the NC-17 from courting controversy and igniting shock from moviegoers. The rating, which is often given to films that show full frontal nudity or explicit sexual acts, has often been used as one example as to why the MPA is outdated and fearful of pleasure (especially female pleasure).
With “Blonde” now available to stream, Variety takes a look back at some of the most notable films to be branded with an NC-17 rating.
Andrew Dominik’s Netflix drama “Blonde” is rated NC-17 for “sexual content,” most likely because it includes prolonged nude scenes and one extended sequence centered on John F. Kennedy sexually assaulting Marilyn Monroe while she’s nearly unconscious. Ana de Armas, who has earned career-best reviews for playing the Hollywood icon, said ahead of the film’s release that she was baffled by the movie’s explicit rating.
“I didn’t understand why that happened,” de Armas said. “I can tell you a number of shows or movies that are way more explicit with a lot more sexual content than ‘Blonde.’ But to tell this story it is important to show all these moments in Marilyn’s life that made her end up the way that she did. It needed to be explained. Everyone [in the cast] knew we had to go to uncomfortable places. I wasn’t the only one.”
Dominik added in a separate interview, “I was surprised. Yeah. I thought we’d colored inside the lines. But I think if you’ve got a bunch of men and women in a boardroom talking about sexual behavior, maybe the men are going to be worried about what the women think. It’s just a weird time. It’s not like depictions of happy sexuality. It’s depictions of situations that are ambiguous. And Americans are really strange when it comes to sexual behavior, don’t you think? I don’t know why. They make more porn than anyone else in the world.”
Blue Valentine (Overturned, Released With R Rating)
Derek Cianfrance’s devastating relationship drama “Blue Valentine” earned an NC-17 rating due to one scene in which Ryan Gosling’s character performs oral sex on Michelle Williams’ character. The MPA defined the scene as “explicit sexual content,” thus handing down a NC-17 rating, but distributor The Weinstein Company aggressively pushed back against the decision. Cianfrance and his actors went to Weinstein and said, “Harvey, we don’t want to cut the movie. We want to leave it the way it is.’” Although Weinstein was known to cut his movies to death, he agreed not to touch “Blue Valentine” and appealed the ratings board. “Blue Valentine” was eventually released with an R-rating — with its oral sex scene intact.
Kids (Released Unrated)
Larry Clark and Harmony Korine’s seminal 1995 indie “Kids” courted controversy by featuring a handful of underage characters having sex and engaging in graphic conversations about sex and drugs. The MPA refused to lower the film’s rating down to an R, so it was eventually released in theaters unrated. The rating caused a headache for the film’s distributor, Miramax. The company, which bought distribution rights to “Kids” for a reported $3.5 million, was owned by Disney, which had a ban against releasing NC-17 movies. Miramax heads Bob and Harvey Weinstein had to buy back the film from Disney and create a one-off distribution company called Shining Excalibur Films in order to get the film into theaters.
Paul Verhoeven’s cult classic “Showgirls” was rated NC-17 in the U.S. due to “nudity and erotic sexuality throughout, some graphic language and sexual violence.” The over-the-top sex scenes (Elizabeth Berkley and Kyle MacLachlan in the pool, especially) probably didn’t help keep the film’s rating at the R level, either. Verhoeven wasn’t too surprised by the U.S. ratings board keeping “Showgirls” for adults only, as he once told Variety, “There’s been a general shift towards Puritanism. I think there’s a misunderstanding about sexuality in the United States. Sexuality is the most essential element of nature. I’m always amazed people are shocked by sex in movies.”
William Friedkin’s pitch-black comedy “Killer Joe,” starring Matthew McConaughey, earned an NC-17 rating for “graphic disturbing content including violence and sexuality and a scene of brutality.” While an unrated cut of the movie was eventually released on DVD, the movie originally opened in theaters with its NC-17 rating intact. Friedkin pushed back against the distributor’s request to cut the movie for theaters in order to get an R-rating, saying, “Cutting would not have made it mass appeal. Cutting it would have been the equivalent of what members of the United States government and military leaders said about the Vietnam War. They said, ‘We have to destroy Vietnam in order to save it,’ and that’s what I would have done to ‘Killer Joe.’ To get an R rating, I would have had to destroy it in order to save it, and I wasn’t interested in doing that.”
Steve McQueen’s ‘Shame’ stars Michael Fassbender as a New York City businessman struggling with extreme sex addiction, and it doesn’t hold back in showing graphic sex and the character’s dependence on pornography. Fassbender also has many moments of full-frontal nudity in the film. The MPA gave the film an NC-17 and distributor Searchlight Pictures didn’t even bother to appeal. Then-Searchlight president Steve Gilula said at the time, “I think NC-17 is a badge of honor, not a scarlet letter. We believe it is time for the rating to become usable in a serious manner.”
With its $67 million worldwide gross, Ang Lee’s erotic espionage thriller “Lust, Caution” is the highest-grossing NC-17 movie of all time at the box office. The film contains prolonged graphic sex scenes, which Lee and his U.S. distributor Focus Features knew would push the boundaries of the film ratings board. As co-screenwriter James Schamus said ahead of its theatrical release, “When we screened the final cut of this film, we knew we weren’t going to change a frame. Every moment up on that screen works and is an integral part of the emotional arc of the characters. The [MPA] has screened the film now and made its decision, and we’re comfortable with that.”
Blue Is the Warmest Color
Abdellatif Kechiche’s Palme d’Or winner “Blue Is the Warmest Color” earned an NC-17 rating in the U.S. due to its graphic sex scenes, which later became the center of controversy after stars Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos expressed discomfort with Kechiche’s directing methods. IFC Films never planned to cut out the film’s sex scenes, but they got an assist from the IFC Center in New York City when it was announced it would still permit “high-school age patrons” into the theater to see the film. As theater manager John Vanco said, “This is not a movie for young children, but it is our judgment that it is not inappropriate for mature, inquiring teenagers who are looking ahead to the emotional challenges and opportunities that adulthood holds.”
David Cronenberg’s wildly provocative “Crash” casts James Spader as a film producer who becomes involved with a group of people who turn to car crashes in order to get sexually aroused. The film’s graphic nature resulted in the movie being released in both an NC-17 version and an R-rated version in the U.S., but only the NC-17 cut was advertised as “the most controversial film in years.” The rating was expected following the movie’s raucous Cannes premiere, where viewers booed the film and stormed out of the theater. Jury president Francis Ford Coppola later said that some jurors “abstained very passionately” to the decision to award “Crash” a special jury prize. From Variety’s review: “A forbiddingly frigid piece of esoteric erotica, ‘Crash’ goes all the way with a sexual obsession that few people will turn on to. “
A Dirty Shame
John Waters’ 2004 box office bomb “A Dirty Shame” remains the director’s last feature directorial effort. The film, starring Tracey Ullman and Johnny Knoxville, is a foul-mouthed sex satire that takes place in a small town where a group of puritanical residents wage social warfare against the perverted sex addicts who also populate the town. As revealed on the film’s DVD commentary, supporting actor Suzanne Shepherd began crying when reading the script for the first time because it was so dirty (perhaps the concept of “felching” was too much for her, as it surely was for the MPA). Waters said in the MPA documentary “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” that the film ratings board “stopped taking notes” on the film when it realized there was no amount of cuts that could reduce it down to an R-rating.
Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers” stars Michael Pitt as an American exchange student in Paris who befriends two siblings (Eva Green and Louis Garrel) and becomes entangled in an erotic love triangle. The film earned an NC-17 ratings because of graphic sex scenes that prominently feature full-frontal nudity. All three lead cast members were required to sign off on nude scenes when agreeing to star in the movie. Jake Gyllenhaal screen tested for the movie, for instance, but then he declined a role because he wasn’t comfortable with full-frontal. An R-rated version was made by cutting out three minutes of sex scenes, but Fox Searchlight still opened the NC-17 cut in theaters. The sex scenes were made to be so explicit in the editing room that even Green was “so shocked” when she saw the finished version.
Nymphomaniac (Released Unrated)
Both parts in Lars von Trier’s erotic epic “Nymphomaniac” were given NC-17 ratings, only for the film to go unrated in theaters. The film focuses on a self-diagnosed nymphomaniac who recounts her many sexual experiences, which include everything from threesomes to bondage and more. Von Trier’s graphic sex scenes had many viewers wondering if his actors were performing them for real, which only further led to the film’s NC-17 ratings by the MPA. Full-frontal nude scenes and close-ups of genitals also ensured “Nymphomaniac” wasn’t simply going to be rated R.
Y Tu Mamá También (Released Unrated)
Alfonso Cuarón’s breakthrough directorial effort “Y Tu Mamá También” tracks a sexually charged road trip between two teenage boys (Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna) and a young woman in her late twenties (Maribel Verdú). IFC Films released the movie unrated in the U.S. because it did not want an NC-17 rating to ruin the movie’s marketability. That the movie’s frank depiction of sex and sexuality tipped it into NC-17 territory led to outrage from the film community, most notably from film critic Roger Ebert. “The [MPA] has made it impossible for a movie like this to be produced in America,” he wrote in his review. “It is a perfect illustration of the need for a workable adult rating: too mature, thoughtful and frank for the R, but not in any sense pornographic. Why do serious film people not rise up in rage and tear down the rating system that infantilizes their work?”
Last Tango in Paris
Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Last Tango in Paris” is perhaps the most notorious NC-17 movie ever made. The film opened in 1972 with an X rating, but it was later reclassified by the MPA and awarded an NC-17 in the 1990s after the rating was created. Marlon Brando stars as a widowed American in Paris who begins an anonymous sexual relationship with a young woman (Maria Schneider). The film’s graphic nudity and sex scenes earned it an NC-17 rating (most notably a rape scene involving butter as lubricant), while allegations about how Bertolucci directed such explicit scenes have continued to make “Last Tango in Paris” one of the more controversial movies ever made.
Pedro Almodóvar’s movies often provoke, but 2004’s “Bad Education” actually earned the director an NC-17 rating for one scene in which Gael García Bernal’s head is seen bobbing up and down during a depiction of gay oral sex. The scene lasts only two seconds, but it was enough to earn an NC-17 rating from the MPA. Almodóvar never once considered removing the two seconds of oral sex simulation, the film’s publicist, Jessica Uzzan, told The New York Times before the film opened in theaters. “It’s a film for adults,” she added.
Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (Released Unrated)
Leave it to Pedro Almodóvar’s provocative depictions of sex and sexuality to push the MPA to its limits. The filmmaker’s 1989 dark comedy “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!,” starring Antonio Banderas as a psychiatric patient who kidnaps an actress and holds her captive in order to make her fall in love with him, was instrumental in the creation of the NC-17 rating after Miramax sued the MPA for its original X rating. The X rating was usually reserved for pornography, but an NC-17 rating did not yet exist for a sexually explicit drama like “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” Miramax argued that an X rating was censorship, especially compared to R-rated films that showed explicit drug use and/or violence. Miramax didn’t win the legal battle, but it did get the MPA to drop the X rating all together and create the NC-17 movie. “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” was ultimately released unrated.
Henry and June
After the controversy surrounding “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” and the creation of the NC-17 rating by the MPA, the first movie to be awarded the adults-only rating was Philip Kaufman’s 1990 drama “Henry & June.” The film includes several explicit sex scenes in telling the story of a novelist’s steamy affair, and it courted controversy simply by being the first movie to earn the NC-17 rating. The MPA explained at the time that the NC-17 rating was being used for films with explicit content that were not examples of pornography. “Henry & June” still ended up earning an Oscar nomination for best cinematography.
Requiem for a Dream (Released Unrated)
Darren Aronofsky’s addiction drama “Requiem for a Dream” is often referred to as one of the most brutal movies ever made for its explicit look at heroin addicts in free-fall. One scene includes a young woman (Jennifer Connolly) forced to perform sex acts in front of a group of men in order to earn money for her drug addiction, which is partly why the MPA rated “Requiem” NC-17. Aronofsky appealed the rating and said he would not cut any scenes from the movie as that would dilute its powerful anti-addiction message. The MPA refused to lower the rating, so distributor Artisan Entertainment decided to open the film unrated in theaters.
Wild at Heart (Recut and Released With R Rating)
David Lynch’s controversial Palme d’Or winner “Wild at Heart” would’ve been rated X considering the NC-17 rating did not yet exist during its classification, but Lynch was contractually obligated to deliver an R-rated movie. The version of the film that Lynch debuted at Cannes was too explicit for the MPA, so Lynch decided to add a bit of smoke to one scene in which a character blows his head off with a shotgun. The addition of smoke toned down the violence just a tad and hid the fact that the man’s head was detached from his body. This tiny edit was enough to convince the MPA to bring the rating down to an R.
Boys Don't Cry (Recut and Released With R Rating)
As documented in the MPA documentary “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” Kimberly Pierce’s seminal queer drama “Boys Don’t Cry” was originally rated NC-17 due to two explicit rape scenes. Pierce battled the ratings board over these scenes, as the organization wanted them removed but was fine with keeping graphic non-sexual violence in the film such as a murder scene. Pierce said the MPA also wanted her to cut down the length of a female orgasm, claiming it went on for “too long.” Because Pierce wanted her movie seen by as many moviegoers as possible given its subject matter, she toned down these moments and was able to secure an R rating.