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Five Movies Too Sexy for Distribution
As an edited version of I Love You Phillip Morris finally reaches theaters, we look at five other censored films.
By Phil Nugent
Big movies sometimes have trouble getting released, not because of their quality but because something about their content makes people nervous. Case in point: I Love You Phillip Morris, a comic love story starring Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor, which played at Cannes last May and, until recently, couldn't find a U.S. distributor. It was finally picked up after reports that it had been re-edited to de-emphasize its "heavy gay content." Here are five other films that struggled for distribution thanks to dangerous levels of sexiness.
1) The Devils (1971)
Many films that were rated R or even X in the early days of the MPAA ratings system look pretty tame nowadays. This ain't one of them. Ken Russell's movie is about a sexually repressed nun (Vanessa Redgrave) whose jealous insanity leads to a full outbreak of horny dementia at her convent and, ultimately, to an innocent priest (Oliver Reed) being burned at the stake. It inspired feverish cries for stricter censorship, and that was the version that was released after the studio took a hatchet to it. Russell's own cut featured a long orgy scene, in which the crazed nuns desecrate a statue of Christ in response to the unavailability of vibrators in seventeenth-century France. That footage and a few other choice bits, including a closing image of Redgrave masturbating with one of Reed's charred bones, was missing for decades, but was located in 2002. A couple of years ago, Warner Home Video announced plans to release Russell's cut on DVD, but subsequently got cold feet. The movie remains unavailable on DVD in any form in North America.
2) Don't Look Now (1973)
Nicolas Roeg's first feature, Performance, so freaked out Warner Bros. that its release was held up for two years while the executives debated whether to simply burn the negative. His supernatural thriller Don't Look Now was almost staid by comparison, but it did include a long sex scene that made it an instant conversation starter. The film opened intact in Britain, but before it could win American distribution, the sex scene had to be scrubbed of any suggestion of cunnilingus in order to appease the ratings board. Roeg himself went back into the editing room and fractured the offending act out of the movie.
3) Angel Heart (1987)
Alan Parker's attempt to fuse the hard-boiled detective movie with the Satanic horror thriller features Mickey Rourke as a sweaty, unshaven, unmade bed of a hero. It also features a description of a man who (offscreen, thank God) has his genitals cut off with a straight razor and stuffed in his mouth, and a man shoved into a pot of boiling gumbo, his scalded face a mass of cherry red welts. But none of this was as shocking as the casting of Lisa Bonet — who for three years had been playing the oldest daughter on The Cosby Show and was a front-runner for the title of America's sweetheart — playing a seventeen-year-old voodoo priestess who craves a shot of Rourke's greasy love. Their big sex scene, in which she vocalized like an opera singer and blood dripped onto their naked bodies from the ceiling, got the movie an X rating. As far as the studio was concerned, this rendered it unreleasable. After a series of cuts that removed several seconds from Bonet's coming-out party, Angel Heart was deemed acceptable for viewing, though Cliff Huxtable's relationship with his prodigal daughter would never really be the same again.
4) Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987)
Todd Haynes's career as American film's leading queer theorist/pop-culture provocateur (Velvet Goldmine, I'm Not There) began in earnest with this forty-three-minute "biopic," in which the late Karen Carpenter and her brother and musical partner, Richard, were played by Barbie dolls. One of the most successful short films of the last few decades, it played the festival and midnight movie circuits until 1990, when Richard Carpenter won a copyright infringement lawsuit against Haynes and the film was permanently drawn from distribution. The suit was over Haynes's unauthorized use of the Carpenters' music, but many say Carpenter wanted it wiped from the face of the Earth because of a scene in which Karen strongly hints that her brother is gay, likening her anorexia to his decision to live in the closet.
5) Ken Park (2002)
Ever since Kids, Larry Clark has been known for pushing the envelope with explicit scenes of teenage decadence. He may have pushed himself over a cliff with his third feature film, Ken Park. A non-linear slice of life set among California skateboarders, the movie includes plentiful scenes of teen sex and a suicide, but the icing on the cake was a graphic sequence, complete with full-frontal nudity in close-up and what's known in the porn industry as a money shot, in which a boy masturbates and enjoys auto-erotic asphyxiation while watching women's tennis on TV. Banned outright in Australia, and legally restricted from wide release elsewhere, Ken Park played at the Telluride Film Festival in the United States but never found a distributor here, either for theatrical release or home video. It was also denied a theatrical release in England, but not because of the content: Clark was about to seal the deal with the head of the U.K. distribution company when he physically attacked the guy — breaking his nose, and reportedly trying to strangle him — over some things he claimed the fellow had said about the 9/11 attacks.