Five NC-17 Films That Wore Their Rating Proudly

Take that, MPAA!

by Kristin Hunt

The NC-17 rating has long been labeled the kiss of death for new releases. Movies from Boys Don’t Cry to American Psycho have been recut to nab a more audience-friendly R, and directors have very publicly fought the MPAA to avoid a dreaded NC-17. (Remember the Blue Valentine debacle last year?) When Steve McQueen’s Shame got slapped with an NC-17, everyone expected a battle. But instead, McQueen and star Michael Fassbender showed a startling lack of concern. In fact, they even speculated that the rating might help their film. These two are not alone. Check out five other films that just didn’t give a damn about NC-17.

1. Showgirls, 1995

Before Showgirls hit theaters in 1995, everyone involved talked up the renaissance they were bringing to American cinema. The NC-17 designation was finally going to be acceptable and marketable, thanks to their softcore retelling of All About Eve. Unfortunately, viewers didn’t dig Paul Verhoeven’s revolutionary “vision,” which included a hammy-as-hell Elizabeth Berkley, epileptic pool sex, and the staggeringly awful song "Walk into the Wind." In the end, Showgirls hardly helped the NC-17 rating's reputation, but it did present exciting new challenges for TV editors.

2. Pink Flamingos, 1972

No one was giddier about receiving the dreaded NC-17 rating than the king of perversions himself, John Waters. When Pink Flamingos geared up for a 1997 re-release, New Line actually requested an NC-17. (The film was originally given an "X" rating for its 1972 run.) Waters savored the thought of MPAA members sitting through a screening of his trashy comedy, whose tagline proudly labels it “an exercise in poor taste.” That means, yes, Waters forced a panel of movie graders to watch Divine eat dog crap. You’d almost feel bad for them, if they weren’t such sexist, homophobic dicks.

3. Henry and June, 1990

In 1990, the MPAA introduced the NC-17 rating to replace the stigmatized X. Philip Kaufman’s 1990 movie about the menage-a-trois between Anaïs Nin, Henry Miller, and Miller’s wife June landed the first NC-17 rating ever. Considering Kaufman had been appealing his initial X rating, it was a major victory — a victory that had eluded even Pedro Almodovar, who had unsuccessfully appealed the X rating of Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! earlier that year. Kaufman praised the MPAA at the time for allowing filmmakers greater freedom, but when he later realized, “Oh, goddammit, this is just an X rating with a classier-sounding name,” he got a bit more critical of the ratings board.

4. Lust, Caution, 2007

Ang Lee takes to controversy like Diane Keaton to men’s hats, and it certainly showed with his follow-up to Brokeback Mountain, the kinky 2007 thriller Lust, Caution. After the movie received an NC-17, Lee and writer-producer James Schamus declared that they wouldn’t “change a single frame.” Lee further called the NC-17 a “legitimate” rating and, arguing against censorship, asked reporters why he wouldn’t show the best version of his movie, which is actually a surprisingly valid argument, if your definition of “best” hinges solely on the inclusion of graphic sex scenes. Plus, he’s apparently not opposed to making another NC-17 project, so we'd all better brace yourselves for a machine-gun- and sex-fueled Life of Pi.

5. The Dreamers

When Bernardo Bertolucci’s sexed-up tale of cinephiles made its way overseas, it was quickly branded another over-the-line movie from those debauched Europeans and given an NC-17. But Fox Searchlight, rather than go on the offensive with the MPAA, loftily compared itself to the noble distributors of Midnight Cowboy and Last Tango in Paris and refused to recut. The 2003 movie eventually grossed $2.5 million, which, considering it only played in 116 theaters, is none too shabby. It also inspired the following quote from Bertolucci, the latter half of which is probably destined for a place on his tombstone: “I’m relieved — in so many ways — that the distributors have had the vision to release my original film. After all, an orgasm is better than a bomb.”

Commentarium (26 Comments)

Dec 02 11 - 1:11pm

more from this writer plz

Dec 02 11 - 1:50pm

Showgirls was bad, but not as bad as its legendary status. Nah. actually it was. Didn't see Pink Flamingos but that picture scares me. Henry and June put me to sleep faster than one of Henry's turgid books. Lust, Caution was excellent. Must re-rent the DVD. I might take a look at the Bertolucci movie just because I like the quote!

Dec 03 11 - 3:16pm
John Son

The Dreamers is way overrated.

Dec 04 11 - 10:01am

I will say, watching the dreamers now, as a 23 year old, it's not nearly as good as I thought. But, when I was 17, this movie was revolutionary to me. So, I have a soft spot for it in my heart of hearts.

Dec 02 11 - 2:25pm

I don't see why the NC-17 rating is considered box office poison, none of these movies were marketable to kids in the the first place. I have such mixed feelings on Showgirls, I found it to be trashy in a funny, hilarious way (pool seizure sex anyone?) except there was one nasty rape scene toward the end that I've blocked from memory and ruined the fun for me (I don't mind violence in films but rape and torture turns me off.) Pink Flamingos was awesome and totally deserved the NC-17. I thought the Dreamers was really terrible, boring and kiddie-pornish. It felt like Bertolucci was using layers of insufferable artistic pretension to justify long, drawn out nude scenes with extremely young-looking actors. YMMV, but it creeped me out.

Dec 02 11 - 2:43pm

The trouble is that most major theater chains have a de facto (and sometimes explicit) policy of not booking NC-17 movies, and many outlets won't carry ads for them. That makes them very tough to market and distribute. That's changing somewhat with "Shame" -- I think I recently read that most major exhibitors said they would consider booking it, which is very rare.

Dec 02 11 - 3:53pm

The bigger problem actually is (was?) that most retail outlets won't sell these movies. Sure, these probably weren't going to play outside of arthouse theaters (maybe with the exception of Shame and Showgirls) in the first place, but they also couldn't be in Blockbusters or WalMarts or a number of other big DVD retailers/renters. Of course that landscape has changed in recent years thanks to Netflix and ever increased online retail.

And the ad thing is a big issue, too. They can't show trailers on network television, which when you think about it is kind of a surreal level of censorship in this day and age.

Dec 02 11 - 10:12pm
lakawak are missing the point...showgirls was not INTENDED to be a trashy and fun comedy. That is why it was so bad. Everyone involved thought they were making a serious adult drama. And it was SO bad that another movie that was intended to be a drama about strippers (Striptease) had to regroup and purposely change itself into a comedy.

Dec 03 11 - 10:48pm

Err, I'm fully aware that the humor in Showgirls was unintentional. But thanks.

Dec 02 11 - 2:57pm

I will be forever indebted to The Dreamers for introducing me to Freaks. Also, Michael Pitt is beyond hot. Otherwise, the film made me uncomfortable.

Dec 02 11 - 5:07pm
Hello Eva

Seeing Eva Green naked a lot (a LOT) in "The Dreamers" was pretty nice. Better than anything in "Showgirls"

Dec 02 11 - 6:00pm
mr. man

eva green for the win

Dec 03 11 - 3:16pm
John Son

Eva Green naked may be the only good reason to watch this movie.

Dec 05 11 - 2:10pm

Louis Garrel was far sexier than Pitt OR Green in THE DREAMERS, and yet his lovely form was all but denied to viewers in it. What a waste. Any doubters should rent DANS PARIS and watch Garrel in that. If they're STILL not convinced, they should check out the bonus scene where he's taking a bath. God almighty. (As for the THE DREAMERS itself, Bertolucci falls for the fallacy, as do so many other art-house directors, that kinkiness and brutality are one and the same. They are not.)

Dec 02 11 - 8:18pm

What about Shortbus?

Dec 03 11 - 1:52am


Dec 02 11 - 11:49pm

re: "the latter half of which is probably destined for a place on his tombstone" I think the first half of the quote would sound better on a tombstone. :)

Dec 03 11 - 2:00am

Add Caligula too. Malcolm Mcdowell doing what he does best.

Dec 03 11 - 4:42pm

SHORTBUS should most definitely be on here

Dec 03 11 - 6:02pm
Kristin Hunt

Shortbus was actually released without a rating. Though I have no doubts it would've been an NC-17, too.

Dec 04 11 - 3:00am

Most of the potential NC-17s I remember reading or hearing about (and in some cases, seeing) ended up being released unrated.

Dec 04 11 - 5:01am

I just watched Lust, Caution after reading this article, and I would just say WHAT THE FUCK KINDA ENDING WAS THAT? ARGH.
That is all.

Dec 04 11 - 4:25pm

i like it ..

Dec 16 11 - 2:37pm

"machine-gun- and sex-fueled Life of Pi" - I LOLd IRL. If there's a movie that really doesn't have room in its narrative for either of these, it's this movie (from what I remember of the book)... unless someone takes some BIG liberties. I'm sure he will capture the disturbing ending well though.

Dec 28 11 - 7:42pm
Never Mind Pop Film

I don't think anyone would care about the MPAA if it didn't affect distribution. I'm peeved I can't see Shame because a committee of intolerant idiots deemed it "offensive".

Aug 12 12 - 4:31pm

dreamers and showgirls should not be under same terms,
showgirls was trashy and useless