There is no shame in earning an NC-17 rating. Filmmaker Steve McQueen, when he made his deal for MPAA-signatory Fox Searchlight to release Shame (December 2), made it clear that he embraced the rating, which the ratings board officially gave the film this week. This is no surprise. Besides, Searchlight distributed 2004’s NC-17 The Dreamers, whose director Bernardo Bertolucci praised Searchlight for being willing to release the film with the rating: “It’s a victory. And not just for me — it’s a victory for freedom of expression.” The erotic relationship drama starring Eva Green earned a respectable if modest $2.5 million stateside.
Shame, with better reviews, should earn far more. It’s an adult art film about a damaged, wounded man (Michael Fassbender) who is flailing and lost, trying to bury his pain in addictive sex. While some of us may appreciate Fassbender’s assets, which are on full display here and earned the movie its rating, Shame is neither titillating or erotic. It’s more provocative and disturbing and is not remotely pornographic. For me to argue that this film should be rated NC-17–no one under 18 admitted– is not to suggest that I approve of the way the MPAA ratings board conducts its ratings in every other case. But here, it is appropriate.
The question is what impact the rating will have on Fassbender’s real shot at a best actor nomination. Even Searchlight has no idea if the Academy will go along with a transgressive movie like this. My sense is that the actor will be nominated by the actors branch, who will watch the film out of curiosity and will appreciate the quality of his performance. As the last of four strong roles he has delivered this year–including Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class and A Dangerous Method–it’s the showiest and will be freshest on voters’ minds. I don’t see them nominating him for any of the others instead. But Searchlight still faces the challenge of presenting this film as a classy, palatable, serious drama, despite its racy content. Oscar voters nominated Philippe Rousselot for an Oscar for best cinematography 20 years ago for the first NC-17 film, Philip Kaufman’s Henry & June, and last year nominated Michelle Williams for Blue Valentine, which was slapped with an initial NC-17 rating, which was overturned on appeal. In 2001, Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream earned an Oscar nomination for Ellen Burstyn; the film was rated NC-17 but the filmmaker chose to release the film unrated.
It’s hard to remember that back in 1969, before the X-rating developed such a stigma (by being plastered as a selling tool all over porn ads), John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy was rated X–and went on to win three Oscars, including Best Picture. It only happened once.