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15 Times the MPAA Got it Wrong

15 Times the MPAA Got it Wrong

On this day in 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America adopted its film ratings system. Since then, films that have received ratings more towards the R or NC-17 side of the spectrum have either fought back, or created controversy over the MPAA’s bonkers decisions. To celebrate this birthday, we’ve compiled the 15 times that the MPAA got it oh so wrong. 

READ MORE: How The MPAA Really Works And How to Get The Rating You Want

Afternoon Delight” (2013)
In an interview with Flavorwire, “Afternoon Delight” director Jill Soloway revealed that to get the film the R-rating that she promised her distributors, she had to make cuts to scenes depicting women enjoying having sex. “I think it’s about the sexual agency of female characters,” she said. “The scene portrays two women in a sexual situation connecting emotionally with one another. That might be what was ‘uncomfortable’ for the MPAA. It’s infuriating, to encounter this editing-down after pushing through the many doors to get this movie made. I even won the Directing Award at Sundance, but that kind of lauding didn’t protect me from this organization’s opinion that sex from a woman’s perspective is somehow too dangerous.”


American Psycho” (2000)
Anyone who has read the novel “American Psycho” can you tell you that Bret Easton Ellis’ extremely graphic and controversial satire of 1980s Wall Street culture makes director Mary Harron’s 2000 film adaptation look positively quaint in comparison. A faithful adaptation of the novel would have made the film completely unwatchable, so Harron toned down the novel’s violent and sexual content. Nonetheless, the MPAA ratings board still gave the film an NC-17 upon their initial viewing. Harron initially assumed that the reason for the rating was the violence in the film (axes in the face, chainsaws, etc.). However, the reason for the rating was actually a three-way sex scene between Christian Bale’s character and two prostitutes. The ratings board’s decision in this case highlights their frequent tendency to let violence in films slide, while cracking down on sexual content. Harron acquiesced to the ratings board’s request and cut out several seconds from the sex scene in order to secure an R rating. For the film’s home video release, the full three-way scene was restored to its original length.

Blue is the Warmest Color” (2013)
Abdellatif Kechiche’s racy Palme d’Or winner “Blue is the Warmest Color” was, unsurprisingly, rated NC-17 for its frank (and lengthy) depictions of lesbian sex between a teenager (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and her older lover (Lea Seydoux), but that didn’t stop New York’s IFC Center from admitting teenagers under 17 wanting to watch the film. John Vanco, senior vice president and general manager of the IFC Center, wrote in a statement to The New York Times that, “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.” In France, “Blue is the Warmest Color” had a “12 Rating,” roughly the equivalent of the MPAA’s PG-13 one. 

Blue Valentine (2010)
Before losing to the MPAA with “Bully,” Weinstein won in getting an R for “Blue Valentine,” after appealing their NC-17 slap for an oral sex scene between the two leads, Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. The best part? No changes had to be made to the film to secure the R. Of course, despite Weinstein’s victory, he chose to highlight what the MPAA found so racy by releasing a provocative poster that shows Gosling and Williams locked in a steamy outdoors embrace. Hey, sex sells. 

Boyhood” (2014)
Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making opus “Boyhood” was rated R in the states. Why? We’re not so sure. Rumor has it it was for a short scene in which pre-teen boys dig through a lingerie magazine. But “Boyhood” is a film that demands to be seen by the generation it depicts, meaning teenagers. New York’s IFC Center felt the same way and announced that they will admit “high school age patrons at its discretion.” This approach no doubt helped bolster its profits at the theater, but we stand behind it because everyone and anyone should be sure to check out Linklater’s huge achievement the way it’s meant to be seen — on the big screen.


“Boys Don’t Cry” (1999)
Kimberly Peirce’s Academy Award-winning depiction of the inspiring life and brutal death of transgender boy Brandon Teena was indeed initially dealt an NC-17. In the MPAA-critical doc “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” Peirce recalls that she was initially rather amused by the rating as she’s a big fan of many other films dealt the rating. But then when distributor Fox Searchlight said they wouldn’t release it with that rating, Peirce was forced to make some cuts. The NC-17 classification was in part due to the brutal rape scene in the film, but also due to a tender love scene between Brandon and his girlfriend, Lana. The MPAA deemed it was problematic in that Brandon wiped his mouth after performing oral sex on Lana and that Lana’s orgasm was “too long.” In “Not Yet Rated,” Peirce said that when she asked the MPAA what the issue was within this particular scene, they said, “well, we don’t really know but that’s offensive.” Peirce went on to explain that she felt the problem for the MPAA was the idea of sexual pleasure without a male experience. “I think female pleasure is scary, in the narrative setting,” she said. “I think unfamiliarity is what breeds these NC-17s.”  In the end, Peirce’s “Boys” was rated R for “an intense brutal rape scene, sexuality, language and drug use.” It also continues to stand as an example of the sexism and homophobia that is clearly present in MPAA decisions. 

“Bully” (2011)
Anti-bullying documentary “Bully” drummed up the type of controversy most indies only dream of, thanks to Harvey Weinstein’s much-publicized efforts to fight the film’s R-rating in favor of a more teen-friendly PG-13. You would think that the members of the MPAA might find it important for teens to be able to see a film which takes us into the disquieting day-to-day lives of five kids and their families over the course of a school year. Despite Weinstein’s best efforts and the rallying cries of his celeb pals, the MPAA didn’t change their tune, leaving the film with an R-ratingb because of “strong language.” Then, 17-year-old student Katy Butler started an online petition, receiving more than 500,000 signatures, including those of celebrities like Ellen DeGeneres and Meryl Streep. A re-edited version of the film removed three of its six F-words, and a PG-13 rating was finally granted.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)
Under contractual obligations to deliver an R-rating on Stanley Kubrick’s last film “Eyes Wide Shut,” Warner Bros. digitally inserted cloaked figures into the infamous orgy sequence that serves as the centerpiece to Kubrick’s sexual odyssey starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. This move on Warner Bros.’ part angered many a Kubrick fan, including Roger Ebert who slammed their move in his review, stating, “it’s symbolic of the moral hypocrisy of the rating system that it would force a great director to compromise his vision, while by the same process making his adult film more accessible to young viewers.” This was after all the director who released “A Clockwork Orange” with an X-rating. We’re pretty sure Kubrick wouldn’t have minded an NC-17. 

Charlie Countryman” (2013)
Actress Evan Rachel Wood took to Twitter after she saw the final cut of her film “Charlie Countryman.” The new cut received an R rating from the MPAA, but did not include parts of a love scene in which Shia Labeouf’s character performs oral sex on Wood’s character. Wood’s full Twitter rant, broken up in several posts, read: After seeing the new cut of #CharlieCountryman I would like 2 share my disappointment with the MPAA, who thought it was necessary to censor a womans sexuality once again. The scene where the two main characters make “love” was altered because someone felt that seeing a man give a woman oral sex made people “uncomfortable” but the scenes in which people are murdered by having their heads blown off remained intact and unaltered. This is a symptom of a society that wants to shame women and put them down for enjoying sex, especially OR had the female character been raped it would have been cut. Its time for people to GROW UP. Accept that women are sexual beings Accept that some men like pleasuring women. Accept that women don’t have to just be fucked and say thank you.We are allowed and entitled to enjoy ourselves. Its time we put our foot down.”

Killer Joe” (2012)
William Friedkin’s “Killer Joe,” which Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts adapted from his own 1993 play, premiered at the 2011 Venice International Film Festival; at the closing ceremony, Italian online critics honored it with the “Golden Mouse” award. It was a promising start for the film, Friedkin’s first since his little-seen 2006 “Bug” starring Ashley Judd and Michael Shannon (which Letts also adapted from his own work). However, the MPAA was less impressed: Deeming the film as containing “graphic aberrant content,” the organization designated the film NC-17, a rating that it upheld on appeal. What’s the problem? [SPOILER ALERT] Well, the story’s about a deeply trashy Texas family that gets involved with drugs, a murder plot and Killer Joe (Matthew McConaughey), a psychopathic member of the Dallas police force who’s not above beating the hell out of one of the family members, Sharla (Gina Gershon), and then forcing her to fellate his Kentucky Fried Chicken drumstick. Now there’s a marketing tie-in. 

“The King’s Speech” (2010)
Perhaps the tamest film on this list, one might recall that in the midst of the “Blue Valentine” appeal, The Weinstein Company were waging a concurrent battle for their Oscar hungry “King’s Speech.” The MPAA gave the film an R rating for profanity (one might recall the scene when Colin Firth utters the F-word over and over). As R ratings go, this made it so no one under age of 17 could see the film without an adult. Comparatively, the British ratings board had given the film a much milder 12A rating, allowing anyone over the age of 12 to see “The King’s Speech” adult-free. The Weinsteins appealed the rating, but the MPAA stood film. As a result, they released an alternate version of the film that muted out some of the profanities. Interestingly, that version would go on to gross only $3,344,306, compared to the R-rated version’s $135,453,143. 


Natural Born Killers” (1994)
Oliver Stone’s 1994 film about Mickey and Mallory Knox (Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis), a serial killer couple on a cross-country murder spree is perhaps the controversial director’s most notorious film (no small feat). The film initially received an NC-17 and had a gruelingly long battle with the MPAA in order to secure an R rating. As the film is about serial killers, it unsurprisingly depicts a large amount of graphic violence, which the ratings board strongly objected to. Mickey and Mallory are given massive press coverage in the film, with Stone’s intention being to lampoon the media circus surrounding then recent violent crimes in America, which may have actually hurt the film during the rating process. The O.J. Simpson murders had occurred just two months before the film’s release and it wouldn’t be surprising if this was one of the factors which made the ratings board crack down so harshly on the film. They were more than likely anxious about seeing similar events parodied in such an extreme fashion. In the end, Stone had to cut out four minutes of footage before the ratings board would give the film an R rating and Warner Bros. would agree to release it. Thankfully, the home video market exists though and Stone’s uncut version of the film was made available for the VHS release and it now easy to find on DVD/Blu-ray. 

Philomena” (2013)
Judi Dench and Steve Coogan and The Weinstein Company won their formal appeal to revise the film’s rating from an R to a PG-13. The film was initially slapped with the R-rating due to the presence of more than one “harsher, sexually-derived word” used as an expletive. The Weinstein Company argued that based on the film’s subject matter, which concerns the unlikely duo of a journalist and ex-nun in the search for her long-lost son, “Philomena” ought to be granted with the more family-friendly rating. They then created a Funny-or-Die short that mocked the MPAA system using Dench’s popular M character from the James Bond series. Director Stephen Frears said, “We felt the MPAA had made the wrong decision in handing the film, which has no violence or lewd material and the bare minimum of adult language, an ‘R’ rating. I am overjoyed they’ve changed their ruling in order to give families like mine an opportunity to see this film together. Now we can let the whole world see it.”


Requiem for a Dream” (2000)
Darren Aronofsky’s harrowing second feature following “Pi,” was given an NC-17-rating by the MPAA for the tough-to-watch sex scene involving Jennifer Connelly that appears near the end of the film. Distributor Artisan refused to make cuts to “Requiem,” maintaining that the MPAA’s rating was “neither correct nor justified.” In a film that graphically depicts drug addiction and all the horrors it entails (Jared Leto’s character gets his arm amputated), it’s notable that the MPAA chose to pinpoint this one sequence in particular. In the end the appeal was denied and Artisan released the film unrated. 

South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” (1999)
We hear again and again how difficult it is to sell an R-rated romance, an R-rated fantasy, and yes, an R-rated animated film. But could you imagine an animated NC-17 film?  Well, Paramount and “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone couldn’t imagine that either. Along with Producer Scott Rudin, the “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” team released a series of fax memos that showed their humorous back-and-forth negotiation with the MPAA. Among the doozies: “The intent now is that you never see Saddam’s real penis, he in fact is using dildos both times,” and “We took out the only reference to ‘cum-sucking ass’ in the film.” Stone ends his memo with a postscript — “This is my favorite memo ever.” The film-within-the-film, “Asses of Fire,” elucidates some of the very case of censorship the memos deal with and ends up starting the war between the U.S. and Canada which drives most of the film’s narrative. At the end of it all, the film’s rallying cry “Blame Canada” received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song.

READ MORE: Stephen Farber Discusses the MPAA, ‘Bully’ and What the Future Holds

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