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II)A)4) How “X-rated” became synonymous with “porn,” and the death of movie making for grown-ups.

This essay first appeared on my blog at Comstock Films in April of 2007

The poster for LAST TANGO IN PARIS, including X-rating symbol

(click to enlarge)

Fad23 is absolutely right. The X-rating was a part of the MPAA four-tier system first introduced in 1968.

But unlike G, PG, and R, X was not a trademarked MPAA property. The X rating was conceived of by the MPAA as a rating meaning ‘not suitable for children’ that could be and was self-applied by producers who did not feel their film needed and/or warranted a less restrictive rating.

But there have always been films deemed “not suitable for children,” and long before X or NC-17 there was an “adults only” classification, given to films like DUAL IN THE SUN, BABY DOLL, SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER, TO EACH HIS OWN and others that, by the standards of the day, were deemed to be inappropriate for children. (More about this in my uncle’s very excellent comment on the previous post.)

But in the 1950′s “foreign films”, made outside the (self imposed) Hayes Code that governed Hollywood production, began to make their way into the US. These films frequently addressed issues of sexuality in a manner that was far more frank than the coded subtexualized language required to address adult themes within the strictures of the code.

Poster for THE LOVERS, the film at the center of Jacobellis v. Ohio.

The 1950s also saw the breakup of the studio system, particularly the vertical integration of production, distribution and exhibition, which considerably loosened control on what theaters could and would screen, and by the 1960s cultural mores had shifted to the point that the old production code was becoming increasingly irrelevant. In response code was revised in 1966, and in 1968 the production code was abandoned in favor G,PG, R and X system (originally G, M, R, X.)

But it’s important to remember that from the start, the X-rating was always intended as a rating that could be self-applied by producers, and unlike G, PG, and R, the MPAA maintained no control over the X rating as a trademarked property. It’s also important to remember that when the system was introduce “X” had no special stigma, any more than the previous rating of Adults Only rating give to DUEL IN THE SUN, et al.

Around the same time, there were court decisions established the legality of both producing films depicting actual sex acts and showing them in theaters. This new legal climate gave rise to the open production and theatrical screening of films featuring depictions of actual sex acts. Because X, which meant “adults only” was a self-applied rating, producers of these films were free to give their films an X-rating with or without the MPAAs approval.

At first this was done to give these sexually explicit films an air of legitimacy, but with no control over who could or could not use the X-rating it quickly became associated with very low-budget products concerned with little more than creating a vehicle for the presentation of explicit sex. It was at during this time that films like MIDNIGHT COWBOY, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, and others moved to have their ratings changed from X to R. Sometimes this was done by petitioning the MPAA to re-evaluate the rating, sometimes by simply editing out the “offending material”.

The stigma of the X-rating was further deepened when some producers began using XXX an gimmick to communicate that their films were especially raw or filled with sex, as opposed to merely X-rated, which could and did refer to films (such as MIDNIGHT COWBOY or A CLOCKWORK ORANGE,) that were unsuitable for children, but contained little, if any, explicit sex or nudity.

42nd Street, circa 1975 (click to enlarge)

This was also a time when many urban areas were in decline, and many theaters were turning to sexually explicit movies to draw audiences to theaters that would otherwise have been empty (think Times Square in the 70s.) In response, theater landlords began to write “no x-rated films” into their leases. Also theater chains enforced “no X” policies on their fanchiseese, and many newspapers had “no X” advertising policies.

Now remember, R means a film may be suitable for suitable for children when accompanied by an adult; X meant a film is not suitable for children at all. The concept of an “adults only film”, a concept that had existed from the beginning of commercial cinema, suddenly collapsed. It became impossible to advertise or exhibit a film that that was not suitable for children. For a film to be able to advertise in most newspapers, or play in most theaters, it had to have an R-rating, and that meant the omission of any element–sex, violence, language, drug use–that was not suitable viewing for children.

This collapse was not some grand conspiracy on the part of the MPAA to put an end to films for grown-ups. It was the result of the collision of changes to the MPAA ratings system, court decisions that allowed the production and public exhibition of films featuring depictions of actual sex acts, demographic and social changes that altered theater going habits, and the odd quirk that the MPAA had allowed their X-rating to be “public property”.

As a result, the X-rating was more or less abandoned by all parties. Hollywood producers weren’t going to invest millions of dollars in a film that couldn’t be advertised or screened in legitimate venues, and restricted their “adult” efforts to R-rated films. And producers of sexually explicit film and videos preferred to label their product as XXX, rather than the seemingly milder X. According to their own website, no films were rated X by the MPAA during the entire decade of the 1980s, (and virtually none in the 1970s.)

What that means is that for 20 years, all films produced by the Hollywood establishment that were produced within the confines of what could conceivably be shown to children. Moviemaking for grown-ups died.

Poster for HENRY AND JUNE, 1990, NC-17

In 1990 the MPAA attempted to reestablish a “legitimate” adults-only movie-making space with introduction of the NC-17 rating. Not wanting to repeat their mistake with the X-rating, the NC-17 is a trademarked property that can only be used if you submit your film and advertising to the MPAA process. But it was too little too late.

Not understanding the history of the X rating, and convinced that the MPAA was simply trying to put a new name on porn, most exhibition and advertising venues simply re-wrote their rules to prohibit the exhibition and advertising of NC-17 films. To this day some of America’s largest theater chains will not exhibit NC-17 movies, and many of America’s largest media outlets will not accept adverting for NC-17 movies. A few NC-17 art-house films were made, mostly in the nineties, and in 1995 MGM/UA gambled (and lost) on the NC-17 rating with the laughably bad big budget feature SHOWGIRLS. But in this decade (2000s), only a small handful of films have been rated NC-17, (including our own MARIE AND JACK: A HARDCORE LOVE STORY.)

Now lest I be seen as an apologist for the MPAA, I think they were slow to understand what was happening to the X-rating, slow to take action, (nearly 20 years!) and when they did finally introduce the NC-17 rating, they did “drop the ball”. More over, as far as I can tell, they’ve done precious little since then to correct their mistake.

These days there’s very little movie-making that is truly for grown-ups. Even “serious films” that have no interest in attracting a teen audience have to be made “suitable for children” to avoid the dreaded NC-17, so even “realistic adult dramas” have an odd lack of candor in the way that sex is depicted visually.

The situations are adult, the language may be frank, but the sex and nudity is strangely demure. Sex is always under the covers, or with the lights low, or the camera-angles are cheated just enough to the left or the right to preserve the all important R-rating.

As a result we have a cinematic landscape where every other aspect of the human experience is rendered in vivid detail (with often a special fetishization of violence,) but the simple truth of what people look like naked, or what people look like when they give themselves over to sexual desire remains largely unexplored by filmmakers, and remains largely unseen by audiences.

Production still from MARIE AND JACK: A HARDCORE LOVE STORY, 2002, NC-17

Since I first wrote this essay I’ve had conversations with Joan Graves at the MPAA and John Frithian at NATO, and some of what I wrote about NC-17 is just wrong. There are no meaingful restriction on advertising NC-17 films. Blockbuster Video and one major theater chain refuse to carry or exhibit NC-17 movies, but other venues are indifferent. If there were NC-17 movies and DVDs that people wanted to buy, theaters and stores would be happy to carry them.

And in light of new information, I’ve re-evaluated my opinion about what the MPAA has and hasn’t done to try and re-establish a truly grown-up movie making space. This passage from his 2007 address by Frithian to NATO is telling:

[W]e call again for efforts to revitalize that important category through the release of significant movies under the NC-17 rating. Contrary to often-repeated myths, most theatre companies will play NC-17 movies that are appropriate for their markets, and most newspapers will run advertisements for the pictures. NC-17 movies on average make $3.9 million, while unrated films on average make $1.8 million. Serious filmmakers need to take NC-17 seriously. Everyone in the industry should resist any temptation to treat NC-17 as a negative judgment, rather than an integral part of the rating system that contemplates entertainment for both children and adults. 

In addition, we call for our studio partners to abandon the practice of releasing unrated DVDs of the same movies that played in our theatres with a rating. We know that unrated DVDs—unlike unrated movies in our theatres—can do brisk sales. But it is frankly galling to see marketing campaigns designed around the very fact that a movie is “unrated and uncensored.” That cheap shot at the rating system undermines everything we strive to accomplish in partnership with America’s parents. The integrity of the system, and the respect it thereby earns from parents and government officials alike, depends on demonstrating, first and foremost, our own respect for the system. Ideally, all movies in every venue would be rated. At an absolute minimum, no movie should ever be marketed on the basis that it flouts the rating system.
(Emphasis mine.)

More about the “Unrated and Uncensored” marketing in the next section: The MPAA Took My Baby Away!: Why exploitation filmmakers love to hate the Motion Picture Association of America.

I also found a great cache of X-rated movie posters that help trace the emergence of the self-applied “X” rating on graphic sexploitation films. There is also a reverse movement on marketing attitudes towards the “X” rating. At the same time mainstream Hollywood releases are petitioning and re-editing to trade in their X ratings for R ratings, a counter current emerges in the sexploitation films. Films like Emmanuelle want the connotation of explicit sex that comes with the X-rating, but are trying to separate themselves from the pack with marketing lines like “X was never like this before” or “X has finally come of age.”

This last line makes me chuckle, because with films like Midnight Cowboy and A Clockwork Orange, X started out as a very grown-up rating for very grown-up films, but even these cinematic masterpieces couldn’t stand against the onrushing tide. I remember Emmanuelle being a watchable and sexy film, but it certain wasn’t nearly enough to rehabilitate X’s ruined reputation.

And find of finds! I found a poster for A Clockwork Orange with the X-rating. I wasn’t even sure it was out there. The internet can be a marvelous thing!

A brief run down. I’ll get the rest of art online soon:

1967 Big Bang, no rating call out on poster

1967 The Pleasure Machines, no rating call out.

1968 Spread Eagles, no rating call out on poster

1969 Starlet, “So adult one X isn’t enough.”

1969 MPAA gives Midnight Cowboy an R, but UA Arthur Krim self-applies X. 1970 resubmitted to MPAA for R rating w/out cuts

1970 The Marriage Manual, Eastman Color call out on poster

1971 Clockwork Orange released in as X, cut and re-rated as R in 1973

1971 I Feel it Coming self-applied X and Eastman Color Color call out on poster

1972 Zorro, “The First Movie Rated Z”

1972 Deep Throat released with self-applied X and Eastman Color call out on poster.

1972 The Devil in Miss Jones, X reviews from New York Mag, Newsweek, Playboy, Variety

1973 Last Tango in Paris X-rated

1974 Hot Shots released with self applied X on poster

1974 Emmanuellle self-applied X “X was never like this.”

1974 Amour A La Bouhe, La / Mannequin “X has finally come of age.”

1976 The Opening of Misty Beethoven, “A quality adult film” X inside of Q

1978 Hot Lunch release with self-applied X on poster

1978 Debbie Does Dallas with XXX call-out on poster

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3 Responses

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  1. Orthodoxhe said

    Great post – really interesting stuff. I think the perception of the MPAA’s as taking a leading role in the stifling of “adult” movies is widespread. It seems they haven’t been an active force for blocking them, but clearly didn’t see much stake in helping them along either. Are you going to say more about why you think adult-oriented films aren’t being made/seen? If there isn’t a meaningful restriction on advertising or exhibition (which is the usual argument) where is the bottleneck?

  2. Tony Comstock said

    RE: Bottleneck

    I hope to be able to shed some light on that in section: II)B Landmark cases in obscenity law and the long  shadow of language.

    The short version is that in the same way that people think they know what the MPAA does and doesn’t do, people think they know what the law does and doesn’t allow: language from various decisions has permeated our culture and you end up with Wolfe Video’s Linda Vouteur saying she can’t carry “Ashley and Kisha” because they don’t carry pornography.

    I’m sure she thinks that’s some sort of legal distinction and she’s protecting her business. But in fact “pornography” has no legal meaning. But it does end up having a business meaning that had a profound effect on the ROI calculus for a producer.

    This gets right to the heart of it, hence the title of the lecture.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. II)C) Moore’s Law, Freeman vs. California, and  the Porn Revolution 2.0: How changes law in technology mean that when everybody is special, no one is special. – The Intent to Arouse linked to this post on July 12, 2009

    [...] it all come tumbling down? I’ve taken my own stab at explaining  it in the previous post, “How X-rated became synomymous with porn and the death of movie making for grownups” and if I had to sum it up I say it was three things: HIV, Reagan, and the [...]

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