No Shame In NC-17

In 1972, many critics believed that Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris would revolutionize how sexuality was depicted and accepted in mainstream cinema. As we all know, there has been no revolution. We have not evolved all that much, and realistic, intelligent depictions of sexuality are not only still seen as taboo but, thanks to the NC-17 rating, remain verboten in most cinemas.

In fact, in the US, the NC-17 rating has become the commercial kiss of death that relegates films to art-house status. So, what about British filmmaker Steve McQueen’s upcoming film Shame? McQueen’s sophomore effort has been branded with the feared NC-17, however, it appears that the film’s distributor Fox Searchlight is taking a much different approach than what is typically the norm.

What usually happens as a result of being rated NC-17 by the MPAA is either the film’s steamier scenes are cut to try to secure an R rating, or the studio lawyers up to try to get the rating altered.

Major releases, or at least films by major filmmakers, are in an awkward position if they are unwilling to compromise, and unable to force an alteration in their rating. When distributors and filmmakers accept their fate, and release their film with the dreaded rating, it is basically accepting box-office suicide. For the most part, major theatre chains refuse to play NC-17 rated films, making it almost impossible to reach a mainstream audience.

Shame is only McQueen’s second film, however he is an established artist, one who would certainly not cut his film to please the distributor. This is what makes Fox Searchlight’s decision so surprising. The confidence that Searchlight has showed by not only accepting the rating, but picking up the film for distribution in the first place shows that it may believe that this is may be the film that subverts the NC-17 rating as a commercial death sentence.

McQueen’s film, focussing on a New York business man who must confront his sex addiction, has been getting high praise at the festivals, and with Fox pushing hard for Oscar consideration, we may see this film become a surprise hit. There is no doubt that Shame will stir up controversy due to its explicit sexual content and subject matter, and with the combined star power of Michael Fassbender and Carrey Mulligan this film may become a huge point of discussion come its release in December.

It is possible Fox Searchlight is hoping for a Last Tango In Paris situation, where audiences are intrigued by both the controversy and quality of the film. But Shame is a film that will likely appeal to couples, and if Fox Searchlight’s strategy is successful, it may just be the film that succeeds where Last Tango failed, changing commercial perceptions around the NC-17 rating.

This is a change that is desperately needed, as it may finally allow filmmakers to explore sexuality in intelligent ways without courting complete financial failure.

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33 Responses to No Shame In NC-17

  1. We can only hope that it does… can’t wait to see it. I guess I should take the time to watch Last Tango in Paris then.

  2. Pingback: Hit List: November 22, 2011 « IMDb: All the Latest

  3. I remember watching “Last Tango in Paris” in my Film History honors class…awkward. LOL. But good for McQueen.

  4. Martin Maj says:

    I thought Steve McQueen died in 1980.

  5. hitchcockcameo says:

    I do not understand the MPAA or their goals, specifically their bizarre crusade against sex and cursing. The fact that “Once” and “Human Centipede” have the same rating (one for use of the F-word, the other for depictions of people eating human feces) is beyond absurd.

    • Millie Malice says:

      There’s a documentary that came out in 2006 called “This Film is Not Yet Rated”, Kirby Dick examines the MPAA rating system and exposes the politics and bias behind it. It’s really a great watch, both eye opening and entertaining.

  6. Mike says:

    The MPAA represents the puritan values that still run rampant in America. We need to get over it already.

  7. brisa says:

    these are the days when i love living in europe. hopefully i won’t get contradicted by facts on this one! 😛
    i can’t wait to see this movie!!!
    and, on the subject matter, i think it’s an outrageous hypocrisy when they have so many teenage pregnancies and even sex offenses in u.s., to ignore the state of things regarding so many people sexual life choices, and claim this movie might be shocking or damaging to their young ppl, but it’s all right to go see movies about serial killers and slaughterhouse horrors.

    • Anthony says:

      What part of europe? Most of Europe has stricter guidelines than here.

      • Tara says:

        It’s stricter (Shame is sure a 18, worse than the NC-17), but in Europe there is very little stigma attached to an 18 movie. Look at the UK, a lot of movies are rated 18. So what?

  8. Ummm… I can’t agree with this article in its entirety. Have you forgotten about Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut? Or maybe you just haven’t heard of it before? Well, its NC-17 and it won several awards and nominations. Just saying

  9. Anonomnomnom says:

    I’m so excited for Shame, especially since it’s been drawing so many comparisons to Bertolucci and Last Tango in Paris.

    I’m against the MPAA most of the time, however I remember seeing Watchmen a couple years back and seeing children taking up about a third of the audience. By the near rape and very violent scenes most parents had walked out and my anger towards it was not fueled by the film but by the ignorant parents that couldn’t see the damn rating or were entirely unknowledgeable of the source material and assumed since it was a ‘superhero’ flick it’s kid friendly. Personally I felt with that film I think the dumb parents needed to do their research. But when I was a child my overly religious mother forced me to go see the Exorcist to scare me into being more moralistic. And I still wish that I hadn’t had been exposed to crucifix masturbation/rape at such a young age.
    The sad thing is, the film industry shouldn’t be at fault for artistic expression, parents need to be more responsible. Which I assume is the purpose of the NC 17.

    I think that what sex should really be open nowadays. Really, we’ve all seen a naked body and what is big deal? Its the HUMAN BODY! Sex is natural and that fact that the US is still so prudish sickens me. (Also, the MPAA angers the hell out of me when they deem the male body offensive, or seeing female frontal nudity) However, when it comes to violence or rape, I don’t think it should be censored, but I think that there should be an age limit on who can access it. 17 in my opinion is a little high, I was pretty mature at 17 and A Clockwork Orange was one of my favorite films at the age of 15.

    I hate the rating system, but I understand why it’s there. I think it should be revised and it’s political bias totally smashed. We shouldn’t be repulsed by sex, but by tasteless violence, and still have the freedom to judge for ourselves what is art and what isn’t.

  10. I’ll throw in The Unbearable Lightness of Being as well

  11. Ummm… I am pretty sure I remember Eyes Wide Shut showing at the Drive In when I was a kid

  12. One last reflection that I wanted to express was that as I read this article it reminded me about a thought that I had regarding Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona a while back. I think the movie would have been better quality had it not been PG-13, but that is just me.

  13. Tara says:

    Anyway, everyone, go and see Shame, it’s an amazing movie. I had the huge fortune of watching it at its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival. The audience went NUTS. The Venice audience is pretty tough, they’re accustomed to controversial movies and I think Shame was even tame for festival standards. It had a 10 minutes standing ovation, people just couldn’t stop clapping. I had tears in my eyes. It’s definitely not a movie for a mainstream audience….if you are accustomed to Michael Bay movies only, avoid it. If you love intelligent cinema, go and see it.

    • Kevin says:

      No thanks. While I think Mulligan is a good actress. the subject matter doesn’t interest me. If that bothers, or offends anyone, I am glad.

  14. Stefan says:

    Ok, I can understand that they gave a movie NC17 rating. I am actually more attracted to the film then (not that I am pervert, but the movie with that rating is usually some good arthouse film). What I cant understand is the fact that major theatre chains refuse to play NC-17 rated films. So they want to tell us that the only acceptable audience for them are the children below 17 years old! And I completely agree its very hypocritical that depiction of sex is forbidden, whereas depiction of violence is totally acceptable.

  15. Anonymous says:

    The three-fold problem with the MPAA is:
    – horrible violence is okay, loving sex is not, in fact a violent rape scene is more acceptable (PG-13) to them than a loving relationship sex scene (R)
    – any same sex-relationship automatically makes the film at least PG-13 (even if there is no physical aspect to the relationship at all)
    – counting curse words (3 F-words puts a film in a different rating than 1)
    These are very arbitrary decisions and there is no oversight or appeal to the MPAA, which frankly is needed. “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” really exposed a lot of corruption and plain idiocy.

    Also unfortunately people don’t even bother to check the ratings when taking the family as previous posters mentioned so why bother to rate the films if no one is checking?

    Ratings are a joke generally. .People have sex, get over it. People swear, get over it. If you’ve raised your children (not used them as status symbols or let tv/internet raise them) they should be able to know what is and isn’t appropriate for them and what is just a movie. Sheesh!

    If you don’t like it, don’t watch the show or go to the movie. Personally I find the amount of money spent on making crap like Transformers far more offensive that the sex scenes in Shame. The ratings don’t tell me that but I let the studios know what I want to see by informing myself about the film and paying for the one that seems like something I would like. Sounds simple and it is.

  16. (I’ll avoid my ratings rant since other people are on that track already and take on something else entirely.)

    I’d like some supporting evidence that theater chains won’t show NC-17 movies. I have seen The Cook The Thief, etc and the original NC-17 release of Showgirls in cinemas here, to name two (back when they came out- not as reissues or whatever). I think there were a couple of others. This is a college town, but this was in the town theaters, not on campus or at exclusive art places.

    Admittedly, that may’ve been back when they were UA theaters instead of the Goodrich we have now, but I know I’ve seen movies advertised as NC-17 in cinemas and I’d been thinking people had just given up for some reason since I don’t see anything with that rating any more- I don’t mean in cinemas- I mean at all. IMDb lists some (Saw movies etc.), but I don’t hunk any of them were released to cinema with that rating, and the DVDs say “Unrated”.

    So, unless you’ve really checked- and maybe you did, but no one I’ve called on this has before- I wouldn’t just say theaters won’t play them. Check it out, would you? There’s an article in it, right?

  17. Throughout my history in going to the movie theaters, I’ve been 2 movies that were released as NC-17 (Not counting “Antichrist). They were Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers” and Ang Lee’s “Lust, Caution” and I enjoyed both of them. I wished they got a wider release because those were really good films that were more than just about sex. “Shame” is a film I want to see because of the subject matter. The NC-17 rating just gives me more reason to see it and if its good, it will give me a chance to spread the word.

  18. Rather than NC-17, the rating should be A for Almodovar, as every other film he makes seems to get stuck with this rating. Matador, Bad Education, Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down, etc.

  19. John says:

    Midnight cowboy was the first X-rated movie to be nominated and win an oscar.

  20. RunningSiren says:

    Something interesting from Vancouver Sun – “Restricted No More, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is Now Considered Kids’ Stuff” – Quote: “For its time, it was racy enough to earn a Restricted rating from both the Motion Picture Association of America and the BC Film Classification Office, who slapped the now-iconic Restricted Cougar trailer to its head — and let it play for the next four decades without alteration. Last month, the BC Film Classification office took a second look at Jim Sharman’s reel, and decided it should now carry the Parental Guidance label – making it accessible to young people providing there is parental supervision.”

    I don’t pay attention to ratings at all, but then I’ve been an adult for a long time. I see a lot of films in movie theatres over the course of a year (75 last year, 65 so far this year). I’m lucky living in a major Canadian city and have access to all kinds of films throughout the year, and yes even Canadian films (but I may have to hurry and see them during the only week they screen).
    What surprises me most over the last ten years is seeing more and more parents bringing children that are way too young to see films with a lot of very graphic violence – if parents don’t exercise some judgement in what they are exposing their kids to, then no matter what the MPAA or any other system does really doesn’t matter. The MPAA may think they are “protecting” children from seeing certain images on the big screen, but they are misguided and living in the dark ages.

  21. brisa says:

    i totally agree with the debate of nudity versus violence. and to add something in that direction, i prefer so called art house movies, and those that give you something to reflect on, rather than movies with obscene amounts of money spent on vfx, like Transformers &co.
    and violence in art should – i think- be more restricted to the sort of genre that has to do with the grotesque, which was explored in paintings and music as well (like by beethoven); and being means to an end, not some creepy visual gratification with no point… as in, there’s a huge difference between “reservoir dogs”,”natural born killers”-which are violent- and “texas chainsaw massacre” or the likes.
    @Anthony: i actually live in eastern europe, but my point earlier about movies in europe, is that they don’t get technically kept from audiences based on the ratings.i mean they shoot movies like “irreversible” and those get in theaters, so obviously they play movies like “shame”. and they get appreciated more. therefore the venice festival awards and standing ovations etc…

  22. Pingback: I saw Shame | Flaw in the Iris

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