MPAA ratings system gets 'F' from critics, filmmakers
August 23, 1999
From Sherri Sylvester
LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- The Motion Picture Association of America has been an invaluable player in rating films for over 30 years now -- but is it still relevant? Perhaps not, say some filmmakers and critics who argue that when it comes to ranking violence and sex in the movies, the MPAA needs to take stock of its ratings and update its standards.
The heat has been greatest since Stanley Kubrick's final film, "Eyes Wide Shut," came out. The film's orgy scene was digitally obscured in order to avoid an NC-17 rating -- a rating which Mark Gill, president of indie film champion Miramax, says "is absolutely the kiss of death for anything but the tiniest of art films."
Sydney Pollack, who played Victor Ziegler in "Eyes Wide Shut," agrees. "If you have an NC-17 rating in this country, you can't advertise on network television, there are certain newspapers you can't advertise on, there are certain theaters you can't even play."
Critics, including Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, argue that studios should stick with the filmmaker's vision, rather than change the movie to fit into a certain rating category.
"An artist with the reputation and the integrity of Stanley Kubrick should be able to have his film seen the way he originally envisioned it," Turan says. "When the ratings system was originally put into effect, the idea was that (the NC-17 designation) would be a rating for adults."
Letters, editorials, and even films have taken shots recently at the MPAA. Roger Ebert, a film critic for the Chicago Sun Times, has advocated adding a new rating. "The NC-17 rating has become associated with hard-core pornography," he says. "I've suggested a new A rating to become between the R and the NC-17. It would mean adults only, but not pornography."
Defending the MPAA
Jack Valenti, who created the MPAA system, says it wasn't designed for producers, major studios, directors or critics. "It was designed for parents," he says.
He also says that under MPAA guidelines, filmmakers are not forced to make changes. "They (MPAA board members) tell (the filmmaker) what the offending scenes were, and then if he chooses -- on his own volition -- he can edit his film to get a less severe rating."
But even veterans are surprised by many of the board's suggestions. A trailer for the PG-13 "Teaching Mrs. Tingle" was rejected when a shot of a dog licking a wine bottle was said to promote teen drinking.
"Now, when you figure that one out," Gill says, "I'd love it if you'd call me. I mean, it's just too big a leap."
Another trailer for a low-budget independent called "Soft Toilet Seats" (1997) was rejected for its nudity. The offending shot appears less anatomically specific than a Barbie doll.
Irwin Winkler, producer of such films as "Raging Bull" (1980) and "GoodFellas" (1990), contends that many studios simply play the system. For example, he says, "The ratings board will say, 'There are seven things that we don't like about this film.' The director might have put in four of them that he doesn't even want, so that when he goes back to the ratings board, he says, 'Well, look, I took out four of them.'"
Turan says that game defeats the system. "Stuff that should be NC-17 has somehow gotten shoehorned into R," he says, "so the R territory covers territory it was never intended to cover."
Despite the outcry, Valenti insists there will be no changes in the system.
Review: 'Teaching Mrs. Tingle' is from the teen curriculum
Official 'Eyes Wide Shut' site
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