Once a pariah among concerned parents and a source of snickers among schoolchildren, the dreaded X-rating has all but vanished. What made this formerly MPAA-sanctioned rating go away?
The Rating Game
Hollywood has enforced an evolving system of self-regulation since the 1920s to avoid government intervention. In 1922, studio bosses answered the threat of censorship by creating the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association of America. In 1945, the name was truncated to the Motion Picture Association of America, or the MPAA. But it wasn't until Jack Valenti stepped in as President that the modern ratings system we know took shape.
Responding to the demand for a more complex system of regulation than simply “approved” or “not approved,” the MPAA launched a four-tier ratings system on November 1, 1968. The original system included the ratings of G, M, R and X. An “X” rating was meant to signal for “adults only,” with no one under 18 admitted. The age cut-off was lowered to 17 the following year.
The rating system was and remains entirely voluntary. However, the National Association of Theater Owners (the other NATO) has an agreement with MPAA to enforce the system. In other words, circumnavigate an MPAA judgment and very few theaters will show your movie. To receive a rating, a producer submitted his/her completed film for review by the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA), comprised entirely of parents with no ties to the entertainment industry. If this film contained extreme sexual or violent content, then it would receive an X rating.
The greatest success for an X-rated film came just a year after the rating was created. Midnight Cowboy (1969), the story of a young hustler in New York City, received six Academy Award nominations and won three, including the award for Best Picture, despite its X. The film was later awarded an R-rating without having to cut anything. The X-rating struck Oscar gold again in 1971 with Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, which received four nominations from the Academy. Though Kubrick would cut a few scenes to procure an R rating for a 1973 release, all current DVD versions of the film contain the “X-rated” version.
The last major Hollywood film to embrace the X-rating was Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, released in 1972. The film’s adult content shocked critics and audiences alike, but could hardly be considered pornographic. Like its X-rated peers, Last Tango in Paris was nominated for two Academy Awards.
That juicy X seemed to give a film art house street cred. Yet, the film industry essentially stopped putting out X-rated movies in the 1970s, sending a film back to the cutting room until it could be rated R. So what happened?
The XXX Loophole
It would be easy to blame the porn industry boom of the 1970s, but the X’s demise can be pinned on a simpler culprit: trademark.
When creating its new system, the MPAA failed to copyright it. Ratings like the G did not suffer from the oversight, but it may have single-handedly caused the demise of the X. With no registered trademark, the X could legally be self-applied to any film—a loophole pornography happily exploited. For example, the notorious 1972 porn Deep Throat gave itself a tongue-in-cheek “X,” and many other adult films followed suit.
Soon one X wasn’t enough. Films like Debbie Does Dallas boasted a self-designated rating of XXX, promising three times the adult material. While the arbitrary XXX rating has since become standard for the adult film industry, the damage was done to the singular X. An X rating became synonymous with “hardcore,” and mainstream advertisers and distributors would not touch it with a ten-foot pole.
CARA became the moral litmus for films, leading to outcries of artistic censorship. When George Romero submitted his seminal zombie film Dawn of the Dead to the MPAA, it was returned to him with an X. Refusing the rating, he instead released his film unrated. But for the most part, filmmakers were forced to return to their editing suites and cut any content deemed unfit by a board of parents.
In 1990, Spanish director Pedro Almodovar and Miramax took the ratings system to court. They filed a civil suit over the X-rating given to their film Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! Though Almodovar & co. ultimately lost, the MPAA would eliminate the X-rating altogether only a few months later, replacing it with the freshly trademarked NC-17 rating.
Henry & June became the first NC-17 film, narrowly escaping the X curse. NC-17 may still carry a stigma, but one thing is for certain: you won’t be seeing a Triple NC-17 film any time soon.