When the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) introduced the modern movie ratings system in 1968, they couldn’t have known that one of their classifications would become the calling card of pornography. The X rating, intended to denote films not suitable for anyone under the age of 17, went from being attached to Academy Award contenders to filling video store spaces located behind saloon doors. Fifty years after its debut, we’re taking a look at the most infamous letter in moviegoing history.
1. ACCEPTING THE RATING WAS VOLUNTARY (KIND OF).
In 1968, the MPAA and its president, Jack Valenti, introduced a four-tier system to classify films. G was suitable for all audiences; M was the equivalent of PG (which replaced M in 1970), indicating that juveniles should consult with a parent before attending; R was intended for adults, or children only with a guardian present; X marked films that shouldn’t be seen by adolescent eyes. But the MPAA never forced a film studio to submit to its decision. It could release a film with no rating at all. The problem? The MPAA’s arrangement with the National Association of Theater Owners meant that an unrated film would almost certainly have difficulty finding a theater to screen it.
2. A ROBERT DE NIRO MOVIE WAS THE FIRST TO GET SLAPPED WITH AN X.
Immediately after the introduction of the new MPAA system, the advisory board got its first bona fide sample of an X-rated submission: Director Brian De Palma’s Greetings, a 1968 film starring Robert De Niro as a New Yorker confronting the possibility of being drafted, garnered the rating due to its sexually explicit content, including nudity that would likely earn an R rating today. (De Palma would later run afoul of the MPAA multiple times; 1980's Dressed to Kill, 1981's Blow Out, and 1983's Scarface were all threatened with an X before being edited.)
3. FILMMAKERS COULD GIVE THEMSELVES THE RATING.
Though it was quickly going to become taboo, there was a time when an X rating for a mainstream film was a badge of honor and an effective marketing tool that signaled a film was being made for discerning moviegoers—not just viewers looking for titillation. Arthur Krim, the head of United Artists, willingly gave 1969’s Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight film Midnight Cowboy an X of his own volition even after he realized the MPAA would give the film an R designation. (The MPAA later applied an R to the movie in 1971.)
4. IT WAS WELCOME AT THE ACADEMY AWARDS.
The X rating was not an impediment to critical or commercial acclaim. In 1970, Midnight Cowboy won Best Picture at the Academy Awards; Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, released in 1971, earned four Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture; Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (1972), starring Marlon Brando as a sex-obsessed American in France, got two nominations, including Brando for Best Actor.
5. THE XXX MARK MAY HAVE STEMMED FROM AN ALCOHOL DESIGNATION.
In the hyperbole of film marketing, studios and advertisers didn’t believe one X was enough. Some films, like 1968’s Starlet!, were advertised as having an unofficial XXX designation to signify it was even more intense than other adult-oriented films. The label may have come from an old practice of denoting the strength of beer with a X, XX, or XXX label.
6. PORN TOOK OVER THE RATING DUE TO AN MPAA OVERSIGHT.
A rating of X in 1969 was no big deal. By the mid-1970s, it signaled to audiences that they were about to watch an anatomy lesson. That’s because the burgeoning adult film industry of the 1970s was screening films in theaters—VHS was not yet a household acronym—and blared advertisements with promises of “XXX” salaciousness. The MPAA never reviewed these films, and titles like 1972’s Deep Throat and 1978’s Debbie Does Dallas used the mark freely. The reason? The MPAA never bothered to copyright X as it applies to film ratings, allowing anyone to use it. In short order, the X rating became synonymous with pornography and grew into a scarlet letter for films. No reputable theaters would book such movies, and few newspapers would take ads for them.
7. PEOPLE COLLECT X-RATED FILMS.
The seedy, lurid films that applied their own X (or XXX) ratings in the 1970s and 1980s have developed a small but devout following of collectors who have a “strong desire to own, preserve, and reclaim erotic history,” according to one aficionado who spoke with The New York Times in 2014. These specialists focus mostly on the 16mm and 35mm films that were produced prior to the advent of VHS.
8. ONE STUDIO SUED OVER IT.
When the MPAA gave an X rating to the 1989 Pedro Almodóvar drama Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, Miramax decided to sue, claiming such a label would harm the film financially. The studio lost the suit, but it signaled the end of the war.
In 1990, a year that saw 10 movies get slapped with an X, the MPAA overhauled the ratings system. It dropped the X in favor of NC-17, which it hoped would distance films with artistic merit from pornographic material. And this time, the pornography industry couldn't co-opt it: Learning from its past mistake, the MPAA trademarked the designation.