Movies | April 25, 2020 8:00 am

Inside the Complex History of the NC-17 Rating

It didn't quite make cinematic history

"Shame" - Paris Premiere
Steve McQueen, Nicole Beharie and Michael Fassbender attends the "Shame" Paris premiere at Mk2 Bibliotheque on November 22, 2011.
Franck Prevel/WireImage

What happens when a critically acclaimed film is deemed too extreme or too explicit for an R rating? That was a dilemma faced by many a film distributor in the 1980s and 1990s — a time when a certain group of arthouse films was considered too intense for an R, but which also didn’t exactly mesh with the X rating — which had, by then, become associated with porn.

It was out of this debate that the NC-17 rating emerged, becoming part of the cinematic landscape in 1990. Notable films that have been rated NC-17 include ShameShowgirls and Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education. In a new article for The Ringer, Keith Phipps explores the history of NC-17. While it’s been an enduring presence in the American film world since then, it didn’t usher in a new era of filmmaking for mature audiences.

As Phipps writes, existing social mores prompted the new rating to have less of an impact than expected. “The promise of the NC-17 rating faded not long after its introduction,” he notes. “While NC-17 might have sounded more respectable, it still limited a film’s audience and cut into its post-theatrical life.” This included Blockbuster Video — ubiquitous at the time for those who wanted to rent movies — which wouldn’t carry any films with ratings stronger than an R.

The NC-17 films that are well-remembered, Phipps contends, are those that would likely have been cult hits anyway:

Two 1992 films capture the divide: Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant played the art houses it would play anyway with an NC-17 rating; Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct played widely after making just enough cuts to somehow squeak by with an R.

The article makes for a fascinating look into an attempt to shift filmmaking culture — and how it both did and didn’t live up to its promise.

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