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17 Films Rated NC-17: Did They Deserve The 'Certificate Of Doom'?

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist October 24, 2013 at 4:01PM

So with its super-long and undeniably graphic sex scene, among other explicit moments, “Blue is the Warmest Color,” which is released this week, was always going to get slapped with an NC-17 rating in the U.S. But unlike many other films in a similar situation, its unassailable position as a near-universally lauded (our own review is here) Cannes Palme d’Or winner has placed the idea of cuts being made for the U.S. market out of the question. For which we heave a sigh of relief, of course: better for us that the film is released, with whatever certification, uncut, than we get some kind of hacked up version that scrapes an R. Still, it’s a debate that surrounds the inevitably controversial rating ever since it was introduced to replace the old X certificate, with an NC-17 assessment being regarded by many as, basically, the kiss of box-office death for anything but the most buzzed-about film. It carries with it not only the automatic reduction of the potential audience by exactly that segment of the population most likely to go to the theater, but also distribution woes that range from certain cinemas refusing to screen NC-17s, to certain video stores refusing to stock the DVDs.
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Showgirls Kiss

"Showgirls" (1995)
What's It About? Nomi ("Saved by the Bell" icon Elizabeth Berkley) is a young woman with big dreams: to become a Las Vegas showgirl. (Has this ever been anyone's dream?) Unfortunately, she's stuck working at a seedy strip club instead. Still, this is the story of the American dream, and soon she becomes the protégé (and eventual successor) of a diva showgirl played by Gina Gershon. Other adventures include her getting violently fucked in a swimming pool by the guy who played FBI Agent Dale Cooper and mispronouncing the word "Versace."
Why Did It Get The Rating? Public opinion at the time had the staggering amount of nudity as the chief reason "Showgirls" was saddled with an NC-17 rating (at the time it was the most expensive and lavishly marketed film to carry such a rating; to date it's the highest grossing NC-17 rated movie). There is also a fair amount of sex, but nothing even remotely approaching penetration. In fact, comparing the NC-17 version to the R-rated cut (that was released on home video and for television markets) shows that simulated masturbation was a huge concern, with whole sequences reframed to delete the suggestion of masturbation or anal play. There is also a pretty violent rape.
Did It Deserve Its NC-17? Absolutely not. There is more shocking stuff on pay cable than in "Showgirls," with the amount of violence, nudity, and rape regularly eclipsed on any given episode of "Game of Thrones." One of the things that remains at least somewhat shocking is Berkley's pubic hair (or lack thereof); in the years since a shaved pubic region has remained a taboo that can tip an R-rated movie into NC-17 rated territory. In the commentary track for "Piranha 3D," director Alexandre Aja feared the wrath of the MPAA not because of the movie's envelope-pushing violence but because costars Kelly Brook and Riley Steele "shave in between their legs."
How Good Is It? "Showgirls" isn't a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it has reached that rarified air of the so-bad-it's-good movie and remains an enduring cult classic, best watched after midnight and after several beers have been ceremoniously downed. [B]

The Cook The Thief His Wife And Her Lover

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover” (1989)
What's It About? An obnoxious gangster, or the titular ‘Thief’, played by a quite puffy Michael Gambon, takes over a fancy, surreal restaurant run by ‘the Cook’ (Richard Bohringer). Gambon shows up every night to engorge himself, and to disrespect and alienate the staff and customers, and partake in all manner of douchebaggery. Beyond his crew (including a young Tim Roth), he’s joined by his ‘Wife’, a ravishing Helen Mirren, trapped in a sadistic loveless marriage. When ‘Her Lover’ (Alan Howard), a bookish gentleman who eats alone, catches her eye at the restaurant, they partake in a series of trysts in different, progressively yuckier places. 
Why Did It Get The Rating? The usual MPAA no-nos: lots of sex and nudity (both male and female), but there’s also a general nasty tone to all the proceedings, and that ending...well, you should see for yourself.
Did It Deserve Its NC-17? It’s a fair rating, given some of the crazy shit that goes down. When it was released in theaters, Miramax went with unrated to avoid the stigma of the X rating, which was associated with porn at that time. Its VHS release in the ‘90s featured an R-rated version almost 30 minutes shorter, of which we’d ask: why bother?
How Good Is It? Pretty goddamn good, a truly singular piece of work by Brit Peter Greenaway, known for his challenging arthouse films. The set where most the film takes place changes with different sequences (stark, near-monochromatic color variations. Think “Hero” but with grotesque sex instead of fight scenes) and the camera glides through it all in long takes in perfect synch with Michael Nyman’s gorgeous score. There’s a lot of ugliness amidst all the beauty, but the payoff is worth it. [A-]

Bad Education

"Bad Education" (2004)
What's It About? Spanish director Pedro Almodovar has had a number of his films given the scarlet letter of the NC-17 rating, mostly having to do with his love of splashy sex and equally splashy violence. "Bad Education" is his most recent run-in with ratings board condemnation. It's the story of a pair of childhood friends (one of whom is played by Gael Garcia Bernal), who reunite and get involved in an endlessly knotty relationship involving gay sex, stalking, and eventually murder. Yes, it is quite juicy.
Why Did It Get The Rating? According to the MPAA's official ruling the film received an NC-17 for "a scene of explicit sexual content." When the movie was edited for an R, their ruling changed to "strong sexual content throughout, language, and some drug use." Instead of being trimmed out completely, the sequence in question (of a gay blowjob) is obscured as to render the scene totally powerless, like the cloaked figures standing in the way of the occultish sex in "Eyes Wide Shut."
Did It Deserve Its NC-17? No, absolutely not. There are undoubtedly countless instances of straight oral sex (or female-on-female oral sex) that have skimmed by without incident. And, again, there is much more outrageous stuff on pay cable these days. Comparably, Almodovar's recent, horror-tinged "The Skin I Live In" is way more worthy of the super-naughty rating, but skated by with an R, maybe because a greater portion of the sex was heterosexual and not gay.
How Good Is It? "Bad Education" is really wonderful and so, so entertaining, sort of like Almodovar doing Brian De Palma doing Alfred Hitchcock. It's a shame that its restrictive rating kept more people from seeing it, since it's such a blast. [A-]

Lust Caution

"Lust, Caution" (2007)
What's It About? Ang Lee's adaptation of the beloved 1979 novella follows a group of college-aged Chinese dissidents who plot to assassinate a member of the political ruling class (who at the time were a puppet government, occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army). Of course, things get sticky when one of the college kids falls in love with their intended target (played by Tony Leung). Most of "Lust, Caution" plays like a sweeping historical romance, with an above average amount of sex, but because of its NC-17 rating, it hardly played anywhere, despite all of its press.
Why Did It Get The Rating? There are two reasons why the movie was burdened with an NC-17: sex and violence. The sex is pretty hot and heavy, with plenty of pubic hair and sweaty thrusting and the violence is even more intense, depicting the true difficulty of murdering another human being (fountains of blood and all).
Did It Deserve Its NC-17? Not really. The sex is somewhat more graphic than you'd expect in this kind of movie, but nowhere near the shocking levels that should warrant an NC-17. The violence, too, is pretty extreme, along the lines of an early Paul Verhoeven movie (or something), but compared to the average Hollywood action movie, in which countless innocent people are atomized without a single drop of on-screen blood, it feels more real and necessary. In "Lust, Caution," you feel the pain of murder. And that says a lot.
How Good Is It? While no one will mistake "Lust, Caution" for top tier Ang Lee fare, it's still well worth watching, a frequently compelling, gorgeously acted and lushly photographed romantic thriller. It's a shame that its rating kept people from seeing it, although at least there was an unedited home video version, so you can see it in all of its filthy glory. [B+]

This article is related to: Features, Feature, Blue is the Warmest Color


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