Censors Let Movies Push MPAA Boundaries: What Makes an R?

The MPAA (Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America) is a movie industry trade and lobby association created due to the moral atmosphere that existed in the early and mid-1900s. Production Codes were used to appease the moral right and included restrictions and cautions on such things as prostitution and violence in films, and what could be slightly allowed or not allowed at all.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

Eyes Wide Shut (1999)

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Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut stars Tom Cruise as Dr. Bill Harford, who spends a sexually-charged two nights dealing with a mysterious cult after his wife, played by Nicole Kidman, confesses to almost having an affair. The uncut version of the film has explicit scenes, including one in which cloaked figures are participating in a multiple-person pleasure party. Warner Bros. Studios had to digitally alter the scene to cover the explicit imagery since they were contractually obligated to make the film R-rated for American release in theaters and video stores.

Most films these days are rated based on their graphic content, like Eyes Wide Shut in the late ’90s. But in the past, films were black-listed for totally different reasons! Read on to see how ratings have changed and how culture has evolved to determine what is and isn’t appropriate.

Gone with the Wind (1939)

Gone with the Wind (1939)

The 1939 classic Gone with the Wind is one of the forerunners in testing the MPAA’s standards. This film had come out around the time the MPAA just came out with their Production Code, but the film’s director, Victor Fleming, was unwilling to budge when it came to censoring his masterpiece. Not only was the film full of violence and racist overtones, they also had to be wary with their childbirth scene.

But the thing that censors were really concerned about was the language! Producer David O. Selznick was adamant about keeping the famous line, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” What would the film be without it?!

The Outlaw (1943)

The Outlaw (1943)

Pat Garrett, Doc Holliday, and Billy the Kid all collide at the hands of a curvaceous young woman named Rio McDonald, who is out to avenge the death of her brother in Howard Hughes’s The Outlaw. But the only real outlaws in this film turned out to be the film’s director and producers, as they fought against the MPAA after they wanted to censor the film.

The Hays Office (who popularized the Hays Code, which is another term for the rules and regulations of film censorship) had trouble with actress Jane Russell (who played Rio McDonald) and her overwhelming amount of cleavage. Hughes didn’t deny that he purposely gave Russell’s chest more screen time than usual, but begrudgingly ended up cutting a few seconds to get the film approved.

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Elia Kazan’s film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire won four Oscars at the 1951 Academy Awards, but not before there was a bit of controversy surrounding its release. The film didn’t have as much freedom as the original play, as Kazan was forced to alter some parts of the story so that the film would be appropriate for the theater.

Character Blanche DuBois’ illicit past and mentions of her ex-husband’s homosexuality were cut. The Hays Office particularly had an issue with the scene in which Marlon Brando forces himself on Vivien Leigh, but Kazan insisted on keeping the scene as an essential part of the story. Kazan was quoted as saying, “My picture [was] cut to fit a code that is not my code.”

The Moon Is Blue (1953)

The Moon Is Blue (1953)

Director Otto Preminger’s film adaptation of F. Hugh Herbert’s successful play The Moon is Blue centers around a virtuous actress who captures the attention of a playboy architect and his older neighbor. The two men’s efforts to seduce the young woman are fruitless as she prefers to engage in conversation surrounding moral and sexual issues.

The MPAA advised Preminger that Herbert that the screenplay for the film was too explicit, citing “light and gay treatment of the subject of illicit sex and seduction,” contrary to popular belief that they only had issue with use of the words “virgin,” “mistress,” and “pregnant,” which are all in the original dialogue of the play.

The Wild One (1953)

The Wild One (1953)

Stanley Kramer produced this classic Marlon Brando film that features Brando as a rebellious leader of a delinquent motorcycle gang that wreaks havoc all over a small California town. A film depicting typical youth and teenage violence and delinquency is not so shocking by today’s standards, but in 1953 that was the number one reason as to why the MPAA was hesitant to give the film its seal of approval.

Joe Breen, who was the chief of the Production Code Administration, flagged the film’s script because he worried that it might encourage young people of the time to participate in “hoodlumism.” To comply, the filmmakers added a disclaimer to the opening credits as well as a speech towards the end of the film by an authority figure that reprimands Brando’s character for his actions.

The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)

The Man with the Golden Arm (1955)

Legendary crooner Frank Sinatra starred in this film as Frankie Machine, a card dealer and recovering addict that is released from jail and tries to make it as a big band drummer. Due to the circumstances, however, he gets pulled back into his old ways and ends up accused of a murder.

The MPAA would not approve the script for The Man with the Golden Arm due to its explicit display of drug use and drug trafficking, which was prohibited by the Hays Code at the time. Despite this, director Otto Preminger went around the censors once more and released the film to theaters anyway. After the film turned out to be a huge success, the Hollywood production code was seriously reevaluated and by 1956, The Hayes Office loosened its policy on drug use in movies.

Some Like It Hot (1959)

Some Like It Hot (1959)

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Billy Wilder’s classic romantic comedy stars Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon as a saxophone player and a double-bass player, respectively, who disguise themselves as women to join an all-female band in order to escape altercations with the Mob. Along the way, they meet Sugar—played by Marilyn Monroe—and must learn to inhibit themselves from making moves on her so that they don’t blow their covers.

The hilarious flick is rampant with innuendo, references to homosexuality, and of course, a scantily clad Marilyn Monroe. But in order to surpass censorship, Wilder purposefully refrained from submitting copies of the script to the Hayes Office before he showed it to members of the press. After positive reviews, the MPAA had no choice but to give it a seal approval to avoid a public dispute.

Psycho (1960)

Psycho (1960)

Arguably one of Alfred Hitchcock’s best films, Psycho recounts the story of a young woman who steals $40,000 from her employer and attempts to take it across state lines. Along the way, she stays at the Bates Motel and falls victim to a brutal murder. Hitchcock was always prone to pushing boundaries with his films, leading the MPAA to be concerned about a scene showing Janet Leigh in her underwear and the infamous shower stabbing scene. It was Hitchcock’s intent to invoke such a disturbed response.

According to History.com, “[Hitchcock] deliberately inserted overly graphic violence and nudity into his rough cut to give himself bargaining power. After pretending to fight for the more extreme material, the director agreed to ‘settle’ for the very shots he had wanted all along. As part of another ruse, Hitchcock volunteered to reshoot the underwear scene on the condition that the Hays officials join him on set to give advice. When the censors didn’t show up, the sequence stayed.”

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s sci-fi thriller novel takes us to a new era of cinema. The film depicts a teenager, who lacks morality and sense of decency as he sets out on a violent crime spree. After being sentenced to prison, he volunteers himself to undergo aversion therapy with the intention of being cured of his immoral ways.

The film was a huge success and was even nominated for four Academy Awards, but its content was hugely controversial. On its original release in 1972, it was rated X, causing Kubrick to voluntarily replace sexually explicit footage with safer imagery for an R rating. Kubrick requested that Warner Bros. pull the British release entirely, saying that “to try to fasten any responsibility on art as the cause of life seems to me to put the case the wrong way around,” after he was blamed for causing teenage crime in the U.K.

Basic Instinct (1992)

Basic Instinct (1992)

Paul Verhoeven directed this neo-noir erotic thriller starring Michael Douglas and Sharon Stone. The film is abundant with overt sexual overtones and even features a scene in which Stone’s character, who is being interrogated by police, flashes her bare nether regions to authorities. Stone claims that she wasn’t aware that that scene was filmed.

The film was originally given an NC-17 rating but TriStar pressured Verhoeven to cut some scenes to gain an R rating. Verhoeven told The New York Times in 1992, “Actually, I didn’t have to cut many things, but I replaced things from different angles, made it a little more elliptical, a bit less direct.”

Boys Don’t Cry (1999)

Boys Don’t Cry (1999)

Actress Hillary Swank made a name for herself in the lead role of Kimberly Pierce’s biographical drama about a trans man named Brandon Teena, who tries to find himself while navigating love in small town Nebraska. The film features a traumatizing scene in which Brandon is taken advantage of and also a scene in which he is pleasuring Chloë Sevigny’s character.

With two graphic scenes depicting rape, the film was originally assigned an NC-17 rating by the MPAA, causing Pierce to tone down some parts of the film for an R rating to be released in theaters. Pierce was reportedly distressed by the MPAA, who apparently had an issue with the sex scene between Swank and Sevigny, but turned a blind eye to a brutal murder scene.

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)

South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999)

Comedy Central’s raunchy animated series South Park got the big-screen treatment when creator Trey Parker unleashed South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut in 1999. The film depicts Stan, Kyle, Eric, and Kenny sneaking into a Canadian-made R-rated movie and subsequently adopting the film’s foul language. Their mothers wage war on Canada for “corrupting their children.”

Trey Parker went to war with the MPAA after they wanted to update the movie’s R-rating to NC-17. After numerous back and forth, the film was still released with an R rating. Parker told The New York Times that, “The ratings board only cared about the dirty words; they’re so confused and arbitrary. They didn’t blink twice because of violence… They had a problem with words, not bullets.” Not only does the cartoon flick feature bullets being shot at soldiers, but it is rampant with explicit language.

American Pie (1999)

American Pie (1999)

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Classic teen sex comedy American Pie stars Jason Biggs as Jim, an awkward teen who vows to lose his virginity before graduating high school. Based off of the film’s plot, there are obvious sexually explicit scenes, including the hilariously iconic one in which Biggs’s character shares an intimate moment with a pie.

Not surprising is the MPAA’s original intent to rate the film NC-17, just because of Biggs’s pie scene in particular. They were apparently okay with the naughty language and the other sexually explicit scenes. In order to get an R rating, the filmmakers had to cut the pie scene by a few seconds.

Team America: World Police (2004)

Team America: World Police (2004)

After the drama they went through to create South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, Trey Parker and producer Matt Stone swore they wouldn’t make another movie. But that declaration soon went out the window when they had the idea to create an homage to action movies using marionette puppets.

The puppets are seen in a series of crude behavior and foul language, which is why the MPAA viewed the film nine different times, sending it back to the filmmakers with an NC-17 rating. After they cut a few seconds, the MPAA finally granted Team America: World Police an R rating for “graphic, crude, and sexual humor, violent images, and strong language.”

Blue Valentine (2010)

Blue Valentine (2010)

Blue Valentine features Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in a romantic drama about a couple’s relationship from courtship to the dissolution of their marriage. While the film itself doesn’t necessarily contain anything considered vulgar by nature, it was pegged for a scene in which Gosling’s character is delivering pleasure to Williams’s character. It is for this reason only that the MPAA originally wanted to rate the film NC-17.

Ryan Gosling accused the MPAA of being sexist, saying, “There’s plenty of oral sex scenes in a lot of movies, where it’s a man receiving it from a woman – and they’re R-rated. Ours is reversed and somehow it’s perceived as pornographic.” As a result, the film’s distributor, The Weinstein Company, disputed the rating and after a successful appeal, the rating was brought down to an R.

Afternoon Delight (2013)

Afternoon Delight (2013)

Afternoon Delight features Kathryn Hahn, who plays a stay-at-home mom frustrated with her life and the fact that for months she hasn’t been intimate with her husband, played by Josh Radnor. They decide to spice things up by visiting a strip club, where Hahn’s character meets a 19-year-old sex worker, played by Juno Temple, and decides to take her into her home.

Director Jill Soloway had trouble with the MPAA, who wanted to rate the film NC-17 due to its sexually explicit nature. However, Soloway had a contract with her distributor to rate the film R and had to cut some scenes. When the MPAA returned the film saying it was “too sexually intense,” Soloway took that to mean that it was “about the sexual agency of female characters. The scene portrays two women in a sexual situation connecting emotionally with one another. That might be what was ‘uncomfortable’ for the MPAA. It’s infuriating, to encounter this editing-down after pushing through many doors to get this movie made,” she told Flavorwire.

Charlie Countryman (2013)

Charlie Countryman (2013)

After the death of his mother, Charlie Countryman (Shia LaBeouf) is compelled to travel to Bucharest, where he meets Gabi (Evan Rachel Wood) with whom he falls in love but cannot pursue because of her violent past. There is explicit nudity and sexuality portrayed in the film, which is why the MPAA rated it R.

However, actress Evan Rachel Wood was dismayed after seeing that the film had cut one of her scenes in which her character was on the receiving end of a sexual act. She ranted on Twitter: “After seeing the new cut of #CharlieCountryman I would like 2 share my disappointment with the MPAA, who thought it was necessary to censor a womans sexuality once again. The scene where the two main characters make “love” was altered because someone felt that seeing a man give a woman oral sex made people “uncomfortable” but the scenes in which people are murdered by having their heads blown off remained intact and unaltered.”

Bachelor Night (2014)

Bachelor Night (2014)

Bachelor Night is a comedy film about a bachelorette party and a bachelor party that cross paths in Vegas, leaving the best man and the maid of honor to try to save their friends from making “mistakes.” The film which is overtly sexual given the plot even features a consensual “agreement” between the bachelor and bachelorette.

The film made it past movie censors (or probably just went over them) as it is currently “Unrated” by American standards. Bachelor Night, of course, features frequent nudity, foul and dirty language, and sexually explicit scenes. Usually, unrated films don’t make it to theaters these days, primarily for the fact that they are considered way too inappropriate.

Cam Girl (2014)

Cam Girl (2014)

Cam Girl is a comedic drama about a woman who loses her job and realizes she can profit from “modeling” on the Internet. Thus, her and her friends start a sexy webcam site much to the dismay of their families.

The film is, for the most part, unrated and slipped past the MPAA and Netflix censoring. But how? Apparently, this movie has more of a B film (low-budget) quality to it, meaning that it probably wasn’t meant to be released theatrically, nor meant to be seen by a wide audience. Films like these forgo censorship, but does that mean they aren’t considered legitimate films either?