For a columnist looking for an ax to grind, the Motion Picture Association of America is the gift that keeps on giving.
This time, the MPAA’s ratings board has slapped Oscar-winning director Ang Lee’s latest film with the dreaded NC-17. That will keep out anyone under the age of 17, even with a parent or guardian in tow, and limit the movie’s promotion and distribution.
The film, titled “Lust, Caution,” is Lee’s follow-up to “Brokeback Mountain,” for which he received the 2006 Academy Award for Best Director.
Set during World War II in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, China, “Lust, Caution” is the story of a young Chinese woman, played by newcomer Wei Tang, who seduces an enemy collaborator (Tony Leung of “Hero” and “In the Mood for Love”).
According to a story last week in The Hollywood Reporter, “A source said too many of the film’s sex scenes violated the ratings board’s unwritten rules (like the number of allowable pelvic thrusts, for example),” making an appeal of the NC-17 rating impossible.
Lee’s studio is standing behind him, insisting that “Lust, Caution” will be released as is, with no cuts. But Lee is one of the lucky few in Hollywood with enough clout to get an NC-17-rated film released.
In a town where you’re only as good as your last film, Lee is fortunate this controversy erupted after “Brokeback Mountain” instead of “Hulk.” (I am one of the few critics who will defend Lee’s superheroic bomb.)
Lee’s recently bestowed Oscar helps. So does the fact that the head of Focus Features, which is releasing “Lust, Caution,” is Lee’s longtime collaborator and co-producer James Schamus.
Schamus co-wrote “Lust, Caution,” as well as several of Lee’s previous films, including “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Hulk” and “The Ice Storm.”
Focus Features cannot release “Lust, Caution” without a rating because Focus is a subsidiary of Universal Pictures, which is an MPAA member studio. To Universal’s credit, it isn’t putting up a fight against Schamus’ decision to press on, even with the NC-17. I doubt anyone at Universal is eager to upset one of the studio’s most honored filmmakers.
The 2006 documentary “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” makes a big deal about the MPAA’s double standard when it comes to rating independent films versus studio films, with studio films often getting more leeway. It pays to actually be a member of the club.
But as the case of “Lust, Caution” illustrates, even major studios and their subsidiaries can fall prey to the MPAA’s secretive, idiosyncratic and often maddening ratings process.
Graphic violence might earn a film an R rating. But if a movie shows people enjoying sex too much, it runs the risk of getting lumped in with pornography.
The MPAA introduced the NC-17 rating in 1990 as a replacement for the X rating, but the stigma associated with the old X label remained. As far as many theater owners were concerned, “Henry & June” might as well be “Behind the Green Door.”
The only NC-17 film that so far has received a wide theatrical release is “Showgirls,” but as one of Hollywood’s most notorious bombs, it didn’t do much for the rating’s legitimacy.
The handful of NC-17 films that open in theaters must settle with limited release, even if they star name actors like Ewan McGregor of 2003’s “Young Adam.”
If anything good comes of this latest controversy, it’ll be that a director of Ang Lee’s status will finally do something to remove some of the stigma that clings to the NC-17 rating.
With most real pornography now on home video and the Internet, there is no reason why legitimate films that happen to run afoul of the MPAA’s ratings system should have to suffer.