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The X Rating Gets Its Day in Court : Movies: William Kunstler will argue today that the X for 'Tie Me Up!' violates New York law. The MPAA counters that its system thwarts government censorship.

June 21, 1990|SEAN MITCHELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For 22 years, the Motion Picture Assn. of America has weathered assaults leveled by filmmakers and critics against its movie ratings system. Today, the MPAA will meet one of its opponents face-to-face in a New York courtroom in a case that could determine the fate of the controversial adults-only X rating.

Famed civil rights attorney William Kunstler will appear before New York Supreme Court Judge Charles Ramos to argue that in assigning Pedro Almodovar's "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" an X rating, the MPAA violated Article 78 of New York state civil law, which prohibits public or private organizations from applying standards "arbitrarily or capriciously."

Ramos will get an earful--and an eyeful. Kunstler intends to show excerpts from half a dozen or more R-rated films whose content, he says, is more graphic than the offending scene in "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" Miramax's suit is only the third ever brought against the MPAA ratings system, a fact that Kunstler attributes to long-held fears of the ratings board's power.

"Everyone's afraid of it," Kunstler said. "But I think there is gross dissatisfaction with the ratings system. It's a private preserve."

The MPAA has requested a dismissal of the suit on the grounds that it asks the New York courts to determine what rating a film should receive. "The heart of the Miramax case is its demand for the creation and imposition of a state-sponsored movie rating system," said MPAA counsel Floyd Abrams in a statement released Tuesday, arguing that such a system is inconsistent with New York law as well as the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Ratings system history is laced with controversy, but a string of X ratings given to the independent films "Tie Me Up!," "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover" and "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" (also the basis of a lawsuit, filed by Maljack Prod., in Washington) prompted the strongest outcry yet and helped Kunstler persuade Miramax to sue the MPAA.

More than the X is under attack. Prominent directors, critics and influential publications have called for a complete reappraisal of the ratings system and fingers have been pointed at both MPAA president Jack Valenti, for his obstinate stance against change, and to Richard D. Heffner, for his style as chairman of the MPAA's Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA).

Amid rising cries in parts of the country for enforcement of dormant obscenity laws as they apply to art exhibitions and stage performances, the controversy over the X movie rating has awakened fears in Hollywood that the ratings board, too, has become more conservative.

"No, it has not become more conservative," responded Valenti, who designed the current ratings system in 1968, shortly after becoming MPAA president. "There is no furor except that which has been created by four or five pictures and their publicity wizards."

Valenti said the MPAA, the primary trade organization of the eight largest Hollywood studios, is not considering a new A rating (designating adults only) between X and R, as has been called for by the National Society of Film Critics and others. "There are no plans to add a sixth rating," Valenti said in an interview with The Times. "The ratings system is very fragile and you can weigh it down with alphabetic chaos."

The current five ratings, intended as national guidelines for parents, are G, PG, PG-13, R and X. The X, intended initially to restrict attendance to persons 18 and over and once assigned to such prestigious films as "Midnight Cowboy" and "Last Tango in Paris," was long ago borrowed as a badge of salaciousness by pornographers. As a result, for more than a decade no major studio and few independents have been willing to release an X-rated movie. Most newspapers, television and radio stations will not carry advertising for X-rated films and many theaters will not play them.

Heffner, whom some directors accuse of wielding the X like a sword of Damocles, has served as chairman of CARA since being appointed by Valenti in 1974. Heffner is by some accounts "the least-known most powerful person in Hollywood," but his job is an embattled one, buffeted on one side by angry filmmakers who view him as a meddling censor and on another by citizens' groups who claim he and the board are too soft on violence and sex.

Heffner, 65, is a professor of communications and public policy at Rutgers University and once general manager of public television station WNET in New York. He has been a member of the board of directors of the American Civil Liberties Union, an advocate of adventurous films and an ardent defender of the First Amendment, all of which cast him as an unlikely censor. In fact, he abhors the term.

"He's far from being a prude. He's a very liberal man," asserted one former CARA voting member who asked not to be identified. Heffner, she said, "pounded into (board members) not to be to harsh. He told me to lighten up."

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