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JACK MATHEWS

Henry Miller Meets the MPAA : Movies: Philip Kaufman's very adult 'Henry & June,' a tale of the controversial author's days in Paris, apparently is the latest recipient of the dreaded X rating. Its U.S. release is in limbo.

August 27, 1990|JACK MATHEWS

The humidity inside the screening room at the Motion Picture Assn. of America's headquarters in Sherman Oaks must have reached tropical hothouse levels when the movie ratings board members assembled recently to view Philip Kaufman's "Henry & June." If the sexual content in "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!" put beads of sweat on their furrowed brows, this one might have caused a complete meltdown.

"Henry & June" is a sensual, faithful adaptation of poet-novelist Anais Nin's diary account of her love affair with writer Henry Miller and her obsession with Miller's wife, June, in liberated Left Bank Paris in the early '30s. It is an intimate portrayal of a woman's sexual awakening, and among the movie's copious but tastefully-composed images are three scenes of lesbianism.

The question--now that I've got your attention--is whether you will ever know the troubles the MPAA censors have seen. "Henry & June," probably the most intellectually sexy movie since "Last Tango in Paris," has apparently become the latest recipient of the MPAA's dreaded X. Because of the booking and advertising problems, Universal Pictures--the film's distributor--will not release an X-rated movie.

Kaufman acknowledged that his contract with Universal contains an "R clause," meaning that if he doesn't edit the film for an R rating, he will lose his final cut privilege and the studio will take over.

In a phone interview from his home in San Francisco, Kaufman said that the ratings board has given him a list of five scenes that need to be altered for an R, including one brief glimpse of an erotic Japanese postcard that shows a woman in the amorous embrace of an octopus.

"That drawing is a hundred years old and in all the art books," Kaufman said. "I can't imagine who it's going to excite unless there's a 17-year-old octopus in the audience."

Kaufman, whose "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" managed to get an R despite its strong sexual content, said that Universal will appeal the X rating on "Henry & June" after the film has its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival on Sept. 14. The movie, which stars Fred Ward as Miller, Maria de Madeiros as Nin and Uma Thurman as June, will open in late September in various enlightened European countries, but its U.S. release is in limbo.

As is often the case these days, the appeal for "Henry & June" will evade the real issue. Kaufman's quarrel with the rating is not the adults-only category, but the skull and crossbones X that goes with it.

"This is certainly meant to be an adult movie," he said, "but given the situation, there really isn't an adult rating."

Kaufman said that the film is faithful to the approved script and that Universal President Tom Pollock has been supportive of him all the way. He said there was even talk of releasing two versions--an X-rated version for certain urban markets, an R-rated version for others--but the MPAA will not go along with double-ratings.

MPAA President Jack Valenti and Richard Heffner, who runs the rating board, were not available for comment.

"Henry & June" could be the movie that forces the MPAA to create a viable adults-only rating. Most of the recent victims of the poisoned X have been relatively powerless independent filmmakers. Universal is one of the Big Boys, one of the MPAA's charter members; if Pollock were to call for a rating change--either a new designation for the current X, or the insertion of a new adult rating between R and X--Valenti would have to listen.

But (possible cut here) even while Universal publicists were eagerly arranging a screening of "Henry & June" and an interview with Kaufman, (possible cut ends) Pollock was refusing to comment. Instead, the studio issued a statement saying: "Philip Kaufman has agreed to deliver an R-rated film and we support him in his efforts to gain that rating." I haven't seen that kind of support since the townsfolk lit out and let Gary Cooper walk alone in "High Noon."

Some industry sources believe that Valenti hasn't corrected the X glitch in his rating system because the major studios for whom he works like it the way it is. The X designation and the consequent "R clause" give them control over filmmakers who work at the outer edge of the spectrum. Unlike novelists, filmmakers are patron-system artists, and Universal, Kaufman's patron on "Henry & June," isn't apt to risk its power for the sake of his.

The ironies here abound. Henry Miller, who died in 1980 at the age of 89, is probably the most important 20th-Century figure in the battle against literary censorship, and nearly 50 years after he wrote the long-banned "Tropic of Cancer," the first film to deal with him in an honest way is facing a ban of its own.

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