Madonna, who's notorious for pushing the limits of acceptable sexuality onstage and in music videos, now is the central player in a new movie that may test the economic limitations of the film industry's controversial NC-17, adults-only rating.
The movie is "Body of Evidence," an erotic thriller. Its contents, apparently, are so sexually explicit that the ratings board of the Motion Picture Assn. of America last week slapped it with the NC-17 label, meaning no one under age 17 can see it.
In "Body of Evidence," which also stars Willem Dafoe, Madonna plays a woman on trial for the murder of her lover, an elderly man who dies while the two are having sex. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer plans to release the feature-length film in January.
That Madonna should be at the center of this debate should not be a surprise. Her documentary "Truth or Dare" from last year was rated R for strong sexual language and situations. She's currently working with fashion photographer Steven Meisel on a book of erotic photos, and her upcoming album is titled "Erotica."
But a movie rated NC-17 is something else again. The restrictive rating poses severe commercial limitations for any movie that attempts to enter the marketplace with it. In fact, only one major studio movie has attempted to enter the market with an NC-17 in the two years since the film industry began using the copyrighted label instead of the non-copyrighted, widely used X rating. The hope was that NC-17 would create a distinction between what is adults-only fare and what is an outright hard-core sex film.
However while the NC-17 rating serves notice about a film's suitability for children, its commercial reality has been virtually untested. Many believe that the NC-17 is akin to an X because most major media outlets say they won't accept advertising for such films, some movie chains will not show them and some video stores will not stock them.
As a result, filmmakers faced with an NC-17 rating usually make whatever cuts are necessary to obtain the more commercially desirable R rating--which means that anyone under 17 can see the film if accompanied by an adult.
But Steven Deutsch, executive producer of "Body of Evidence" and the head of production for Dino De Laurentiis Communications, said the producers and director Uli Edel are "not anxious" to make changes.
"We have no quarrel with the rating board. We understand why they gave it the rating. The question we are now asking ourselves is, 'Do we want to change it?' " Deutsch said.
He declined to be specific on what situations are considered objectionable. But he said that the scenes involved are clearly sexual, "not violent," and that the film "is no 'Basic Instinct,' " a reference to the sexual thriller earlier this year that originally received an NC-17 rating but was cut to meet the guidelines for an R.
Deutsch acknowledged that the tough decision will come after the filmmakers spend time considering the economic implications. Only Universal Pictures' 1990 release of director Philip Kaufman's "Henry & June" has previously tested the waters, and it was not a major commercial hit. It did, however, win fairly strong critical approval for its frank and explicit depiction of the menage a trois involving Henry and June Miller and Anais Nin in Paris during the 1920s.
Deutsch said the big difference this time around is that "Body of Evidence" is "the first major studio film with a major star in it. No film has ever gone out (as a work rated NC-17) with the most famous woman in the world as its star."