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A 'Bliss'-Less Rating Game

Trying to get his NC-17-rated erotic drama down to an R held little joy for director Lance Young.

June 08, 1997|Scott Collins | Scott Collins is an occasional contributor to Calendar

The Motion Picture Assn. of America says that its NC-17 rating indicates "patently adult" content. But the director of a sexually charged new movie discovered that the rating can mean something else as well: an unadulterated headache.

Lance Young, a 37-year-old former studio executive, has spent much of the past year tussling with the MPAA over the rating for his directorial debut, "Bliss," a $5.5-million erotic drama released by Triumph Films, a soon-to-be-defunct arm of Sony Pictures. The picture, which stars Craig Sheffer, Sheryl Lee and Terence Stamp, finally opened Friday.

Sheffer and Lee play a maritally troubled couple whose problems worsen when he discovers she's been seeing a sex therapist (Stamp) who believes that to cure her he must sleep with her.

Young says he submitted different versions of the film to the MPAA ratings board 11 times--and each time the board returned with an NC-17 rating. This meant that, in the opinion of the board members, the film contained patently adult material and therefore children under 17 could not be admitted.

But it also means that Young had a problem, for Sony and most other studios will not release NC-17 movies. As he waged a long campaign to win a less-stigmatized R rating--including arguing his case, unsuccessfully, before a special appeals board--the director grew increasingly frustrated by a process he saw as "deceptive" and "irrational."

"One of the board members asked me, 'Would you say that your film is suitable for a 10-year-old girl?' " Young says. "That's ridiculous. Ninety percent of R-rated movies aren't suitable for children, including 'Pulp Fiction,' which dramatizes sodomy, and 'Casino,' which shows someone getting their brains beaten out with a baseball bat on screen."

Yet only after Sony hired a new editor to trim two love scenes--a decision Young believes mars the film artistically--did the board relent and grant "Bliss" an R rating. (A Triumph source confirmed most details of Young's account but declined to comment, citing the company's pending closure; Sony spokesman Ed Russell said, "Though we disagree that the film's original cut merited an NC-17 rating, as a member of the MPAA we abide by the committee's decision.")

MPAA spokeswoman Barbara Dixon says the board does not comment publicly about ratings decisions. But she noted that "Bliss" finally received its R rating in April "for graphic sex scenes with strong sex-related dialogue and for language."

While ratings battles are nothing new, Young's case highlights what many in Hollywood consider the problem with NC-17, which was devised in 1990 to replace the old X rating. Although a small number of films have been released as NC-17--including the literary period piece "Henry & June" in 1990 and MGM's heavily publicized "Showgirls" in 1995--the rating is off-limits to most mainstream filmmakers.

MPAA Chairman Jack Valenti has stressed that NC-17 does not necessarily indicate obscene or pornographic content (those "are legal terms and for courts to decide," he has said), but that distinction has evidently been lost on much of the public. Some theater chains will not book NC-17 movies, and certain newspapers have refused ads for such films. Blockbuster, the nation's largest video retailer, will stock only bowdlerized versions of NC-17 films such as "Showgirls."

"Bliss" producer Allyn Stewart speculates that continuing battles over TV content have made the MPAA more sensitive than ever to the issue of ratings. But she finds a paradox within the current system.

"The MPAA is meant to be set up and run by the studios," she says. "But here's a rating [NC-17] the studios quite clearly do not accept."

Furthermore, she says, filmmakers can't count on much guidance from the association, which sees its role as providing content information to parents and not dictating standards to filmmakers.

"The MPAA is very careful not to give definitive answers" about ratings, she says. As a result, "there's a huge problem defining what is an NC-17 movie."

The result, Young argues, amounts to de facto censorship. To avoid an NC-17, filmmakers either eschew the most graphic sex or violence--or else manipulate the system by sacrificing deliberately provocative scenes in the early rounds, hoping that slightly less risque material will look mild by comparison and pass muster with the board, he says.

Of course, not everyone hates the NC-17. Miramax Co-Chairman Harvey Weinstein, whose Disney subsidiary is not bound by many of the rules affecting major studios, has even acknowledged using the rating as a selling point for certain films, such as Larry Clark's "Kids" in 1995.

"We've told Jack Valenti that we owe him a third [of the company]," Weinstein joked to Rolling Stone recently. (A Miramax spokeswoman said Weinstein was unavailable for further comment.)

Young believes that the MPAA could solve many ratings problems through better marketing: "They should publicize NC-17 to mean exactly what it says it means," he says, and encourage the public to treat the rating as something other than a synonym for pornography.

Even so, Young, who formerly worked as an executive at Warner Bros. and Paramount, doesn't think the ratings battle has seriously damaged either "Bliss" or his incipient directing career.

"I don't feel like a victim," he says, adding: "I think people respect someone who fights as best he can for what he believes in."

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