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De Palma in a New Ratings Struggle

Movies: The director, who is contractually obligated to deliver a PG-13 rating for his upcoming 'Snake Eyes,' is protesting the R assigned to the film.

July 17, 1998|ERIC HARRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Brian De Palma, the film director whose explicitly violent and erotic movies frequently ran afoul of the Motion Picture Assn. of America in the 1970s and early '80s, is battling the MPAA again--this time over a relatively tame political thriller that contains no nudity, no power saws, not even a bloody straight-edged razor.

"Snake Eyes," which stars Nicolas Cage and Gary Sinise, has been given an R rating on the basis of language and violence. Now the movie director, whose films once were routinely threatened with X ratings, is angry and vowing to appeal because he didn't get a PG-13.

"This is outrageous," said De Palma, whose film is scheduled to be released by Paramount on Aug. 7. Complaining that the ratings board is going too far, he said the cuts required for a PG-13 rating would damage the movie.

He is contractually obligated to Paramount to deliver a film with a PG-13 rating.

"We want the film to be a PG-13," Robert Friedman, vice chairman of Paramount's motion picture group, said Thursday. Calling the film "on the borderline" between R and PG-13, he said, "We're really talking about nothing--we're talking about a punch and one use of [a four-letter expletive]."

De Palma said Paramount is not supporting his decision to appeal the R rating, preferring that he make the necessary cuts, which he refuses to do.

"If we're not supporting it, then why have I been making rather high-level calls in an effort to speed up the process?" Friedman asked. He said he was concerned, however, that people would get the impression that "Snake Eyes" is an extremely violent, bloody film.

On a film this close to meeting PG-13 standards, "we'd rather go with a PG-13 because it broadens the audience base," he said.

An R rating would restrict it to viewers 17 and older and potentially cut into profits.

Jack Valenti, chairman of the MPAA, could not be reached Thursday, and a spokesman for the association declined to discuss specifics.

De Palma said the board objected to him using a certain expletive twice in the film and deemed one scene in which Cage receives a gruesome beating too excessive for a PG-13 rating.

After the board first screened the film, he took six or seven punches out of a fight scene. "Now they want me to take out four of five more," he said. "And they didn't like it when [a female character] got shot and the blood was coming out of her."

The studio screened the film for critics last week. "I've been asked the violence question for 25 years," De Palma said. "I'm always asked the violence question, but this time not one person asked me the violence in cinema question." He said that indicated the film is not excessively violent.

In recent years, De Palma has deliberately toned down the content of his movies in a bid for greater mainstream acceptance. Since directing "The Untouchables" in 1987, he has alternated between similar for-hire work (including the PG-13-rated "Mission: Impossible" and "Bonfire of the Vanities") and his own idiosyncratic, often darkly cynical movies.

"Snake Eyes," a film he developed and wrote with screenwriter David Koepp, is one of his more personal projects, full of autobiographical references and themes he has touched upon in previous work. But with its relative lack of gore and absence of eroticism--the combination that used to win him as many detractors as fans--the movie also is consciously designed to appeal to a mainstream audience.

"Things have changed since the '70s in terms of violence in movies," De Palma said. "I'm very aware of the sensibilities of today's audiences. I know how to make a PG-13 film--there's no nudity in this movie and I don't feel that the violence is excessive. . . . I know how to work within the system," he said, but he added that he is taking a stand because "things have gotten out of hand."

De Palma's biggest battles over ratings came in the early 1980s. After making trims in both "Dressed to Kill" and "Blow Out" in order to avoid getting X ratings, he balked at all of the cuts required to get an R rating for "Scarface," the extremely bloody 1983 movie starring Al Pacino that dealt with the drug trade. After submitting the movie four times--getting an X each time--he submitted the film to appeal and won the required two-thirds vote of the board to win an R rating.

His next film, "Body Double," received an R rating with no problem, but NBC, several newspapers and MTV all refused to run advertising or a video drawn from the film until changes were made to tone them down. The studio, Columbia Pictures, canceled sneak previews after female members of a test audience walked out.

De Palma has had problems with the ratings board since early in his career. Two of his early films--"Greetings" in 1968 and "Dionysius 69," a documentary made in 1969--were X-rated. But that was a time when X ratings were deemed acceptable for major mainstream films. Both "Midnight Cowboy" and "Last Tango in Paris" were rated X. Nowadays, most theaters will not exhibit films that carry a NC-17 rating, the current equivalent to X, and major newspapers will not carry ads for such films.

In "Hi, Mom!," the R-rated 1970 sequel to "Greetings," which contained nudity that would be considered mild today, De Palma put an X in the credits as a way of thumbing his nose at the ratings board.

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