The NC-17 rating has long been the movie industry's equivalent of the scarlet letter.
Slap the label on a movie and audiences would shun it, many theater owners would refuse to show it and the film certainly would be a long shot for an Academy Award.
But some in Hollywood are hoping the latest film by Taiwanese director Ang Lee will change the way American audiences perceive the NC-17 label. Lee's movie "Brokeback Mountain" shattered Hollywood convention when the stereotype-busting picture about gay cowboys catapulted into the mainstream two years ago and won him an Academy Award for best director.
Now, theater owners are being encouraged by their trade group to show his latest film, "Lust, Caution," an erotic spy thriller that opens in the U.S. today. The picture, rated NC-17, opened briskly in Hong Kong and Taiwan, where it was released earlier this week.
"If Ang Lee does well, then maybe others will follow and we can get rid of these myths that have created challenges for this rating," said John Fithian, president of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners.
That would reverse a stigma attached to the NC-17 rating since 1990, when the Motion Picture Assn. of America created the label to replace the "X," which had been co-opted by the porn industry. The designation, which means no one 17 or under will be admitted, is reserved for sexually explicit movies.
But such fare is readily available on TV and the Internet, pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable and inflaming critics who say America's values are being corroded.
Studio executives contend that the NC-17 rating is too broad, lumping movies such as "Orgazmo" and "Whore" with films from such noted directors as Pedro Almodovar, Bernardo Bertolucci and David Cronenberg.
"It is hard for audiences to distinguish what the rating means," said Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics. He noted that Almodovar's 2004 film "Bad Education" suffered in part because of its NC-17 rating and was not among his highest-grossing films. "People perceive they might get an unpleasant surprise and so they stay away. That's a problem."
It wasn't always so. In the late 1960s and '70s, major directors such as John Schlesinger, Stanley Kubrick, Sidney Lumet and Bertolucci made X-rated movies with big-name actors including Marlon Brando, Dustin Hoffman, Richard Dreyfuss and Lynn Redgrave.
Instead of shying away from the films, the entertainment industry backed them. In 1969, Schlesinger's "Midnight Cowboy" won an Oscar for best picture. Five years later, Bertolucci and Brando received best director and actor Oscar nominations, respectively, for the sultry "Last Tango in Paris."
Today, Hollywood studios generally shy away from backing NC-17 films, with the exception of specialty labels such as Focus Features and Fox Searchlight and some independent distributors.
"Lust, Caution," which Focus made for about $15 million, is based on a short story by Eileen Chang. A period piece set in Japanese-occupied Shanghai during the 1940s, the film follows a young woman assigned to seduce and kill a high-ranking Chinese collaborator. It earned the NC-17 stamp because its intimate interludes and Kama Sutra-inspired lovemaking are tinged with the violent passion of a forbidden and dangerous relationship.
Focus, Universal Pictures' specialty label, did not challenge the rating.
James Schamus, Focus' chief executive and cowriter of the film's screenplay, is determined to show that mainstream American audiences are ready for "grown-up" movies with erotic themes, just as they proved ready to embrace a film about love between two cowboys. Focus was the producer and distributor of "Brokeback Mountain."
"Very few films have accepted the rating because they assume people will be turned off," said Schamus, Lee's longtime collaborator. "That is the assumption we are questioning. I am not saying this will be a slam-dunk, commercial movie, but we may well have made the film that changes NC-17 in the culture. I think the time has come."
Focus plans to launch an Oscar campaign for "Lust, Caution" and is capitalizing on some of the buzz the film garnered this month after winning the top prize at the Venice Film Festival. In the U.S., the film has received mixed reviews. Lee has said he has low expectations for the movie, not because of its rating but because of its quiet pace and Mandarin language.
In addition, the lingering association between NC-17 and X-rated fare can take a toll at the box office. Films labeled as NC-17 sell as many as 25% fewer tickets, studio executives said. The highest-grossing NC-17 film was "Showgirls," a 1995 film that brought in $20.4 million.
Certain theater circuits such as Cinemark, one of the nation's largest exhibitors, have policies prohibiting the showing of NC-17 films.