With ‘Blonde,’ Netflix’s Marilyn Monroe Biopic, the NC-17 Movie Rating Finally Comes of Age

Much has been made of the rating given to Blonde.

Opening in select theaters on Sept. 16, the Marilyn Monroe biopic was slapped with an NC-17 by the Motion Picture Association, meaning that teens 17 and under will have to wait until it hits Netflix 12 days later to find out what all the fuss is about.

And fuss there is. In an interview with British film magazine Screen International back in February, director Andrew Dominik bragged about the sticker, holding it up as evidence that he refused to budge on his interpretation of Joyce Carol Oates’ 2000 book of the same name.

“It’s an NC-17 movie about Marilyn Monroe, it’s kind of what you want, right?” he said.

The Aussie filmmaker struck a different tone in May, when he told Vulture that he was “surprised” at the strict rating.

“I thought we’d colored inside the lines. But I think if you’ve got a bunch of men and women in a boardroom talking about sexual behavior, maybe the men are going to be worried about what the women think. It’s just a weird time,” he said, chalking it up to cultural differences. “It’s not like depictions of happy sexuality. It’s depictions of situations that are ambiguous. And Americans are really strange when it comes to sexual behavior, don’t you think?”

The pile-on continued with star Ana de Armas, who’s already stunned audiences with her pitch-perfect look in promo shots. The actress took aim at the MPA’s undecipherable criteria.

“I didn’t understand why that happened,” she told French magazine L’Officiel this week when asked about the rating. “I can tell you a number of shows or movies that are way more explicit with a lot more sexual content than Blonde. But to tell this story it is important to show all these moments in Marilyn’s life that made her end up the way that she did.”

With nothing but a short trailer out, it remains unclear which scenes led the “independent group of parents” at the MPA’s Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA) to stamp Blonde with the dreaded “adults only” tag. Dominik shot down rumors of an painstaking sex scene featuring menstrual blood. He confirmed that the movie features a rape, but so do other films that have snuck through with a more palatable R rating. So far, the choice is as much of a mystery for the audience as it is for those who made it. It’s a throwback to the pre-streaming era, when a rating could make or break an entire movie and indignant directors railed against the shadowy figures that decided their films’ fate.

CARA is notoriously opaque, both about its process and its employees. But it wasn’t always this way.

A Preemptive Strike

In 1913, Ohio lawmakers voted to create a board of censors charged with choosing what movies could be shown in the Buckeye State. Fed up with the board’s licensing fees, and with what it saw as a violation of free speech, the distributor Mutual Film Corporation, known for its work with Charlie Chaplin, sued the Industrial Commission of Ohio. The case made it all the way to the US Supreme Court, which ruled in 1915 that the First Amendment did not apply to movies because they are “not to be regarded, nor intended to be regarded by the Ohio Constitution, we think, as part of the press of the country, or as organs of public opinion,” Justice Joseph McKenna wrote at the time.

Terrified of the prospect of government censorship, Hollywood sought to regulate itself. The industry was keen to guarantee that its products—in this case, its movies—were made available to the widest possible audiences without running afoul of concerned parents, the religious right, or Congress. In 1922, the major studios of the time (including Fox Films, Paramount, and Universal) teamed up to establish the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), with a mission “to restore a more favorable image for Hollywood and to prevent governmental interferences in its operations,” wrote film scholar Kevin Sandler in his 2007 book The Naked Truth: Why Hollywood Doesn’t Make X-Rated Movies.

In 1930, MPPDA president Will Hays created a series of vague codes that shaped film content from the moment of production, with the aim of ensuring that nothing questionable makes it into the final cut. The guidelines stated that “no picture shall be produced which will lower the moral standards of those who see it,” singling out anything that promoted “crime, wrong-doing, evil or sin.” The code was formalized in 1934 with the creation of the MPPDA’s Production Code Administration. Its edic became colloquially known as the “Hays Code.” For nearly three decades, studios dutifully requested the requisite seal of approval from the PCA, but by the 1960s, studios and theaters had slowly stopped caring.

Hollywood was breaking down…

“Hollywood was breaking down,” Sandler told The Daily Beast. “They were making amendments to the production code. You had all these foreign films that were not getting submitted to the ratings board that were playing in major cities, and college campuses, and so on. Hollywood was suffering tremendous box-office loss, and part of it was that kids were not seeing the old-fashioned movies they were showing. They didn’t want Hollywood, fufu magic.”

Enter Jack Valenti. A former special assistant to President Lyndon B. Johnson, he became head of the MPPDA, later known as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), in 1966, bringing with him some valuable DC experience that the organization hoped would help them bypass government scrutiny. The MPAA introduced the rating system that we know today in 1968. It included the well-known G and R ratings, though the R at that time restricted people under 16, not 17, from seeing a movie without a guardian. Different ratings and restrictions have been introduced and removed over time. In 1984, the PG-13 classification was added at the suggestion of Steven Spielberg, who wanted something between a PG and an R for his flashy blockbusters. By 1990, the X rating, which had been applied to such critically acclaimed films as A Clockwork Orange and Midnight Cowboy, had become synonymous with smut in the public consciousness. It was replaced with the new NC-17.

Like with everything else related to the rating board, the criteria are pretty vague. According to the MPA (the organization dropped the extra A in 2019), the rating “can be based on violence, sex, aberrational behavior, drug abuse or any other element that most parents would consider too strong and therefore off-limits for viewing by their children.” A Los Angeles Times article from 1990 claimed the new rating was “expected to clear the way for strong adult-theme films to be released and marketed in theaters without the taint of pornography now associated with an X rating.”

Director Stanley Kubrick (right) filming close-up of little Alex in his phallic mask cutting the clothes off a woman he is about to rape in the picture A Clockwork Orange.

Bettmann via Getty

Part of that turned out to be true. The scope of themes explored in movies has undoubtedly widened, with stories about gay people, trans people, and ever-more-gory slashers finding eager audiences in theaters across America. But the narrow audience allowed into an NC-17 flick quickly turned the rating into an odious distinction for filmmakers and studios, who saw little value in spending millions of dollars on a movie that may not turn a profit. On top of that, some newspapers refused to carry ads for the risqué movies, and retailers began refusing to sell them.

The aversion to the rating is so strong that a search for films that kept their NC-17 rating and played in theaters yields just 40 titles. The most profitable one was showgirls, which made a paltry $20.4 million in the US against a budget of $45 million. It’s followed by Henry & June, the 1990 drama about novelist Henry Miller and his wife June, which pulled in about $11.6 million. Closer to the bottom is Orgazmothe 1997 superhero sex romp from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone. It made $602,000.

Even if a director wanted to edit their movie to please ratings royalty, the MPAA’s murky machinations could make it hard for her to determine what to carve out. In the 2006 documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rateddirector Kirby Dick spoke to Stone, Kevin Smith, Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce, and others about the capricious nature of CARA. A few patterns emerged: sexuality appears to be rated far more stringently than violence, gay sex scenes are deemed more graphic than straight sex scenes, and independent films are given far less leeway than those by major studios, which fund the rating board’s parent trade group .

Sexuality appears to be rated far more stringently than violence, gay sex scenes are deemed more graphic than straight sex scenes, and independent films are given far less leeway than those by major studios, which fund the rating board’s parent trade group.

Today, the CARA rating board is made up of “approximately” 10 parents who work on a part-time or full-time basis, the MPA told The Daily Beast via email. To join, a member must have no other affiliation with the entertainment industry, along with a kid between the ages of 5 and 15. They can serve for a maximum of seven years, or until all of their children reach the age of 21, whichever comes first. Three of them are so-called “senior raters” selected by the chair of CARA. Those three can work for as long as they want, regardless of the age of their children. On a regular day, a group of raters watches two to three movies before discussing them and assigning their ratings. Senior raters are responsible for fielding questions from filmmakers. The organization says 70 percent of the films it rates come from non-member studios, be they foreign or smaller firms. It claims the rating board is funded entirely by film submission fees, making it financially independent from the studios that pay into the wider trade group.

‘Ratings are obsolete’

For a long time, an NC-17 rating meant making peace with a puny return on investment. But as the way we consume movies and TV evolves, so too does the public’s perception of this once-lurid marker.

In the months leading up to the release of Blonde, there have been dozens of articles about the yet-to-be-released biopic and its rating. It’s a puzzling fascination, considering that the movie was made for an online streaming service where a kid can easily click on the title and watch it, without the fear of a movie theater employee walking in, shining a flashlight in his face, and asking him to leave.

“As the media landscape continues to change and more content is available every day, parents depend on our ratings now more than ever,” the MPA said in a statement. “For over 50 years, CARA has been the gold standard for how self-regulation can work in a rapidly evolving industry.”

A poster displaying the Motion Picture Association of America film rating system, circa 1987.

Movie Poster Image Art/Getty

So far, Blonde is the only film of the year to be rated NC-17. It could very well prove to be a gift from the ratings gods. A movie about one of the world’s most talked-about sex symbols, at a time when ticket sales are still recovering from record lowsmay need the promise of something titillating to capture peoples’ attention, even if it’s in the form of an almost meaningless sticker.

“While in the past it was almost the kiss of death in terms of box office, the NC-17 may provide a unique marketing hook for a modern movie,” says Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at Comscore. “It’s been years since this has even been brought up, so I think it’s genius to have a modern movie on streaming and get a rating of NC-17. It’s only going to help the film.”

Sandler was even more blunt about Netflix’s ratings gamble, hinting that it may be part of a strategy to get media coverage ahead of the movie’s release.

“(The rating) is obsolete because ratings are obsolete,” he said. “I’m 52. Throughout the ’80s and the ’90s, you couldn’t pick up Variety without looking at some story about the rating system. It always was a cultural battleground. Now with the internet and streaming, how are you gonna police it? You can’t. It’s pointless.”

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