Seven Biggest Movie-Ratings Fights

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Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in likely Oscar contender, Blue Valentine.

Like a bad grade in college that you don’t think you deserve, a Motion Picture Association of America movie rating is something you can sometimes appeal. There are many instances of Hollywood films being slapped with ratings that their producers and studios abhor. After all, filmmakers want the biggest audience possible for their movies. There are a few celebrated cases of movies doing well despite “extreme” ratings—Last Tango in Paris and its X comes to mind—but for most filmmakers, anything stronger than an R is too risky. The appeals process is somewhat opaque and involves meeting with an appellate board and presenting the case. Victories are rare, but Harvey Weinstein just claimed a big one for Blue Valentine, the Oscar hopeful starring Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. Back in October, the ratings board inexplicably laid an NC-17 rating on the indie film. That’s considered the kiss of death financially. Some major theater chains won’t even distribute a movie with that rating because it’s associated with pornographic content. Weinstein did what Weinstein does best: he milked a lot of free publicity for his movie. Gosling accused the board of sexism, presumably because the rating was over a scene where Williams’s character received oral sex. “There’s plenty of oral-sex scenes in a lot of movies, where it’s a man receiving it from a woman, and they’re R-rated,” Gosling said. Then Weinstein rolled up his sleeves, and on Dec. 8 met with a special appeals board himself. It worked—Blue Valentine is now rated R. Here’s a look back at some other successful (and unsuccessful) ratings battles in the last decade:

The other Weinstein Oscar contender for 2010 was rated R for strong language because of the successive F words Colin Firth’s stuttering character hurls in a moment of rage. Weinstein’s strategy: to convince the MPAA that teens could learn an important lesson from the film, which would thus make the profanity less offensive. “The king was subject to terrible bullying,” said a lawyer involved with the appeal. “This picture has a very important message for younger people, and they won’t be able to see it because of this foolish ruling.” Nice try, but the R stuck.

The R was earned for “disturbing images of Holocaust atrocities, including graphic nudity”. The filmmakers mounted an aggressive appeal, even submitting a letter from a Holocaust survivor, but the MPAA wouldn’t budge. “In a world where young people are bombarded with meaningless entertainment, it’s unfortunate that a film with real educational and historic value would be denied to them by an organization that is supposed to be working to help them,” said Adam Yauch (of the Beastie Boys), one of the distributors behind the film.

The Nancy Meyers romantic comedy was expected to land a PG-13 rating—if not for the scene where Meryl Streep and Steve Martin get stoned. The MPAA objected because there was no punishment for their illegal behavior. Universal appealed the rating and tried to rachet up public outcry. The Los Angeles Times ran a blog post called “Why the MPAA Prefers Smoking Guns to Smoking Pot,” but the studio lost anyway. The R rating remained. It’s Complicated barely cracked $100 million at the box office, less than previous PG-13 efforts by Meyers.

Sony’s caveman comedy from Judd Apatow landed an R, which didn’t make the studio happy. It trotted out Apatow himself in front of the appeals board to make the argument that cavemen sex jokes won’t, in fact, corrupt teenage boys. Surprise: the MPAA doesn’t have a sense of humor. The fight wasn’t over, however. Apatow recut his film, resubmitted it, and finally secured a PG-13. After all the work, Year One still tanked at the box office, earning $43 million on a $60 million budget. Guess there won’t be a Year Two.

Did anyone even need to watch the movie? With a title like that, the MPAA had no trouble handing out an NC-17 rating to Kevin Smith’s raunchy comedy. Smith made a lot of noise in the press, and met with the appeals board personally to try to get it lowered to an R. “They thought it was sexually graphic,” he told USA Today. “My point is, it was comically graphic ... it wasn’t designed to titillate.” If you say so. Smith apparently knows how to talk the MPAA’s language, since he got his R, and has won two other appeals. He persuaded the organization to change the rating of Clerks (1994) from NC-17 to R, and to change Jersey Girl (2004) from R to PG-13.

Who could possibly find George Clooney’s butt offensive? Well, the MPAA thought it deserved an R. The filmmakers argued that there was a double standard: how come women could be partly naked in PG-13 movies, but not men? “We’ve seen scenes like this on network television,” director Steven Soderbergh told the Los Angeles Times. “Believe me, there is nothing here that is worse than what has been on NYPD Blue on ABC.” In the end, Clooney’s rear emerged victorious. The film’s rating was lowered to PG-13.

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