Back at the end of 1971 or early 1972, a friend and I walked the half-mile or so to the Twilight movie theater in Great Falls, Montana, a two-screen affair. I told my parents that we were going to see "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" or some other harmless fare that had been released around then, but our goal was to check out the movie playing in the other theater: "Diamonds are Forever," the latest James Bond flick.
That movie was rated GP, which meant that parental guidance was suggested before an impressionable teenager such as myself should be allowed to see the flick. (That particular rating started life as M — for Mature, I guess — and then was switched to PG, for no apparent reason other than it's a better fit with the phrase "parental guidance.")
These thoughts about early encounters with racy movies were triggered by a recent anniversary: November 2018 was the 50th anniversary of the Motion Picture Association of America's rating system, billed as a way for parents to assess whether a certain movie is suitable for their children. It also was intended as a way for the movie industry to keep government censorship at bay. Other experts, such as Jon Lewis, the distinguished professor of film studies at Oregon State University, have argued that the system was meant from the start as a business proposition.
On its own terms, Lewis said, the system is a success — surveys show that parents are overwhelmingly supportive of the rating system. But it also is part of a long Hollywood pattern to rely on internal regulation to protect the industry's business interests. And it's no coincidence that the creation of the ratings system came at a critical time for the film industry.
Early self-regulation efforts in the industry included efforts such as the so-called Hays Code, which barred depictions of things such as interracial relationships, "lustful" kissing, racy slang like "hold your hat" and scenes depicting toilets. (Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho," in 1960, was the first movie to show a flushing toilet.)
Jack Valenti, a former official with the Johnson administration, took over at the MPAA in 1966, as boundary-stretching movies such as "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" and "Blowup" pushed the boundaries of the old regulations. At about the same time, Lewis noted, the industry was in rough shape, with some studios on the verge of collapse.
In November 1968, Valenti rolled out the first version of the ratings system, with four classifications — G, M, R and X. (The PG-13 rating was added in 1984 after a controversy involving the beating-heart scene in "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," which had been rated PG; the X rating, which has been co-opted by the pornography industry, has been replaced with the NC-17 rating, which is rarely used; fewer than 2 percent of the 30,000 or so films rated over the last 50 years have been rated X or NC-17. Interestingly, R is the most frequent rating, used for about 58 percent of the films.)
In some ways, Lewis said, the rating system helped "free the screen" for a new generation of filmmakers who at the time were "already trying to figure out what the American cinema is going to look like." Movies like "The Godfather" emerged from that period.
Then, as now, the ratings are created by the MPAA's Classifications and Rating Administration, which employs parents to evaluate the films. With the exception of three senior raters and the chair of the ratings board, the identity of the raters is kept confidential, under the dubious claim that to identify them would subject them to possible bribes or threats.
The mission of the raters is not to assess the quality of the movies but to put themselves in the shoes of parents around the country: What do those parents need to know about a movie to decide whether it's suitable for their children?
The rating system has its critics, and they make valid points: For example, raters seem to be much tougher on sexual material than they are on violence. Gay sex seems to be a particularly touchy subject: There's no other reason for the PG-13 ratings for recent movies like "Battle of the Sexes" or "Love, Simon." And the descriptors that accompany the ratings — "thematic elements," for example — can be maddeningly vague.
But in terms of a business model to protect the industry, Lewis said, the system is a success: "It's actually a smart business plan," he said.
As for my parents, they still think I saw "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" on that day in the 1970s. Now that the word is out, I'm in big trouble. (mm)