deep dives

A Brief History of the X Rating

Midnight Cowboy. Photo: United Artists

“Though outwardly the movie industry is serene, even cheerful, about the future this Christmas season,” wrote the New York Times’ Murray Schumach in December of 1960, “there is considerable concern about a dread word that is gaining popularity outside of Hollywood. This word is ‘classification’ … a method that would clearly label those movies — regardless of artistic virtues — that are not considered suitable for children.”

“Classification” was indeed a hot topic as the industry moved into the 1960s, a decade that would see the entirety of American culture turned upside down. The Motion Picture Production Code that had regulated Hollywood since the 1930s was bent to its breaking point, and by the conclusion of the ’60s, faced with frustrations of moviemakers on one side and ongoing threats of censorship by government officials and religious leaders on the other, the film industry would resolve to regulate itself with a voluntary rating system.

The classification system of the Motion Picture Association of America, implemented on November 1, 1968, originally consisted of four ratings:

·     G — Suggested for General Audiences
·     M — Suggested for Mature Audiences (parental discretion advised)
·     R — Restricted. Persons under 16 not admitted, unless accompanied by parent or adult guardian.
·     X — Persons under 16 not admitted.

There would be modifications: the M was rechristened GP in 1970 and then, again, to PG in 1972; the minimum age for R-rated movies was raised from 16 to 17 in 1970; the PG-13, nestled between the PG and R, was added in 1984. But no single rating caused more commotion and controversy than the X, initially intended merely as a label for films made for, by, and about adults. (A good number of those films will be celebrated, on the 50th anniversary of its commencement, with Quad Cinema’s “Rated X” series in New York this month.)

And for a brief period in the late ’60s and early ’70s, this honest-to-goodness adult rating not only worked, but thrived. “Our first objective of classification,” MPAA president Jack Valenti explained in 1968, “is to free the film maker, to loosen the artistic fetters around his ankles in segregating pictures.” That unfortunate analogy aside, the newfound freedom provided by the X allowed filmmakers to engage fully with the era’s shifting mores, to explore new perceptions of sex, violence, race, and authority, and to do so without the interference of the local censorship boards that had cut pictures to ribbons since the art’s introduction.

Films like Midnight Cowboy (the first X-rated Oscar winner for Best Picture), A Clockwork Orange, Medium Cool, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, I Am Curious (Yellow), If…, and Last Tango in Paris pushed the content limits to break new ground in social commentary and psychological examination, while the likes of Greetings (the first narrative feature to carry the X rating), Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Fritz the Cat, and Myra Breckinridge gleefully used the anything-goes spirit of the X (and the times) to produce full-throated social satire and/or straight-up silliness.

But there was a snag. “The theaters that show the nudie sexploitation movies,” reported Newsday, “will continue to cater to the bizarre tastes of their adult clientele with the same cautious exclusion of minors as in the past.” As the decade drew to a close, those “nudie sexploitation movies” — soft-core comedies and erotic dramas from directors like Russ Meyer and Radley Metzger — gave way to hard-core pornography. Porn-makers and distributors moved their wares from private “loops” and viewing booths to public theaters, emboldened both by the loosening of obscenity laws and the adoption of the MPAA ratings.

And the MPAA had made a crucial error: Though the G, R, and (eventual) PG were trademarked, the X was not. As a result, the New York Sunday News explained in 1969, “several fly-by-night film makers have placed X ratings on cheap sexploitation flickers,” meaning that, in the eye of the rating, there was no difference between “an excellent movie such as Midnight Cowboy and a vulgar one such as I, A Woman II.” The issue was flagged early — in a first-year report on the success and failures of the ratings systems, the National Association of Theatre Owners pinpointed “a need to distinguish between X-rated pictures made strictly for exploitation and those made with serious artistic intent.” But Valenti and the MPAA did not take this recommendation, and as the 1970s continued and porn went chic, its distributors cheerfully began to apply not only the X rating, but its nonexistent (yet undeniably titillating) cousins, the XX and XXX.

Unsurprisingly, the rating’s original intent was lost. For a brief period, when curiosity was at its peak (particularly for sights and sounds unavailable on the living-room television), X-rated pictures proved a profitable enterprise; “Trade ponders: X the Key to B.O.?” went a 1970 Variety headline, using the publication’s shorthand for “box office.” But as the X became synonymous with hard-core porn, the atmosphere around it changed. Mainstream theaters put rules into place prohibiting the distribution of X-rated movies — any X-rated movie. Newspapers and television stations wouldn’t advertise them. So with nowhere to show these movies and no way to promote them, studios (understandably) stopped making them.

Even in its early, optimistic period, there weren’t many X-rated movies; on the first anniversary of the system’s implementation, the Times reported the application of 25 X ratings (compared to 101 Rs, 170 Ms, and 139 Gs). In the 1970–71 season, at its height, 48 films carried the rating. The next year, that number dropped to six. “Everybody was caught in the newfound freedom,” MGM president James Aubrey told Variety. “The industry wallowed in it. But while permissive films might have been successful six months ago, they aren’t now. The whole country has undergone a big reversal of taste, one of the most remarkable in recent times.”

Film critics and industry observers attempted to save the rating, or at least its more artistic iteration. The New York Film Critics Circle proposed a revision of the ratings system to fix the problem; one of its members, New York film critic Judith Crist, penned an open letter to MPAA head Valenti, writing, “You have forced upon established filmmakers a marketplace level of bargaining, interfering with their creative concepts when, for sheer survival, they must cut their films to get an ‘R’ rather than ‘X.’”

In responding to these complaints, Valenti pivoted from his 1968 position, and held a new one for the rest of his life. “The movie rating system is made for parents, repeat, parents, not professional critics or movie historians,” he wrote in a 1972 editorial in the Times, in response to film critic Vincent Canby. “That’s the rating program. No more, no less. It is not for Mr. Canby or anyone else over 17 who is not married or, if married, childless.” The idea that his newfound mission was actually censoring art geared toward the unmarried or childless was something Valenti couldn’t imagine — or, more likely, refused to.

And thus, the mainstream X died. Some studios “publicly vowed not to produce or distribute films which might get that tag,” reported the Associated Press, while “others have no such announced policy, but say privately they ‘probably wouldn’t’ now make a picture that would get that kind of rating.” Instead, in the years since, such pictures would be carefully recut and resubmitted for the R rating, often with helpful suggestions from the ratings board — a trim here, a shuffling of shots there. Occasional genre films would wear their X classification as a point of pride, as The Street Fighter did in 1975. Others, like George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, declined their Xs, and were released “unrated.”

The resistance to the X only solidified in the 1980s, thanks to the multiplex boom (many such theaters were located in malls, whose leases strictly prohibited exhibition or distribution of adult materials), pay cable, and the video era, which both redefined the link from X to porn and presented — once the mom-and-pop stores were put out of business by “family-friendly” megachains like Blockbuster, with strict no-X policies — the loss of yet another ancillary revenue stream.

Under mounting pressure, the MPAA finally introduced a new adult-only rating in 1990. But the NC-17 was an X replacement, not a PG-13 style bridge between the R and X, and it was immediately subjected to the same prohibitions. The first NC-17 feature, Universal’s Henry & June, was a commercial failure; it took five full years for another studio to release a film with the rating, MGM’s Showgirls, and it tanked, too. (No one has attempted such a wide release of an adults-only feature since.) That same year, Warner Bros. mounted a major rerelease of Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, restoring ten minutes of footage from the director’s original cut, which the studio had sheared during its initial 1969 theatrical run to allow more showtimes. It had been rated R by the MPAA; the 1995 iteration of that organization rated the same film NC-17. If there’s a better contemporary illustration of the contraction of artistic freedom, good luck finding it.

But that story helps underline why these vintage X-rated titles pack such a punch. For a brief but potent period, moviemakers were told, for the first time, all bets are off. And with that once-in-a-lifetime shedding of decades-long rules, they were not only free to test new waters in subject matter and onscreen realism, to break boundaries and take risks, but they were allowed to do something all but unheard of, even today: They were allowed to make legitimate movies that were sexy and dangerous. It was good while it lasted.

A Brief History of the X Rating