When the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) developed the modern film rating system in 1968, the X label was intended to signal to audiences that a movie dealt heavily in adult themes, overt sexuality, or graphic violence. Films like Midnight Cowboy and A Clockwork Orange were given X ratings, but didn’t suffer any of the stigma associated with it. (Midnight Cowboy won an Oscar for Best Picture, the only X-rated film to ever do so.)
Before long, audiences began to associate X ratings with pornography, so in 1990 the MPAA moved to mark films inappropriate for children under 17 with an NC-17 tag instead. In either case, the Association insisted that filmmakers excise footage if they wanted to earn an R designation—a rating much better served for general audiences and box office revenue. Take a look at eight films that were originally rated for adults only before directors made the necessary changes to appease the whims of the often-cryptic ratings board.
1. AMERICAN PIE (1999)
Coming-of-age stories often involve sexual awakenings, though not often with pastries. For 1999’s American Pie, directors Paul and Chris Weitz had star Jason Biggs attempt an intimate encounter with a pie. The scene was obviously engineered for its shock and word-of-mouth value, but the MPAA didn’t find it amusing. The film was submitted four times to trim shots of excessive pie thrusting before the NC-17 label was modified to an R.
2. ROBOCOP (1987)
Director Paul Verhoeven has long been a thorn in the side of the MPAA: His Showgirls, Basic Instinct, and Total Recall were all cited for gratuitous content. Verhoeven’s first brush with the board came after he submitted 1987’s RoboCop for evaluation. The film, which depicts the struggle of cop Alex J. Murphy (Peter Weller) to retain some semblance of humanity after being gunned down and transformed into a law enforcement machine, is among Verhoeven’s bloodiest. In one scene, Omni Consumer Products executive Mr. Kinney (Kevin Page) is annihilated by a malfunctioning ED-209. Verhoeven was so intent on a gruesome demise as a result of ED-209’s firepower that he reshot the scene with over 200 squibs attached to Page, then called him back a third time so special effects artists could use spaghetti squash to emulate his intestines coming out.
Not surprisingly, the MPAA reacted to this grandiose display with an X rating. Verhoeven was able to secure an R by omitting just two seconds of Kinney’s death along with two seconds of Weller being shot.
3. SCREAM (1996)
Scream—Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson’s deconstruction of the slasher-film genre—wouldn’t have been complete without adopting some of the gore pervasive in those movies, though the MPAA had other things to address when they decided to hand down an NC-17 rating. According to Craven’s director commentary on the DVD release, the board was concerned that the villains of the film who engage in self-harm with a kitchen knife in order to stage a convincing crime scene could be “imitable.” Additionally, they preferred not to see the intestines of one victim and complained about the intensity of the opening scene, in which Drew Barrymore’s character is methodically taunted and stalked by the killer. Craven obliged most of their requests and the film went on to gross $170 million—plus spawn three sequels and an MTV television series.
4. CLERKS (1994)
Kevin Smith’s debut film, chronicling the woes of convenience store employee Dante Hicks (Bryan O’Halloran), is entirely absent of any violence, nudity, or depictions of sexual activity—the usual suspects when it comes to the NC-17 label. What the low-budget feature does have is an abundance of very explicit talk about sexual relationships, copious amounts of profanity, and one character (slacker clerk Randal Graves, played by Jeff Anderson) reciting a list of pornographic movie titles. The language was enough for the MPAA to bypass an R and assign an adults-only NC-17 rating. The board revised it to an R after an appeal, cautioning viewers about “explicit, sex-related dialogue.”
5. TWO GIRLS AND A GUY (1998)
Robert Downey Jr. was roughly 10 years away from an all-audiences tenure as Tony Stark in the Marvel universe when he appeared in this indie film about an actor who despairs when his girlfriend (Heather Graham) finds out about his other girlfriend (Natasha Gregson Wagner). The film went through 13 edits of a scene in which Downey and Graham appear to be engaged in a sexual act that the Los Angeles Times described as “being outlawed in some states.” The film finally received an R, though it remains one of Downey’s lesser-known efforts.
6. TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE (2004)
Movies that use techniques typically associated with children’s entertainment aren’t exempt from controversy. Director Ralph Bakshi’s Fritz the Cat, released in 1972, earned an X rating for salacious animated content, and 1999’s South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut was in danger of an NC-17 before cuts were made. For 2004’s Team America: World Police, South Park co-creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker engaged in extended negotiations with the MPAA, who perceived the film—about peacekeeping marionette-style puppets—to be in poor taste.
One scene of particular concern involved puppets having sexual relations. “Our characters are made of wood and have no genitalia,” producer Scott Rudin told the Los Angeles Times. The board eventually agreed to an R, but only after the scene was submitted multiple times for editing. Parker would later point out the MPAA had no problem with puppets resembling Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, and Janeane Garofalo all meeting spectacularly violent ends; it was the puppet sex that tripped them up.
7. SUMMER OF SAM (1999)
It’s not often that the Disney corporation finds itself in the position of potentially sitting on an NC-17 film. But when the company’s Touchstone banner released Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam in 1999, they were confronted with the MPAA’s insistence that Lee had made an adults-only film. Detailing the 1977 summer in New York where real-life serial killer David Berkowitz terrorized the city, Lee’s film was singled out for an orgy scene that the board found objectionable. A bemused Lee observed that they did not appear to take issue with scenes depicting Berkowitz murdering his victims. Lee eventually brought the film in with an R rating, trimming four shots involving sexuality, but told the New York Daily News he was puzzled that “we did not hear one thing about the violence in the movie.”
8. EYES WIDE SHUT (2000)
Possibly the most mainstream movie star of all time, it seems unlikely Tom Cruise would ever be caught in a ratings board controversy. But for Eyes Wide Shut, he and then-wife Nicole Kidman agreed to submit to the whims of Stanley Kubrick, a notoriously exacting director who wanted to create an explicit depiction of a married couple’s descent into infidelity. Kubrick edited the film, which received an NC-17 designation from the MPAA, then had it digitally altered so previously nude actors would appear clothed during an orgy sequence. After the director died in March 1999, Warner Bros., which was distributing the movie and wanted to make sure it had the best possible chance of seeing a profit, had it reedited further to conform to an R rating. This rankled movie critic Roger Ebert, who chastised the studio for not taking the opportunity to help legitimize the NC-17 rating by having it associated with a star like Cruise.
Instead, studios have remained wary of the label, and few films are released bearing the rating. Blue is the Warmest Color, released in 2013, was a rare exception. The film, about a love affair between a French teenager and her older female partner, won the Palme d'Or in Cannes and was shown in one New York theater that ignored the rating and allowed teenagers to purchase tickets.