BLUE VALENTINE, the controversial new film set to open on December 31, got it’s wish after a MPAA appeal for an R rating. Previously, the MPAA gave the film a NC-17 rating due to a graphic oral sex scene between actors Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling. This might also rate as the first time in film history that a graphic sex act has ever been allowed into any film with an R rating.
Critics have hailed BLUE VALENTINE with excellent reviews. And the MPAA might have seen that this is a significant film that is not really exploitive in nature like some more trashy films that proudly proclaim themselves as being for adult audiences. With such high reviews, the R rated film is award worthy and might garner some nominations that might escape it if it would have gotten the dreaded NC-17 rating. Generally, the NC-17 is the kiss of death for many films, condemning the films to low box office numbers and playing in very few theaters.
While some independent films sometimes slip in explicit sex scenes, such content has been extremely rare in more mainstream films. Hollywood just isn’t comfortable in testing such limits.
After the 1973 Supreme Court decision regarding obscenity, many films faced prosecution for explicit sexual scenes. However, in more recent years, most prosecutors, judges and jurors seem to no longer regard most sexually explicit heterosexual conduct as obscene, only opening the doors to more of this content in some independent films as well as merely pornographic productions. Standards for what is judged to be obscene is a moving standard, that varies from time to time. What might be viewed as criminal obscenity in one year, might be viewed as constitutionally protected and acceptable some years later. But, in 1973, the R rated film CARNAL KNOWLEDGE faced an obscenity prosecution in Georgia, despite any content that approached the purely pornographic.
One strange story of independent films testing limits for what is acceptable is that of Vincent Gallo’s BROWN BUNNY. Roger Ebert and other critics at the Cannes Film Festival thought it to be one of the worst movies they had ever seen, and the audience at the festival broke into boos and jeers as the film ended with an explicit, but totally uninteresting, if not entirely stupid oral sex scene between Gallo and actress Chloe Sevigny. The scene actually seemed more like a final insult after such a terrible film. However, an edited DVD of the film with the scene still included seemed to be a much improved film, where even critics of the film, like Roger Ebert gave the DVD version of the film a positive review.
Hollywood isn’t quite ready to embrace explicit sex scenes as a regular feature any time in the near future though. Such scenes will continue to be rare in mainstream films. But, BLUE VALENTINE has become a sort of pioneer here. Critically reviewed films seem to be able to test some new limits much more than some trash film could not.