It's become something of a Hollywood truism that an NC-17 rating is the kiss of death for a film, making in unmarketable and — in the case of Oscar hopefuls — unlikely to be screened by voters. That's why critics are bemoaning the Motion Picture Association of America's decision to rate Shame NC-17 over its "explicit sexual content." The "mesmerizing" thriller about an uncontrollable sex addict won Best Actor for star Michael Fassbender at the Venice Film Festival. Indeed, Fassbender is widely believed to have given the best acting performance of the year. Will Shame — set to hit theaters Dec. 2 — be doomed by its dreaded NC-17 rating?
This is a devastating blow: Despite the 1990 switch from "X" to "NC-17," the for-adults-only rating is still the "scarlet letter/numbers" of cinema, says Jason Bailey at Flavorwire. Theaters refuse to screen these movies and newspapers and TV stations won't run ads for them. Only occasionally will a film overcome that rating to achieve commercial and awards-season success (Requiem for a Dream, Bad Education), "but those successes have been minor, few, and far between." It will be a challenge for Shame to "buck the trend."
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And it exposes flaws in the ratings system: The filmmakers behind movies like Blue Valentine and Boys Don't Cry have had to either appeal or re-edit to be downgraded to an R rating, says Linda Holmes at NPR. That's ridiculous, especially when you consider the MPAA's uneven standards. Blue Valentine's R rating is the same one given to The Human Centipede — a film so disturbingly violent it's best not described — and Once, a charming romance with a few scattered curse words. The ratings system is "intended solely to give information to parents" about what's appropriate for kids. That it's now used to determine what films make it to the multiplex at all, and which are advertised on TV is "an abuse of the ratings system."
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But the filmmakers should have seen this coming: Between the MPAA's track record and the film's undeniably graphic scenes, the NC-17 rating was almost a foregone conclusion, says Anthony Kaufman at Indie Wire. Shame is an "unflinching, supremely crafted movie," but it's also one that shows its main character venturing into underground sex clubs and experiencing an orgasm so disturbing that "I would have loved to see the faces of the MPAA screening committee" as they were watching it.
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