As we all know by now, the Academy Award for Best Picture was won by The King's Speech, an excellent dramatic rendering of Britain's King George VI's struggle to overcome language difficulties, specifically a debilitating stutter. Unfortunately, George VI now faces an entirely new language difficulty. The producers of The King's Speech have resubmitted the film to the Motion Picture Association of America, the industry's rating agency. Just days before winning a total of four Oscars and after grossing more than $106 million at the box office, The Weinstein Company edited the film to either remove or mute several instances of the "F-word." The goal: To get the MPAA to give the R-rated original a PG-13 rating.
This is no academic exercise for Weinstein. An R rating means that teenagers cannot buy tickets to The King's Speech, and that is where the box-office gold lies. As much as 55 percent of Hollywood's annual receipts have come from that classification since 2002, according to Ron Leone of Stonehill College, of whom more later. The R rating limits ticket buyers to those 17 years of age and older, and Weinstein wants to tap the lucrative teen market to exploit more fully the momentum of the Oscar win.
But that won't be the film that won the Oscar. I am no great fan of the expletive F--- in films, but its use in The King's Speech was hardly gratuitous. In fact, it provides a heartbreaking moment of desperation and frustration when it becomes one of the few words that George VI can manage to speak clearly, as well as an excretory vulgarism. The monarch's obvious discomfort and yet ease at speaking the word provides a poignant look into the shame and humiliation he endured. His later use of the term evokes those emotions again, although in a lighter and somewhat more humorous manner.
The MPAA treats the use of this particular word as almost an automatic R rating, intending to keep children 16 years of age and younger from being exposed to it. This would be lovely if it weren't for the fact that American children hear the word, in all its many variations, starting far earlier. Part of maturing is understanding the word and how unacceptable it is in polite conversation, a task best left to parents. Treating it as a toxin in all contexts is not just silly, it demonstrates a distance from reality that calls into question the MPAA's judgment.
That's where Professor Leone comes back into our story. Last week, Leone released the results of a study on the PG-13 rating over the past 23 years and the consistency of its application regarding five categories: Language, substance abuse, nudity, sexuality, and violence. The study used 45 films, split between release years 1988, 1997, and 2006, and calculated the average seconds per film of each type of adult content. In most categories, the adult content was either significantly lower or unchanged. The use of adult language declined slightly, from 43.3 to 38.3 seconds per film. Sexuality declined by almost half, from 209.1 to 120.2 seconds per film.
Violence, however, rose from 152.6 seconds per film to 478.5 seconds per film. In other words, the time spent on violence in PG-13 films has more than tripled in slightly more than two decades, and it's not exactly a mystery why. Studios have focused on summer blockbusters, usually action films with plenty of violence. Comic-book movies in particular get tweaked just enough to convince the MPAA to give them access to the teen box-office bonanza. The Dark Knight, the truly excellent second entry in the Batman reboot series, got a PG-13 despite an almost never-ending sequence of gruesome violence and anarchistic mayhem.
Are we to seriously believe that The King’s Speech is less appropriate for 16-year-olds than The Dark Knight?
Why does the MPAA have that power at all? The ratings system evolved at the end of the Hays Code era in 1968, when studios began balking at the self-censorship of films. Theater owners abide by its rules in order to curry favor with parents, who are supposed to rely on the MPAA to inform them of whether a film is appropriate for their children. In essence, parents allow the MPAA to act in loco parentis, ceding their own judgment in favor of the MPAA's unrealistic and self-serving ratings.
Parents need to take charge of vetting entertainment choices. Instead of rating films, the MPAA would better serve parents by informing them of the specific content issues in each film, perhaps even with the amounts of screen time in each category of adult content. Premium channels on cable systems, such as HBO and Showtime, have done that successfully for many years. When parents see "SC," "GV," and "AL," they know that the film will have sexual content, graphic violence, and adult language — and can make an informed decision on whether to allow their children to view it. Parents, not, minimum-wage cashiers at movie theaters, should enforce the standards that reflect their own values when it comes to children and films.
Perhaps that might be less convenient for parents, but at least it would be more honest. Such a system would not produce the perversely ironic outcome of taking an award-winning movie that celebrates the triumph of a man over his inability to speak — and muting him just to gain access to a few more ticket sales.