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The Shame of an NC-17 Rating for Steve McQueen's 'Shame'

Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan and director Steve McQueen’s upcoming drama “Shame,” are the latest victims of Hollywood’s arcane move rating system. The film officially received an NC-17 rating for sex and nudity.

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has been rating films for their content since 1968. Ironically, its system for judging film content was supposed to be a modernization of the Hays Code, adopted in the 1934 to accomplish the same thing.

In another irony, the MPAA considered the Hays code hopelessly out of date because of the number of top quality films that were being excoriated largely for sex and nudity.

The Hays Code was only 34 years old at the time.

Although it has been modified slightly since its enactment in 1968– NC-17 replaced the X rating in 1990–the MPAA code is now 43 years old.

And, like the Hays Code, the overwhelming number of films that receive its most restrictive rating typically involve sex and nudity.

Only secondarily is the rating applied to films with graphic violence, gun play or blood and gore.

If the Hays Code was outdated after 34 years, the MPAA code is certainly showing its age now, when films like “Shame” receive an NC-17 rating.

The ratings are voluntary, of course, and are supposed to be simply a guide to let parents know what their children might see at the movies.

But an NC-17 rating, which means limited to audiences 17 or older, also has economic consequences.

Most large theater chains won’t show an NC-17 film, because they believe the audience is too restricted to make money.

“Shame” contains graphic sex and full frontal nudity, but those scenes are integral to telling the story about an out-of-control sex addict living in New York City.

Distributor Fox Searchlight is trying to put the best face on the situation.

“I think NC-17 is a badge of honor, not a scarlet letter,” Co-Studio Head Steve Giulia told The Hollywood Reporter.

“The sheer talent of the actors and the vision of the filmmaker are extraordinary. It’s not a film that everyone will take easily, but it certainly breaks through the clutter and is distinctive and original. It’s a game changer,” he said.

Indeed, Fassbender won the best actor award at the Venice Film Festival, and is considered a contender for an Oscar.

Films with NC-17 ratings tend to sell better once they hit the DVD market, so there is some consolation in that.

But the nation’s sensibilities about sex and nudity have advanced pretty dramatically since the 1960s, and movie ratings really have lost their relevance in the digital age. It’s time to rethink them.

“Shame” opens in theaters Dec. 2. Watch the trailer below:

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