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'A' marks the spot where ratings fail

In two days Terry Semel would resign as chairman of Warner Bros. But that was still his secret when we had a long talk about the MPAA rating system and the studio's decision to censor Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut."

As all the world now knows, digital cutouts were superimposed on parts of an orgy scene in Kubrick's final film, to qualify it for an R rating. The decision, allegedly approved by Kubrick himself, has generated protests from moviegoers outraged that they cannot see the master's final film in its unaltered version.

The film was premiered in its original version at Warner's Burbank screening room on July 10. Then Jan Harlan, Kubrick's associate, introduced a rough demonstration of the digital masking, which superimposes figures in front of parts of the image.

The studio deserves credit for its frankness in showing both versions; dozens of films are silently edited every year to get the R rating. Great directors such as Kubrick are not spared. The Motion Picture Association of America also demanded changes in Martin Scorsese's "Casino,"Spike Lee's "Summer Of Sam" and Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers."

Although the studio was frank in showing both versions of the now-famous 65-second scene, it lacked the will to bite the bullet, and release Kubrick's preferred cut in an NC-17 or "unrated" version.

That's what I wanted to talk with Semel about on July 13. Two days later, he and longtime colleague Robert Daly resigned as the top executives at Warner Bros., after a long partnership that had kept the studio atop Hollywood for years. Perhaps the idealism behind my questions seemed naive to Semel; if we can believe a report by Neal Travis in the New York Post, Semel and Daly resigned because big Warner's stockholder Ted Turner hated the movie.

The well-connected columnist wrote on July 16: "My sources say that when Turner finally got to view the late Stanley Kubrick's last film . . . he exploded. I'm told he `couldn't believe' that Daly and Semel would give Kubrick final and absolute control of the movie, right down to the marketing strategy. One source claims that Ted . . . demanded of Daly and Semel that they have it drastically recut and shortened, arguing that since Kubrick was dead, all former agreements were canceled. They refused to go along with him - and now they are out."

If Travis is right, Semel and Daly deserve credit for preserving the film in its almost original form, instead of editing it under instructions from Atlanta. Turner, who says he sees only two or three movies a year, has shaky taste or judgment when it comes to serious movies. He led the charge to colorize many black and white classics, including "Casablanca," and discontinued that vandalism only when the marketplace rejected his wares.

When I talked with Semel, I wanted to discuss the ratings system in general. It was clear that Kubrick's complete vision would have to await the "director's cut" on video, but I wanted to know why Warner's didn't simply grit its teeth and release "Eyes Wide Shut" with the NC-17. Certainly a Kubrick film with Cruise and Kidman would only have benefitted from the resulting controversy.

"NC-17 is not our business," Semel said flatly. "We're not in the NC-17 business. When one looks at `Eyes Wide Shut,' perhaps there was not a huge difference between what would be an R, what would be an NC-17. But NC-17 is a whole industry. It includes triple-X-rated porno films. So to us, that's just not a business that we're in. Never have been."

This bald statement by the head of a studio stands as a final refutation to years of Jack Valenti's bullroar about how the NC-17 was any kind of an improvement on the X rating it replaced. When the rating system was established in the late 1960s, "X" was a rating that meant, simply, "adults only." Major studios made and released X movies. Then hard-core porn embraced the X and made it unsavory. It became difficult to advertise X-rated movies, and some theaters had leases forbidding them to book them.

I suggested years ago that an "A" rating be inserted between the R and the X, to provide a workable, usable adult category. X would remain to denote hard-core. "A" would allow adult movies of redeeming artistic or social merit to escape the curse of the X. I debated Valenti on TV and in print, but he held firm, eventually renaming X (which the MPAA never copyrighted!) to NC-17 (which was copyrighted). Now there was a category for these difficult pictures, he said.

But there was not, because NC-17 to this day is confused with X. Note that even Semel, who is well-informed, made the mistake of confusing NC-17 with self-rated "triple-X" porno pictures.

Why should America, which dominates the global movie business, have no practical, workable, usable adults-only category? Why must every major studio movie be made available to those under 17 (with the obligatory "adult guardian," blah, blah)? Why is it necessary for this movie to be available to people under 17?

"I don't suggest that it is," Semel said. "I think that's why it's rated R. It isn't really being made available for people under 17 unless their parents approve."

But we know that millions of underage kids sneak into R-rated movies every year, I said.

"Now that's a different issue. That's unfair. You're gonna ask, how well is it enforced? But it would be the same if no one was enforcing NC-17 or R or PG-13."

Well, perhaps a category that clearly said "adults only" would draw a line in the sand, unlike the R rating, which is winked at. Perhaps the industry doesn't want a category that requires them to turn away paying customers.

"Well, I don't see anything wrong with an NC-17 film," Semel said, "but I also think we should have the right to decide what business we want to be in."

That's the whole problem, I said. I don't want you to be in the porno business. But NC-17 means porno to everyone. That's why there needs to be a non-pornographic adult rating. Kids under 17 always have the right to see a movie with their parents at home on video - but adults are being denied the right to see Stanley Kubrick's original cut.

"I think we've already been around that. This is a decision Stanley made, and his decision was to have an R rating in America, and to qualify his film for the broadest adult audiences in each of the major countries. The R rating does signify that you can bring your child if you choose to. NC-17 says under no circumstances can you bring a child."

Apparently, I said, the Hollywood studios believe that there should not be any movie that people under 17 can't see - because they will not make an NC-17 movie.

"Well, subject to the parents. When my children want to go to the theater, we talk about what they want to see and my wife or I make that decision."

I agree it's great for kids and great for parents, I said. It's not great for adults who want to see a director's preferred cut.

"OK, help me for second," Semel said. "What you're saying is a movie like `Natural Born Killers' or 'Eyes Wide Shut,' which might not have qualified for R, would have qualified for something beyond R but not quite an NC-17, which has a connotation of X."

Yes. Both Canada and England have such an intermediate category before you get to pornography.

"I think you're right. So there'd be a category that would say it's more than an R. . . ."

But still within the pale. It would give the studios a choice. I understand you when you say you're not in the business of making NC-17. When the X rating was first promulgated it was a respectable rating and studios made X-rated films, like "Midnight Cowboy." You don't have that freedom now.

"I don't disagree," Semel said. "Of course, as things stand now, with NC-17, your possibilities for advertising the film diminish enormously. I don't think there's a network in our country that would play a TV spot for either an X or an NC-17 film."

Valenti assured me, I remembered, that when they changed from X to NC-17, that would quiet those objections. It didn't work out that way.

"Even if you have an R-rated film today," Semel said, "you often find you can't advertise it until 9 p.m. or later. There are some R-rated films that they will permit, but many they won't. If you have something past an R-rated film, you have a hard time advertising it at all."

That's why you need that A category between the R and NC-17!

"Assuming the networks would see that as acceptable . . ."

If it were broached as a positive thing, as an example of greater responsibility . . .

"I think they look at it differently," Semel said. "We're looking at the artistic values of what we're trying to create. They're saying, if your movie can qualify for an R, they'll run the advertising."

I wonder if, even as we spoke, Semel was thinking about his conversations with philistines like Turner, whose reaction to a film he apparently lacks the emotional capacity to understand is simply to cut it. Whose regard for the artistic integrity of Stanley Kubrick is zero (as opposed to Semel, who probably gets an A-minus).

"We're getting caught coming and going," Semel sighed. "A long time ago I talked with Stanley, and he said, `I really would like everyone to at least see the difference between the two versions.' And I said, `Stanley, it's never been done before; it's gonna create some anger, some jealousy and some hate.' But Stanley wanted the press to see both versions, so they would be able to see the difference."

About that, I have thought long and hard. When it came to controlling the public presentation of his films, Kubrick was a chessmaster, foreseeing every move. Is it possible that Kubrick knew he'd have to insert digital figures to block out certain material - but that he also knew that if both versions were shown to critics, they would (correctly) see the "Austin Powers version" as a travesty? Was this whole controversy foreseen by Kubrick? Is he smiling now?

"I don't think there's gonna be any perfect system," Semel sighed again. "Here's the primary question: If we created another adult category, would that be acceptable to advertise on TV? Or would it fall into the same dilemma as everything else past the R?"

Well, that's the question, all right. On the answer hinges the right of adult Americans to see a movie as its director made it.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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