Why Is Michelle Williams' Sex Scene Rated NC-17 While Natalie Portman's Is R?
By Gary Susman Posted Dec 7th 2010 12:45PM
For all the hype about Natalie Portman's steamy lesbian sex scene with Mila Kunis in 'Black Swan,' the scene was still tame enough to earn an R rating from the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board, which means it can (and will) be shown in theaters all over the country. Like Portman, Michelle Williams is on the receiving end of an oral sex scene in 'Blue Valentine' (opening Dec. 31). Despite the similarity of the scenes, however, the Williams scene earned her film an NC-17 rating, which would keep it out of most mainstream theaters, out of the movie-section ads in many newspapers and off the shelves of most mainstream DVD retailers.
The directors of both films acknowledge a double standard at work here, according to the Los Angeles Times. The Times article, however, merely hints at what the reasons might be for such a double standard, saying only that the 'Blue Valentine' scene is more "emotionally authentic" than the 'Black Swan' scene -- which is to say, it's more convincing and realistic and less fantasy-like. That's certainly one possible reason, but there are others that go unmentioned in the article.
[Warning: The following paragraph contains spoilers about 'Black Swan' and 'Blue Valentine.'] One striking similarity about the two sex scenes is that there's no explicit nudity in them. In 'Black Swan,' Portman and Kunis are rival ballerinas who bond one night over alcohol and then harder drugs. They wind up in bed together and, in a discreetly shot scene, most of the action takes place on Portman's face as she reacts to Kunis' oral ministrations. In 'Blue Valentine,' Ryan Gosling and Williams are a couple going through the highs and lows of their relationship. An early high point is shown when Gosling pleasures Williams, in a scene discreetly shot in a single take, from the side of the bed. [End spoilers.]
'Black Swan' Trailer
Both scenes are about the characters letting go of their inhibitions. Both are arguably crucial to the plot. But the Williams scene is all about pleasure and emotional intimacy. The Portman scene is creepier and more surreal, reflecting the character's drug high and her ongoing psychological breakdown. The viewer is meant to consider the possibility that the scene isn't even actually happening, that it's just a fantasy, a hallucination.
The surreality of the Portman scene may be one reason the ratings board found it less taboo than the Williams scene. It's pretty rare, after all, for a mainstream Hollywood movie to depict with seriousness, realism and frankness a woman's pleasure. Sure, you'll see characters talk about it or fake it elaborately for comic effect (the deli scene in 'When Harry Met Sally' comes to mind) or gloss it over with soft-focus lighting and lush strings. You'll also see it presented in a deliberately unreal way, as in 'Black Swan.' But to see it unvarnished, presented as is, in 'Blue Valentine' is apparently just too much for the ratings board.
"The essence of our film is that it's intimate and emotional and the sex doesn't feel fake. It's an honest relationship between two people, and it feels real because I have great actors," 'Blue Valentine' director Derek Cianfrance told the Times. "It's as if the MPAA is saying, 'Your actors are good -- but they're too good.'"
'Black Swan' director Darren Aronofsky seems to agree. "I've heard the 'Blue Valentine' scene is more emotionally authentic," he told the Times, noting that he hadn't yet seen the film. But Aronofsky's problem with the ratings board is more that it seems to rate violence more leniently than sex, "which to me seems totally backward."
The ratings board has spent decades brushing off complaints over its seemingly different standards for sex and for violence. But that may be a red herring to distract from the other possible reason for the different ratings given to 'Black Swan' and 'Blue Valentine,' which is: who made them.
'Blue Valentine' Clip
'Black Swan' comes from Fox Searchlight, part of the same studio family as 20th Century Fox, one of the six major studios that make up the MPAA membership and pay its salaries. 'Blue Valentine' is an independently-financed film that was purchased by the Weinstein Company, which is not an MPAA member, and is distributing the film independently. 'Black Swan' stars A-lister Portman and mainstream starlet Kunis ('Forgetting Sarah Marshall,' 'That '70s Show'). 'Blue Valentine' stars Gosling and Williams, two actors known more for little-seen independent films than mainstream blockbusters. 'Black Swan' comes from a well-established director (Aronofsky, whose previous credits include such well-regarded movies as 'The Wrestler' and 'Requiem for a Dream,' and whose next project is a mega-budget superhero sequel, 'The Wolverine,' for 20th Century Fox). 'Blue Valentine' marks the first major fiction feature from Cianfrance, a little-known director of documentaries.
It shouldn't matter, of course, who financed, directed or stars in a film; the ratings board ought to rate it strictly on its own merits. Historically, however, that hasn't been the case. As Kirby Dick asserted in 'This Film Is Not Yet Rated,' his 2006 documentary about the inner workings of the ratings board, the MPAA has historically been more lenient toward the studios that pay the bills (and which generally forbid their directors from making NC-17 movies) than it is to indies who are not members but must submit their films anyway if they want a rating that theater owners will accept as valid. Many independent directors (including Aronofsky, interviewed in Dick's film) have complained over the years that they're held to a harsher standard than their studio counterparts. ('This Film' also showed the ratings board's tendency over the years to give restrictive ratings to movies that display female gratification.)
The 'Blue Valentine' complaint is only the latest in a recent series of gripes about ratings board decisions. The Weinstein Company also complained about the R rating given to 'The King's Speech' for excessive profanity. The film, now in limited release, is earning Oscar buzz for Colin Firth's performance as King George VI (father of Britan's current Queen Elizabeth II), who overcomes a speech impediment in part by unleashing a barrage of swear words. It's an inspirational film that is now beyond the reach of most children because of one scene, but at least mainstream theaters will show it, which is why the Weinsteins decided not to appeal the rating to the MPAA's ratings appeals board. It is, however, appealing the NC-17 rating for 'Blue Valentine,' since that rating could keep it out of most theaters and cost the distributor millions of dollars. The MPAA says it has a policy of not commenting on pending appeals, so it hasn't discussed its reasoning for the 'Blue Valentine' rating.
Granted, Harvey and Bob Weinstein have been accused in the past (when they ran Miramax) of ginning up ratings controversies just to gain extra publicity. Still, one might give them the benefit of the doubt, since they stand to lose money if the NC-17 rating sticks, and since they're supporting Gianfrance's insistence that he won't cut the scene even if the appeal fails.
There is one standard complaint about the ratings board that does not seem to apply here. As Dick documented, the board has historically given harsher ratings to scenes of same-sex coupling than to straight sex scenes. That's certainly not the case with 'Black Swan' and 'Blue Valentine.' The ratings board may have muddled standards regarding female sexual pleasure, profanity and violence, but at least it's no longer quite so fearful of lesbianism. So long as the lesbians are played by household-name actresses in MPAA-member films, and they're not totally naked, and they're not necessarily enjoying themselves, and they might just be fantasizing, that is ...
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