Is NC-17 really the kiss of death? Will the merest flash of naked flesh or the softest moan from hot, sweaty bods doom a film to celluloid purgatory? Granted, only one movie with the adults-only marker (no one under 17 admitted) has become a box-office hit ("Showgirls"), some have won critical acclaim. "Midnight Cowboy," released before NC-17 with an X rating, even won a best picture Academy Award.
With director Steve McQueen's hotly anticipated "Shame" opening this weekend with an NC-17 rating and Oscar buzz, I thought it the perfect opportunity to take a look at other NC-17 movies that are worth seeing. Believe it or not, there are more than you may think.
In chronological order:
— "Last Tango in Paris" (1972): For me, it's one of the best in the NC-17 line-up. It was originally released with an X rating, which became NC-17 when it was rereleased in 1997 after the MPAA adopted that rating in 1990 as a replacement for X, which had been co-opted by the porn industry for its triple-X fantasies. What makes it so memorable is not necessarily the "butter scene" (which spiced up chatter at many a cocktail party) but Marlon Brando's raw, powerful performance. He got an Oscar nomination for playing a tortured soul living in Paris who takes up with a random woman (Maria Schneider) for faceless sex. Their couplings are some of the most intense ever filmed. But the emotion and business Brando puts in front of the camera is amazing, particularly his excruciating breakdown at viewing his dead wife.
— "Henry and June" (1990): "Henry and June" was the first picture crowned with NC-17 for its proliferation of sex. Of course, any story about Henry Miller, whose books including "Tropic of Cancer" and "Tropic of Capricorn" were banned in the U.S. until 1961, would serve hot sex on a platter, hold the potatoes. The dude was a walking sex machine and loved writing about it: There he was, living in Paris in a three-way with wife, June, and writer Anais Nin. But what I love about the movie is its look: The photography is beautiful and lovingly handled by Philippe Rousselot, who got an Oscar nomination for cinematography.
— "Bad Lieutenant" (1992): If ever a movie earned the NC-17 tag, it's Abel Ferrara's stark study of sin and redemption — of a cop so dirty that he makes Swamp Thing look like Mr. Clean. What renders the film so visceral and uncomfortable are not the scenes of a psycho cop plunging needles into his veins to get high or masturbating in front of two women in a car he's pulled over, or even the disturbing images of a raped nun. No. The scariest image is the full frontal of Harvey Keitel. Close your eyes. You don't want that picture stuck in your brain — it will haunt you for years (at least until you see "The Piano," and then you'll have a flashback and scream). But there are a lot of things here that are seriously disturbing, from Keitel's drug-induced rants to the startling image of a naked nun on a hospital bed. Meanwhile, there's a wicked cool soundtrack that features Peter Yellin, Schooly-D and Johnny Ace's mournful "Pledging My Love."
— "Lust, Caution" (2007): Despite a dramatic thread and acting that often makes the film seem way over the top, there is something so touching about Ang Lee's sensual and gorgeously filmed story of romance and foreign intrigue set around World War II. The real beauty emerges in the film's mood. It got the NC-17 for the multitude of sex and I should say cornucopia, too. There is sex all over the place and in positions that defy the "Kama Sutra." But if you can sit through almost three hours of lust and a few minutes of caution, it's worth a look — if only for Lee's artistry and Tang Wei's endurance, as an actress and, um, stunt player.
— "Blue Valentine" (2010): What were they thinking? What so offended the ratings board — or frightened them — that they'd slap this heartbreaking portrait of a decaying marriage with NC-17? The rating got overturned on appeal and was shown with an R, including a scene of Ryan Gosling performing oral sex on Michelle Williams. It's the moment that seems to get all the attention, just as the "butter scene" did in "Last Tango in Paris." But there's so much more to this movie that has stayed with me. As I watched it, I was painfully reminded of an old boyfriend, of falling out of love and hearing the death rattles of our dying relationship. Gosling and Williams do so much with nuance — a look, a touch, or a reaction to a touch. The sex — including an uncomfortable moment on a motel floor — is less interesting than their feelings and moods. This is a movie that can really rip at you. I needed lots of hugs after seeing it.
So much sex, so few slots, but I just had to add this movie because I think you need a little balance in life: the good with the just awful.
— "Showgirls" (1995): When I screened this movie years ago, most people in the room laughed throughout, particularly at Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley), an ex-hooker, who gets murder in her eyes every time the word "prostitute" is mentioned and snaps at anyone who will listen that she's a "dancer." The movie has now become a campy confection, with its sassy stylings from Gina Gershon as Cristal, star of a topless revue, and Berkley's full-jacketed 'tude. Watch it with friends for a fun night.