Don’t worry, there’s nothing bad to see here. For a few years in the late 1960s, and 1970s, America had a sudden but short fascinated with X rated films. This was a different time, unlike today, when the profitable adult film industry now regularly crosses over into mainstream culture – even our President had an affair with a porn star – and he’s revered by the conservative religious establishment. Strange days.
This is as much American culture look-back as it is a film history experience. Let’s get int Mr. Peabody’s wayback machine and travel back 50 years. What was an X rated film? The X rating was invented by the major film studios. It didn’t mean then, what it would represent later.
Up until the late 1960s, there had been a few films, not major studio releases, independently produced and foreign made films, that were marketed for adults only. Major studios wouldn’t dare release a film with nudity or graphic eroticism. Even ideas of perverse relationships between adults, or sensitive subjects like rape were tough to get made. Tennessee Williams (Baby Doll) or Otto Preminger (The Moon is Blue, Anatomy of a Murder) were the provocateurs of that material, and towed a fine line to get their materials onto the screen.
On the independent market, Andy Warhol and Russ Meyer were making films of a mature nature with nudity and perverse themes. These played in art houses or independent theaters. By the late 1960s as social mores we’re changing, and the motion picture production code was about to be totally revamped, the number of films with adult subject matter increased, and major studios knew there was a paying audience. The old restrictions were no longer going to work, but there had to be some sort of advisory to get audiences and especially parents, some guidance on individual films. Jack Valenti, representative for the major studios, introduced a new studio rating system, and this included the new X rating. Remember, many communities also had laws regarding obscenity, and that kept questionable films to major cities, typically above the Bible Belt. The problem was, there were many local boards that interpreted what was appropriate for their communities, and therefore no uniformity. Valenti’s new system was a product of the major film studios, theater associations and film importers.
The X rating was a commercial liability as many theater chains wouldn’t touch it, and newspapers, the major advertising method, wouldn’t allow it. An X rating in those days didn’t mean nudity or graphic sex, only that persons under age 16 were not admitted (later changed to age 17). The rating board used very general criteria, and each film was viewed and voted on by a secret panel, which is still the method used today. The term, “Not suitable for persons under age 16,” was whatever that panel determined. Even today, the NC-17 ( which replaced X), is not a scientific determination of film content, it the collective determination of the people who review and vote on the rating. Producers are allowed to appeal a rating, and often will make edits to the film if necessary, to support their case. Most producers want a rating to ensure the broadest audience. If you release a film without a rating, good luck finding a theater group to show it.
The first film to receive an X rating was The Girl on a Motorcycle (1968), but was edited to an R rating. I have seen clips from it, they are available on YouTube. It might have been shocking at the time, but it has images that are erotic rather than overtly graphic. This film is different from the fare that Warhol, Meyer and others distributed whose intention was an X rating. They wanted the X, to define their subject matter, and their core audiences. Interestingly, it was the independent producers and the adult film industry that co-oped the X rating, and began using the XXX, which they invented, as a self-marketing tool. Confused? Wait.
Up until 1969, only the Warhols and Meyers of the film industry wanted an X rating. Hollywood avoided it. And then…
Enter Midnight Cowboy (1969).
Midnight Cowboy was based on a novel by James Leo Herlihy. It was purchased by longtime Hollywood producer Jerome Hellman (The World of Henry Orient, A Fine Madness), who hired Waldo Salt to adapt it. John Schlesinger was hired to direct, and United Artist released the finished film. Midnight Cowboy starred Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight, and featured a distinguished supporting cast. I mention all of this but everything about this film reeked of Hollywood establishment. Lo and behold, the film was slapped with an X rating. Well, this created a problem. A major studio film with a rating where not only kids wouldn’t be part of the audience, but just the rating would scare away the PTA and church goers. On a small budget of $3M, the film earned more than $40M at the box office. Someone must have braved the X rating to go see the film. And that’s not all, Midnight Cowboy won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay, and had four other nominations. Imagine that, a hit at the box office and a winner with the major film awards! If you have seen the film, there was very little nudity and only token violence. It was the general subject matter, a male prostitute servicing both men and women. Civilization is crumbling.
Midnight Cowboy wasn’t the only big studio film that landed in the mature subject matter category. Nothing speaks like money. Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969) and Myra Breckinridge (1970) also got the X rating, basically for eroticism and some perversion rather than sexual activity. These are two films that many people have never heard of, and you aren’t missing anything. Look at the actors in these two film. Milton Berle. Mae West. Anthony Newley. John Huston. It wasn’t just the rating system that was rather strange then.
Things begin to get really interesting.
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) was a Russ Meyer film, written by Roger Ebert. Yes, Roger Ebert. For a short time, Meyer was contracted to a major film studio to deliver an adult film. Initially rated X, the film is soft core at best, and rather campy to be taken seriously.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) was an independent film directed by Melvin Van Pebbles (father of Mario Van Pebbles), about a young Black man entrapped by police for a crime he didn’t commit and the events that take place as he escapes and evades the law. Van Pebbles made the film and financed it himself, and it became one of the leading films of the Black cinema. The frank violence and sex earned it an X rating, but it was deemed controversial because of the militant themes, and likely stuck with the rating.
Fritz the Cat (1972) was the first X-rated animated film. Produced by mainstream animator Ralph Bakshi, it told the story of a crime-fighting, political protesting, orgy loving cat. That’s quite a lead character.
The next film to be the talk of the industry as Last Tango in Paris (1972). Directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, it starred Marlon Brando in the role of an older man in a kinky relationship with a younger woman. Brando was enjoying a career resurgence because of The Godfather, and of the films offered to him, this was what he chose. Artsy, and kinky, but X-rated?
The power of a master filmmaker. A Clockwork Orange (1972) initially had an X rating until Stanley Kubrick trimmed enough about 30 seconds of sexually explicit material to get an R rating. Still, the violence and explicit nature of the material would likely have stuck an X rating had it been released two years earlier. Kubrick’s name will come up again later.
Dating back to 1963, Andy Warhol sponsored a number of independently produced films, often made abroad. Some of the titles from 1969 forward include Blue Movie, Trash, Heat, Blood for Dracula, and Flesh for Frankenstein that contained drug use, graphic violence, disemboweling, sex or frontal nudity. Each of these films contained enough of those shocking elements to earn an X rating. Warhol’s name guaranteed publicity and often controversy.
A little porno film that changed American culture, bringing the adult industry into the mainstream was Deep Throat (1972). Star Linda Lovelace would become a part of the American pop culture. This was a truly hardcore sex film, partially financed by organized crime that took the significant profits. Made for an estimated $50,000 it make upwards of $50M. This film became a big deal. As it made money, it was seen outside of the adult houses, celebrities began to see it and talk about it. Even Johnny Carson. It was cool to say you saw the film. Was it shocking? Linda Lovelace became a celebrity, even introducing Elton John at the Hollywood Bowl. Deep Throat became a character in Watergate. Deep Throat was a game-changer.
Deep Throat opened the door for other hardcore films to seep into American cultural. Three films in particular broke outside of the adult industry were Behind the Green Door, The Devil in Miss Jones and Debbie Does Dallas. There was something shocking in these films, something beyond what other films had shown, something bold in the presentation, and strangely scratched an itch of some sort. With Deep Throat, it was oral sex, presented in a campy sort of way. The film had lines around the block in many cities. Quite a sin-sation, pardon the pun. Behind the Green Door starred Marilyn Chambers, who looked like the girl next door, and who had been the model for the Ivory Soap ads. Shocking. The Devil in Miss Jones was a lauded film for being actually a well-made film, with a plot and not just an exploitation film. Debbie Does Dallas starred a cheerleader-type that raised the stakes for putting good looking actors in the films, and a vague association with professional sports. How much of this fascination was changing mores verses clever marketing, we’ll never know, but the bottom line was a very profitable bottom line.
Director Russ Meyer returned in 1975 with Supervixens, a very successful independently produced soft core film, but still X-rated. In my town, once in awhile, an X rated film would be shown at the local theater chain. Shocking to think they did, but they were in business to sell theater seats, not be judgmental. When they did show an X rated film, it was late in the evening and at midnight. You’d see your neighbors and well-known people walking out, probably hoping no one saw them. What was the draw? Johnny Carson had probably joked about it, or it was mentioned around the office. Middle aged couples had probably seen Midnight Cowboy, but that doesn’t count now, since it wasn’t really an X rated film, but these new films were titillating and now culturally significant. The film rating system was not just to keep kids out of adult themed films, it was to protect adults who might not have done their homework on the film showing at the local cinema. In an episode of All in the Family, Archie Bunker groused that Edith had dragged him to see Carnal Knowledge, a film he thought was called “Cardinal” Knowledge, about Catholic cardinal. He was upset about the film’s content, and that was only an R rated film.
The world of film has changed in 50 years. There are very few NC-17 films released today, and XXX films aren’t shown in theaters, they are released as DVDs or streamed on cable services. R rated films contain more graphic content, whether it is sex, nudity, violence or other content that viewer might find upsetting or perverse in some way. To go a step further, content does not have to graphic to be horrific. Film-making is very scientific now, imagery, sound, editing and the psychology of fear, can make a film today exponentially more disturbing than R rated films like The Wild Bunch or The Exorcist, two films, legendary for making viewers head for the aisles.
In 1980, I was sitting in a theater and one of the previews was to The Shining. It wasn’t really a trailer of scenes, it was a still footbage of a bank of elevators in a lobby. Jarring music played as the list of the major film credits rolled over the static elevator footage. Suddenly, in slow motion, one of the elevators opens slightly and a torrent of blood comes flowing out in waves like the ocean tide, covering everything and eventually washing up over the camera lens. That was very disturbing. I told this to a colleague at work and he said that normal things that scare you, in the hands of a genius like Stanley Kubrick can terrify you in ways you have never thought of. That trailer is available on YouTube but you have to verify your age to watch it, which I did to write this blog. I guess my point is that we are fascinated by different things, and our ability to process those things changes with age, although some things disturb me more today than they used to, but I have been conditioned to accept more of certain things than before. Ratings don’t really help me much because I honestly don’t know what they mean nor can they predict how I will react to what I see. Research helps me, and then even, I can be surprised.
I tried not to make this blog about values. Films reflect who we are and our cultural makeup. Mainstream films are much more daring today in many way. We are conditioned to accept a lot more, and at a younger age. Whether it is violence, sex appeal and physical appearance, films pick up on and mirror who we are. You find few people smoking in films today, but the body count by gun-play needs a computer to calculate.
If you want graphic sex, there is an entire industry with a revenue larger than many countries, deliverable to the privacy of your home by a thing called the Internet, or your cable/communications provider. You may not support the content, but likely your investment portfolio somewhere owns shares of stock in the delivery system. Welcome to the global economy.
Entertainment choices are everywhere. Choices in content were already changing 50 years ago, and once it did, you can’t put the Genie back in the bottle. Once Debbie has been to Dallas…