There are a number of reasons why a dark movie about sex addiction might encounter obstacles in its quest to become a broad crowd-pleaser or a popular Oscar choice. But could a severe rating be one of them?
It’s far from a hypothetical question as Fox Searchlight opens “Shame” this weekend. Steve McQueen’s drama, a movie whose artistic virtues we've been touting in this space since the movie premiered at the film festivals of late summer, tells of Brandon (Michael Fassbender) and his struggles to find emotional connection while engaging in emotionless sexual activity with seemingly every woman, real and virtual, in the New York metro area.
The movie is also rated NC-17, one of the rare films to be released with the Motion Picture Assn. of America's harshest grade. (Fox Searchlight didn’t have the option of going unrated because it’s part of the MPAA.)
Although movies like “Midnight Cowboy” and “Last Tango in Paris” kicked up a storm when they received the MPAA’s most severe rating (an X) for sexual content four decades ago, McQueen believes the issue is as out of date as the Nixon administration. Filmgoers and voters aren’t scandalized by the rating anymore, he says.
“What we did in this film is tame compared to what you can get on the Internet,” he told 24 Frames. ‘The debate [about sex] should not be about cinema.”
Of course, it cuts the other way too: “Last Tango” and “Midnight Cowboy” attracted ticket sales and Oscar heat precisely because they seemed taboo and edgy; with sexual content as prevalent as it is now, “Shame” might not be able to ride those same coattails. (There’s a certain irony in this, because one of the reasons McQueen made the movie in the first place was to comment on a world in which sex was ubiquitous.)
Still, it would be an exaggeration to say there isn’t any resistance from theater owners. John Fithian, who runs the National Assn. of Theater Owners, said that he doesn’t believe the stigma exists. “There’s a myth perpetuated over and over again by the media that members won’t play an NC-17 movie, and that’s patently untrue,” he told 24 Frames.
But Fithian did acknowledge that a top-10 chain did have a formal ban on showing NC-17 films.
As my colleague John Horn reports in tomorrow’s Times, that company is Cinemark, the nation’s third-largest chain, which issued a statement in response to his query that it, indeed, doesn't play any NC-17 film as a matter of policy.
In fact, even an art-house theater owned by Cinemark near the Northwestern University campus in Evanston, Ill., won't be showing it; students interested in the film will have to go to Chicago instead. (Incidentally, representatives of another chain, Carmike, declined to comment, but also did not appear to be playing “Shame” at this time.)
While “Shame” is about sex, the film’s producer said that he thought the way it depicted the two sides of addiction would generally strike a nerve with filmgoers. “In a sense this movie is about the drunk you have a good time with at the Christmas party,” said producer Iain Canning. “Then you see he has to drink a bottle of vodka to get through the day and it’s not funny anymore.”
And that may be the toughest issue. The NC-17 isn’t as taboo as it once was. But in the case of “Shame,” it signals a movie that could prove difficult to watch for reasons having nothing to do with nudity.
Photo: Carey Mulligan and Michael Fassbender in "Shame." Credit: Fox Searchlight