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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'Naked Ambition': The MPAA's still scared of sex

For some reason, I've been knee deep in red-band trailers this week. First it was the new "Borat" trailer, which the MPAA labeled red-band (meaning that it is restricted from being shown in front of youth-oriented films). Now it's a trailer for "Naked Ambition: An R-rated Look at an X-rated Industry," a new documentary about the adult film business by Michael Grecco, a prominent celebrity photographer. The film, which opens in L.A. on May 1 at the Laemmle Sunset 5, offers a behind-the-scenes portrait of adult film stars, talking about their work and how they ended up in the business.

NakedAmbition_CoverJacketSM300wThe news here is the MPAA, which has always been astoundingly phobic about sex, has given the film's trailer a restricted red-band rating despite the fact that it has zero -- and I mean zero -- sex or nudity. 

As you can see for yourself -- the trailer is here -- it has no nudity, no bad language, not even anything especially suggestive. Some of the women have large breasts, but they're all carefully covered by bikinis or tank tops. They're not even "working," if you know what I mean. Much of the footage in the film -- and the trailer -- is from backstage access to the Adult Video News Awards, as well as other appearances and photo shoots with the likes of Jenna Jameson, Ron Jeremy and Tera Patrick.

So what is the MPAA's problem? According to Grecco, the ratings board had no objections to any specific scenes. They were simply uncomfortable with the entire subject of adult film. "I felt like I was on trial, by people who think their job is to protect America from sex," he told me. "They're not just prejudiced against sexual content. They're prejudiced against an industry that deals with sex."

He said that ratings board chief Joan Graves, whom he spoke to several times, was especially unhappy about the film's subtitle, which is also the title of a companion Grecco photo book on the same subject. According to Grecco, Graves wouldn't give the trailer a green-band rating, but offered up the possibility of what he called a "discretionary band" trailer where the ratings board would give exhibitors the right to show the trailer in front of certain selected films, on a case-by-case basis. 

"What Joan really wanted to do was rate the film itself, because she was concerned about my use of the R-rating subtitle as a cultural reference," explained Grecco, whose photographs have appeared in such magazines as Esquire, Time and Entertainment Weekly. "The rub is that I used her own terminology. She doesn't seem to want me making the claim that it's an R-rated film before they can actually rate it themselves. But 'R' isn't their emblem or anything -- it long ago become a cultural reference."

Because the ratings board was unwilling to give Grecco any leeway on his trailer, he pulled the film itself from the ratings process, which means it will go out in its limited theater run as an unrated picture. "After what happened with the ratings board on the trailer, I felt I'd be opening up a Pandora's box. I could tell from our phone conversations that I was dealing with a generation of people that really didn't understand today's MySpace culture at all."

As is often the case, the ratings board has far fewer problems about giving a green-band to trailers with violence and gunplay. Asked if he thought the ratings board had a wildly different attitude toward sex than violence, Grecco said, "I don't just believe there's a double standard. I'm witnessing it myself." 

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Dear Mr. Goldstein:

Don't you ever take the time to do any historical research? Especially cultural historical research? The CARA was spawned by the attitudes of conservative America during the cultural turmoil of the mid-Sixties. This country has always had a puritanical attitude toward sex but as late as the early 20th Century hangings were public events, and lynchings continued to be in parts of the South. The current wimpiness toward violence is a product of liberal Eighties political correctness.

Actually, when introduced in 1968, the Ratings were a closer reflection of the attitudes of actual movie-going audiences of the time. With one exception, the films originally rated X, all for sexual content, were really not films for people under 18. But the commercial and critical success of the X rated MIDNIGHT COWBOY panicked conservatives and led to the scrambling over the last 40 years to not let anything out that they felt went too far.

The system had a major initial flaw with the definition of the R rating and Jerk Valenti and his successors have so far fought any attempt to bring the system more in line with the attitudes of the successive generations that actually see movies in the theater. It's probably going to take a filmmaker with the nerve to release a film they think is PG-13 that the CARA wants to give an R without a rating (which Valenti always dared the makers of potential X/NC-17 rating films to do) with successful results that may force their bosses at the MPAA to finally seriously consider bringing the ratings into the 21st Century on both sex and violence.

Rick Mitchell
Film editor/Film Historian

"But 'R' isn't their emblem or anything -- it long ago became a cultural reference."

But it is the MPAA's "emblem," in a way -- the "R" rating is trademarked (as are all the other ratings, save "X") and cannot be self-imposed. If the filmmaker wants to make reference to his film's MPAA rating in his advertising or promotion, he needs to first receive a rating from the MPAA.


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