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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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To the MPAA ratings board, 'The King's Speech' is just as bad as 'Saw 3D'

November 1, 2010 |  7:15 pm

King_speech“The King’s Speech,” a British film being touted as a leading contender for the best picture Oscar, is a delightful, heart-warming account of how a cheeky Australian speech therapist helped King George VI conquer a terrible stammer.

“Saw 3D” is the seventh installment in the torture-porn horror film series, which as the Orlando Sentinel’s Roger Moore described it, has grown more and more gruesome, “with the filmmakers caught up in ‘What would it look like if somebody’s jaw was ripped out, or their skin was glued to a car seat?’”

If you’re a parent, as I am, which film would you want your 12-year-old to see? No contest, right? Yet according to the Motion Picture Assn. of America’s crackpot ratings system, both films are rated R — meaning no one under 17 allowed without a parent.

“Saw 3D,” which hit theaters last week, earned the designation for innumerable scenes of violence, torture and depravity; “The King’s Speech,” which will be released at Thanksgiving, got it for one brief scene where the future king of England, encouraged by his therapist, utters a volley of swear words to cure his stutter.

To call the decision crazy and unhinged would be to let the MPAA off too lightly. Its ratings decisions, which frown on almost any sort of sex, frontal nudity or bad language but have allowed increasing amounts of violence over the years, are horribly out of touch with mainstream America, where families everywhere are disturbed by the amount of violence freely portrayed in movies, video games and hip-hop music.

“The King’s Speech” director Tom Hooper was appalled when he learned his film had earned an R rating.

“What really upsets me is that the boundaries for violence have been pushed farther and farther back while any kind of bad language remains taboo,” he told me Sunday. “I’m a filmgoer as well as a filmmaker, and I know what it’s like to see something disturbing that puts an image into your head that you can’t get rid of. I felt that way in ‘Salt,’ when Angelina Jolie had a tube forced down her throat against her will to simulate drowning, and I felt the same way in ‘Quantum of Solace’ where Daniel Craig’s [testicles] are smashed in through a chair with no bottom.”

Yet the ratings board deemed those films PG-13 while giving “The King’s Speech” an R. “What I take away from that decision,” says Hooper, “is that violence and torture is OK, but bad language isn’t. I can’t think of a single film I’ve ever seen where the swear words had haunted me forever, the way a scene of violence or torture has, yet the ratings board only worries about the bad language.”

The MPAA’s decision to give “The King’s Speech” an R looks even worse after what happened recently in England. The British Board of Film Classification, the country’s movie ratings group, had initially given “The King’s Speech” a 15 certificate, prohibiting kids under that age from seeing it. But the board recently reconsidered and changed its rating to a 12A, giving it England’s equivalent of a PG-13.

Most importantly, the British ratings board recognized what the MPAA has always blindly ignored — the context of the language, saying in its ruling that the swearing was allowed because it was “not aggressive and not directed at any person.”

What does the MPAA say in its defense?

Joan Graves, who heads the MPAA’s rating board (officially known as the Classification and Rating Administration), argues against making an exception for “The King’s Speech.” “We’ve made clear what our language guidelines are, and it’s not fair, in fact it would look arbitrary, if we threw it out for just one film.”

However, the biggest problem with the MPAA standards about bad language is that they are demonstrably different from the standards imposed on violence or torture. The ratings board is specific — if a film uses more than one f-word, or uses it in any sexual context, the film is given an R rating.

But instead of applying a similar specific standard to violence, for example, giving an R to a film with more than one instance of a person being shot in the head or having their fingers chopped off, the ratings board judges violence on a far more amorphous and clearly subjective sense of overall tone. That discrepancy sets up the MPAA for all sorts of criticism, much of which has come from Nell Minow, a corporate governance expert whose must-read Movie Mom blog has frequently taken the MPAA to task for its inconsistencies.

“The ratings decision on ‘The King’s Speech’ is just another example of how completely out of touch and useless the guidance is that we get from the MPAA,” Minow told me Monday. “The one thing we want from them is a general sense of where a movie fits into our family values. But by putting ‘The King’s Speech’ in the same ratings category as ‘Kill Bill’ or ‘Scarface’ or ‘Saw,’ then it really makes a mockery of the whole system.”

Graves disagrees. “I know it’s a source of great frustration for people who would like to have more rules, but we’re trying to give parents a snapshot of what’s in a film, not more rules. It’s just a lot easier to quantify language than it is violence.” Still, even Graves doesn’t dispute the fact that the board has allowed more violence and torture to creep into PG-13 movies over the last two decades while its arbitrary rule about language has remained exactly the same.

“Our perception is that parents still feel the same way about bad language, especially in areas like the Midwest and the South, where they often have a problem with God, as in goddamnit. On the coasts, perhaps because they have more urban centers, they’re more concerned with violence.”

Still, even Graves admits that the MPAA has occasionally been too lax with violence. When I brought up the example of Craig being tortured in the Bond film, which got a PG-13, she responded: “I have to admit that we got a lot of comment about that scene. If we had to do it all over again, we would’ve handled it differently. We’re not infallible.”

No one expects the ratings board to be infallible. But if the MPAA is going to be subjective about how it views violence, allowing some scenes of torture but not others, then why on earth can’t it be subjective about language as well? In “The King’s Speech,” the swear words are clearly used in a context of helping a man overcome his stammer; they don’t signify anything remotely aggressive or sexual. It deserves a break from the MPAA, which shouldn’t be in the business of making it more difficult for kids to see an inspirational film about overcoming adversity.

I couldn’t say it any better than Hooper, who makes the point this way: “This isn’t creating a precedent, since after all, how many films can claim to use swearing for its therapeutic effect? The floodgates aren’t going to open. But when you have a system that gives the same rating to ‘Kick Ass’ and ‘Saw’ as ‘The King’s Speech,’ it feels like you’re in a world that has lost its mooring.” 

Photo: Colin Firth as King George VI and Helena Bonham Carter as the Queen Mother in "The King's Speech."

Credit: Laurie Sparham/The Weinstein Co.

 

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