Sunday, 25 January 2009
Friday, 25 January 2008
Will an NC-17 Rating Hurt or Help Ang Lee's New Movie?
If you're a big Ang Lee fan and were hoping to see his new film, Lust, Caution, rewarded with box office success and Academy Award nominations, you might be in for some disappointment. Odds are the film will make very little money and will be ignored by Oscar.
Why? Because it's rated NC-17.
History paints a dismal picture for Lust, Caution's hopes of financial success. The highest-grossing NC-17 film of all-time is Showgirls, which made $20.3 million. The second place film made $11.6 million; then it's $7.7, $5.2, and so on.
And Oscars? Forget about it. The only Oscar an NC-17 film has ever been nominated for was a cinematography nod to Henry & June. NC-17 films such as Bad Education, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!, and Young Adam have won dozens of other awards, primarily in other countries, but the Academy Awards have disregarded them almost entirely.
Now, you might be remembering Requiem for a Dream, which earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination for Ellen Burstyn and which you could have sworn was rated NC-17. And indeed it was given that designation by the MPAA, but the studio, Artisan Entertainment, surrendered the NC-17 and released the movie unrated instead.
THINKFilm did the same thing in 2005 with Where the Truth Lies, whose steamy sex scene involving Kevin Bacon and Rachel Blanchard -- with a late, eyebrow-raising entrance by Colin Firth -- earned it an NC-17. THINKFilm said "No, thanks" to the MPAA and released it unrated.
So why doesn't Focus Features do that with Lust, Caution? After all, while NC-17 carries a negative connotation in many people's minds (and apparently in the Academy's), being "unrated" is fairly neutral.
The problem is that Focus is owned by Universal, which is one of the big six studios (Disney, Fox, Sony, Paramount, and Warner Bros. being the others) that belong to the Motion Picture Association of America. As such, they can't release films without a rating. If you're an MPAA member, you gotta use the MPAA's rating system. It's one of the drawbacks of being in the MPAA. I'm sure the benefits outweigh it, although off the top of my head I can't come up with what those benefits might be.
Of course, there's always the possibility that Lust, Caution will buck the trend, make a ton of money, and get nominated for everything the Academy can think of. Ang Lee has a Best Director Oscar already, plus a second nomination, and his nine movies have been nominated for a total of 27 Oscars and won eight of them. All of that suggests a track record strong enough to overcome the limitations normally associated with an NC-17 rating.
On the other hand, consider something else about NC-17 films: most of them aren't very good. When the highest-grossing film in a particular category is Showgirls, you can bet you are not dealing with the finest that cinema has to offer. Box Office Mojo's list of top NC-17 films has a few worthy titles, but mostly it's mediocre fare like John Waters' A Dirty Shame. Lots of wieners, but very few winners.
Early word on Lust, Caution, which premiered last week at the Venice Film Festival, suggests it simply might be another mediocrity. Variety says it's "an immaculately played but largely bloodless melodrama which takes an hour-and-a-half to even start revving up its motor." Then again, going to a business-oriented trade publication like Variety for movie reviews is a little like reading The Wall Street Journal for gardening tips. So who knows?
We'll all know Sept. 28, when Lust, Caution opens in the United States. Well, all of us who can bear the dirty feeling you get when you ask the ticket booth teenager for an admission to an NC-17 film will know, anyway.* * * * *
Full video trailer here