Recently, a trailer for the NC-17-rated Marilyn Monroe biopic went viral, leaving viewers to wonder what could possibly shock us in 2022. Even in our hyper-stimulated society, NC-17 and X ratings (the terms are used interchangeably) carry an undeniable intrigue. The classification is so tantalizing, so rare, it’s become a selling point in modern cinema. But it wasn’t always that way.
Pre-Code Hollywood and the Eventual Ratings System
With the inception of talkies in the late 1920s, the Golden age of Hollywood was born. And for a while, it was like the Wild West: uncharted and unsupervised. Though technically there were guidelines for what could be shown on screen — the Hays Code — those rules were not enforced between 1929 and 1934.
For five glorious years, filmmakers reveled in (then-)gritty themes: sex, prostitution, homosexuality, miscegenation, drug abuse, infidelity, abortion… basically, everything that makes movies fun to watch. It all came crashing down in July of 1934, though, when the stickler censor Joseph Breen was hired to beginning enforcing the Hays Code.
Every wonder why so many ’50s and ’60s films are so dorky? The Code reigned supreme in Hollywood for more than 30 years, dictating a more family-friendly art form. In 1968, though, everything changed. Again. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) film rating system was born.
With simple letters — now G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17 — movies could be easily classified for their appropriate audience. And the very year that that system was unveiled, the MPAA had to deal out some X ratings.
Greetings, directed by Brian De Palma, is generally considered to be the first X-rated film released in the United States. It premiered in 1968 and followed the intertwined stories of three young men draft dodging the Vietnam War. Among them, a youthful Robert De Niro starring in his first major role.
Shot in an experimental, episodic fashion, the characters’ misadventures are comedic and pretty explicit— which earned Greetings the early X rating for sexual content. However, that rating was later revised to the standard R.
The film is available to watch in its entirety on YouTube, linked above.
‘Birds in Peru’
Though Greetings is 1968’s more famous X-rated movie, there are conflicting accounts as to whether it was technically first. The film history podcast You Must Remember This highlights the French flick Birds in Peru as the first X-rated film to enter the United States.
It stars a lonely Jean Seberg, future face of the French New Wave, and she traverses Peru on… a masochistic parade of carnal ecstasy. Birds of Paradise was directed by Seberg’s husband at the time, novelist Romain Gary, and Gary was criticized for the apparent exploitation of his lead actress. The movie inspired outrage with its Paris premiere in June of 1968.
Later that year, it was imported to the U.S. with the tell-tale X label.
That film is also available in its entirety on YouTube, linked above.
Though not the first X-rated movie to make waves, John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy may be the most enduring. It premiered in May of 1969 with the recognizable stars Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman appearing as buddy-buddy male prostitutes.
Considering the intense subject matter, the Midnight Cowboy team did not even submit the film for classification by the MPAA. They elected for the X rating themselves. “We didn’t want to go through the exercise since we weren’t prepared to change the movie,” producer David Picker said later. “I committed to John that the film would be distributed exactly the way he made it. If theaters don’t want to play it, they won’t play it. But a lot of theaters did play it.”
A lot, indeed. The controversy and fascination that surrounded Midnight Cowboy became a cultural moment in itself and in 1970, the film won three major Oscars including the Academy Award for Best Picture.
Like Greetings, Midnight Cowboy was eventually re-classified by the MPAA with an R rating. But it remains the only X-rated movie to ever nab a Best Picture win.