John Waters must be one of the few film directors who can shrug when their work is declared off-limits to a significant portion of the movie-going population.

"If anyone can take it, I can," Waters says, not as boast, but fact.

Titled A Dirty Shame, the newest movie from Charm City's proudest and most-beloved degenerate is rated NC-17, banning anyone younger than 17 years old from seeing it in theaters. Starring Tracey Ullman and Johnny Knoxville, the film, which has its sold-out American premiere tonight at Baltimore's Senator Theatre, features a band of sex addicts who seek to take over Harford Road.

Waters is, after all, the same director who steadfastly has insisted that Hairspray - the family-friendly 1988 film whose mass appeal helped make it a Tony-winning Broadway musical - was an aberration. "I remember when it got a PG rating," he once remarked. "I wanted to commit suicide."

Recently, however, there have been signs, including a recent spate of NC-17 films, that mainstream Hollywood and filmmakers such as John Waters might be moving closer together.

A rating of NC-17 can have significant impact on a movie's success. Nineteen percent of the total movie-going audience in 2003 was under age 18, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. NC-17 films also present marketing and distribution challenges: Some newspapers won't carry advertising for them, some theater chains won't show them and, once they've been released on video and DVD, some stores, including Blockbuster and Wal-Mart, won't carry them.

"If you go NC-17, the historical [record] shows us that you're going to get hurt at the box office," says Paul Dergarabedian of Exhibitor Relations, a box-office tracking firm based in Los Angeles. "NC-17 films are not considered mainstream films. ... There's mostly downside to NC-17, except for specialized [independent] films that can use the rating as a marketing tool to sort of get street [credibility]."

When the ratings system was created in 1968, films with significant sexual content were given an X rating. Soon, however, the X was co-opted by the adult-film industry, leading to an equation that seemed obvious to most people: X equals pornography.

While some early X-rated films, such as John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy (1969) and Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (1972), achieved both critical and popular success, the adults-only restriction quickly became a scarlet letter. "Respectable" people stopped going to see them, "respectable" theaters stopped showing them, "respectable" studios stopped releasing them.

Eventually, the clamor for a new adults-only tag that could not be appropriated by the porn industry convinced the MPAA that something had to be done. In 1990, the NC-17 rating was created, with the hope that the distinction between pornography and films geared to adults would become clear to the movie-going public.

"What has happened," says Robert Shaye, founder, co-chairman and co-CEO of New Line Films, distributors of A Dirty Shame, "is that the newspapers and theaters treat an NC-17 film like they treat a triple-X, four-adults-and-a-dog film. And there is clearly a difference."

To many, the difference seemed marginal.

Studios, desperate to enhance their products' box-office potential, have routinely demanded that directors avoid the NC-17. In 1999, after director Stanley Kubrick died, Warner Bros. edited his film, Eyes Wide Shut, so that it could be released with an R instead of an NC-17 rating.

Such attitudes might be thawing.

Thirty-two years ago, Waters' Pink Flamingos, which included transvestite actor Divine eating dog feces, was greeted with outrage. It was rated X (later updated to NC-17) and made Waters' career.

More recently, however, mainstream comedies such as Bobby and Peter Farrelly's There's Something About Mary (1998) and Walt Becker's National Lampoon's Van Wilder (2002) have showcased similar stunts and have been released in theaters with an R rating.

And this year, four new releases, including A Dirty Shame, have been given an NC-17 rating by the MPAA - more than in any year since 1995. All four are major-studio releases: Bertolucci's The Dreamers (20th Century Fox), Alexandre Aja's High Tension (Lions Gate Films), David Mackenzie's Young Adam (Sony Pictures Classics) and A Dirty Shame (New Line Cinema).

"I think there's now a kind of energy around them," Maryland Film Festival head Jed Dietz says. "I believe people are starting to see that there are some niches for those films."

New Line's Shaye points to Kinsey, a film starring Liam Neeson as famous sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, as a sign that the MPAA might be loosening up. Scheduled to be released in theaters later this year, it has been rated R.

"I'm somewhat heartened by the MPAA's rating on Kinsey," says Shaye, "The film contains frontal nudity, pictures of humorous genitalia, humorous sexual innuendo, but it's a very serious movie. It suggests that, as with any kind of censorship body, there may be a trend toward liberalizing what the MPAA is doing."

Such liberalization, of course, comes too late for Waters. Though he was under contract to create an R-rated movie for New Line, and though he refrained from showing an actual sex act in A Dirty Shame, the MPAA gave the $7 million film an NC-17 for what the board called "pervasive sexual content."

"I guess I've forced it so that now you can't even talk about sex in a movie without getting the dreaded NC-17 rating," Waters says.

Once it became obvious that A Dirty Shame stripped of NC-17-rated content would run about 15 minutes, he and Shaye had a "quiet negotiation," says Waters. And the studio - in consultation with officials of its parent company, Time-Warner - agreed to release the film as Waters initially submitted it.

"While we don't want to go willy-nilly into distributing NC-17 films," Shaye says, "there was an openness [at Time-Warner] to at least examine the issues and decide that this was a worthy work by a real populist artist, and that it would be a disservice to that populist culture to try and change the film so dramatically."

Waters, too, detects a sea change in how censor boards regard his films. An old hand at battling the censors - his confrontations during the 1970s with long-time Maryland Censor Board leader Mary Avara are the stuff of local legend - he notes that censors of the new millennium greet his movies with a smile.

"They said they liked the movie," Waters says. "They're the opposite of Mary Avara; they're liberal censors. Much scarier."
NC-17 films

Highest-grossing NC-17 films since 1995:

  • Showgirls (1995, $20.3 million)

  • The Dreamers (2004, $2.5 million)

  • Crash (1996, $2 million)

  • Two Girls and a Guy (1998, $1.9 million)

  • Trois (2000, $1.2 million)

    Source: Exhibitor Relations, Inc.
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