Ever since the Motion Picture Association of America adopted the ratings system in 1968 to advise parents of the sex and violence content of movies, the way films are designated has been a topic of controversy. The major studios soon realized that a particular rating could make or break a project at the box office. Directors pruned and pared scenes to satisfy the ratings board, and distributors and theater owners followed the board's cues in deciding which films to market. But there was never general agreement on the criteria for assigning ratings, and periodically a studio or director's complaint revives the controversy over content that the system was meant to defuse.
The latest disputes involves the ratings board's alleged bias against sex and its apparent tolerance for violence. Critics have charged that the board is far more critical of films with sexual content than of those with gory violence. Add to that charges of racism and the ratings board's secretive style and there's plenty of grist for the complaint mill.
For example, MPAA executive director Jack Valenti was forced recently to defend publicly the ratings board's classification of a new film, "Jason's Lyric," about black teen-agers in Houston. The director, Doug McHenry, charged that the ratings board followed a double standard when it gave his film the most restrictive rating, NC-17, meaning no one under 17 is admitted. Mr. McHenry complained his film got that rating because his characters were black, while the board gave "Basic Instinct," last year's steamy blockbuster, an R rating.
One of the year's goriest films, Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers," also received an R rating, after the director agreed to make many cuts in order to avoid the NC-17 label. Yet "Clerks," a comedy whose main characters are two teen-age boys working in a convenience store in New Jersey, got an NC-17 because some scenes involved crude dialog between the characters.
Which is worse, foul language or homicidal violence that leaves the screen drenched in blood? No one seems to know -- least of all the ratings board. As a result, ratings are no longer useful guides to what is appropriate. Mr. Valenti claims the whole controversy is just a way for disgruntled directors to get free publicity. A more productive response might be to figure out why the board -- and its ratings -- seem incapable of doing what they were originally intended to accomplish.