When was the last time you saw bare breasts on screen? Recently, I’d assume. How about oral sex? Not too long ago, perhaps. A threesome? I’m sure you can remember one.
Now, when was the last time you watched a movie or TV show depict an abortion from the vagina’s point of view?
“Blonde,” the new Netflix movie about Marilyn Monroe, features all of the above.
It also includes a brutal rape scene.
Currently playing at Landmark’s Kendall Square Cinema, and debuting on Netflix Sept. 28, the film was written and directed by Andrew Dominik and stars Ana de Armas as Monroe. Dominik based the film on a 2000 novel by Joyce Carol Oates, and though it features some real events, including Monroe’s marriages to the baseball player Joe DiMaggio and the playwright Arthur Miller, the film is a fictionalized take on her life.
It is also the rare movie with a rating of NC-17 by the Motion Picture Association, or MPA (formerly the Motion Picture Association of America, or MPAA). The official rationale behind the grade is “some sexual content,” a nebulous term. It almost reads like a placeholder. One can imagine the ratings board struggling to fit the movie’s specific sexual and reproductive affronts into one line before surrendering to the ambiguity.
The MPA rating system is a torturously construed scheme. It came together in 1968, in the wake of the old Production Code — often called the Hays Code, after Will H. Hays — and was meant to be less proscriptive than its predecessor, more of a nanny than a policeman. But it failed to revoke the moralism. Over the years, the organization amassed hordes of critics and a host of scandals, mostly surrounding movies it deemed for adults only.
In theory, MPA ratings were meant to be a guide for parents. But they did much more in practice. A rating of NC-17 was a bludgeon to a film’s commercial viability: Many theaters in the United States would not screen it, and TV networks and newspapers were hesitant to promote it. Left with little choice, filmmakers who received the rating scrambled to make edits, hoping that their changes would result in a more tenable R rating.
Making things worse is the dubious machine responsible for the evaluations. Called the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA), this independent division of MPA is made up of a largely anonymous crew of parents whose interests ostensibly lie in helping people make informed decisions for their children.
In 2006, the filmmaker Kirby Dick made a whole documentary about this byzantine process, called “This Film Is Not Yet Rated.” It’s a hilarious and eye-opening romp, including a venture in which Dick hires investigators to identify the secret CARA members. But far more enlightening are Dick’s interviews with filmmakers. In one, Kimberly Peirce, the director of “Boys Don’t Cry,” recalls shortening a shot of a woman’s face as she reaches orgasm in order to get her movie’s NC-17 rating down to an R. The film went on to become a box office success and earn Hilary Swank an Academy Award for her portrayal of Brandon Teena, a trans man; Chloë Sevigny, who played the character achieving the not-too-long orgasm, received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress. It’s likely that none of that would have been possible had the movie retained its original rating.
“Boys Don’t Cry” came out in 1999. Back then, a board rating could make or break a film. But Andrew Dominik’s “Blonde” raises a new question. In the age of streaming, just how meaningful is an MPA rating?
When I was an adolescent in the aughts (and now, too), people under 17 couldn’t attend R-rated movies at the theater unless accompanied by a parent or adult guardian. But that didn’t mean the rules were ironclad: I have memories of purchasing tickets to one movie and then sneaking into the theater for another. There was a frisson of excitement to the light taboo. Torrenting, in which users upload and download files through an Internet network, and pay-per-view further changed the game. A friend recently told me that, as a kid, he once scrolled through the movies program on his television to find “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.” The movie was rated R. He clicked “rent.” When his mom asked him what he was watching, he replied simply, “a cartoon.”
A shocking, arresting, and at times punishing Netflix original film, “Blonde” would normally be destined for a streaming premiere. Instead, the company has set aside a few weeks for the movie to play in theaters. This sort of distribution plan is a ploy by streamers; it enables prestige releases to be eligible for awards and appeases filmmakers still loyal to the cinematic tradition. Only adults will be able to access this abbreviated theatrical run. But once the movie hits Netflix on Wednesday, nobody will be checking IDs before you press play.
This streaming landscape is a stark departure from what the industry looked like a few decades ago. No longer does an NC-17 rating trigger a chain of closed doors. No longer does it exact a financial toll. If anything, the controversy that has formed around the conservative rating of “Blonde” is a boon to the movie: It’s gotten people talking.
During the waning days of the Hays Code, filmmakers stopped playing the game. They injected their movies with dreaded profanity and sexual themes. This flouting of the rules, in movies like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966) and others, was partially what put the nail in the coffin of the old Production Code. We may be entering a similarly transitional time. As directors like Dominik (and studios like Netflix) accept the NC-17 rating rather than run from it, the MPA rating system may fade into obsolescence.
Then again, it’s just as likely that the ratings board will live on, morphing into what it always claimed to be: a manual for concerned parents. If the future of the industry finds filmmakers laughing and shaking their heads at ratings rather than bowing to them, then that’s a win compared to what they’re dealing with now.
I’ve seen “Blonde” in a theater and on Netflix, and I assure you: The movie’s marvelous visuals are its chief pleasure, and they are much better on a big screen. Nobody but the ratings board knows for sure what set the film over the edge from R to NC-17, but that doesn’t matter. What’s important is that an anonymous board of inspectors didn’t get final cut on a director’s vision.
Due to a reporter’s error, an earlier version of this story misstated the age a person must be to see an R-rated movie. Under 17 must be accompanied by a parent or adult guardian. The Globe regrets the error.