Fifty years ago–on May 25, 1969, to be exact—United Artists walked into one of the all-time great film rating messes when it released John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy with the Motion Picture Association of America’s dreaded “X–Persons under 17 not admitted.”
When Variety reviewed it on May 14, the movie, about a forlorn hustler and his dying companion on the streets of New York, had been rated R. But Variety seemed to hint that a stronger prohibition was in order. “Can depravity be offered as farce?” the review wondered. By the time Film and Television Daily caught up with it, on May 20, Midnight Cowboy was re-rated X.
Conventional wisdom says the movie was restricted because of homosexual content. But William J. Mann, in his 2005 authorized biography Edge Of Midnight: The Life Of John Schlesinger, says the rating was aimed at multiple offenses: “nudity, homosexuality and four-letter words.” In any case, Mann insists that Schlesinger was at peace with the X, figuring he had made a film for adults, so nothing was lost if only adults could see it.
United Artists, for its part, made the best of things. An early trade ad for the film crowed: “Whatever you hear about Midnight Cowboy is true!” But the situation got complicated when the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures failed to assign the picture its powerful C, for “Condemned.” Instead, the Catholic film office chose a lighter B-4 rating, calling the movie “morally objectionable for adults, with reservations.” Even weirder, the International Catholic Film Bureau gave Midnight Cowboy a prize at the West Berlin International Film festival, honoring it as “the best artistic formulation of man’s problems from the Christian viewpoint.”
Even angels may blush when Hollywood turns holier than thou. By the time Midnight Cowboy was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, hoping to avoid the spectacle of an X-rated winner, was privately asking the MPAA to re-assign the R. According to Mann, the ratings board, embarrassed by the acclaim, offered to re-rate the movie if Schlesinger would change a single frame, allowing the raters to say it had been edited. Schlesinger declined. After Midnight Cowboy won the top Oscar, the film was re-rated without changes, and maintains its R to this day.
So maybe it’s good that film ratings have been doing a slow fade. According to the MPAA’s annual statistical report, only 564 films were submitted for rating last year, down 29 percent from 790 ratings in 2009. In the same period, the number of theatrical releases rose 36 percent, to 758 last year from 557 in 2009. Historically, more films were rated than released. But last year, about 34 percent more films were released than rated, probably because many movies were placed in a few theaters without ratings, then moved to streaming services, when anyone with the password can have at them.
For parents, ratings, which accompany virtually all major releases, undoubtedly remain a useful tool. But the Midnight Cowboy go-round—with its censorious approach to sexual orientation—reminds us how easily that tool might be turned against out-of-favor ideas or behavior in an era when social media often set what used to be called “community standards.”
If Disney, NBC Universal, or Netflix won’t film in Georgia because of an unacceptable abortion law, might Hollywood soon be inclined to put a warning on films that seem to promote ideas and attitudes in line with that law? Just recently, the ratings board came uncomfortably close to just such a position when it tagged the anti-abortion film Unplanned with an R for ‘disturbing/bloody images,’ making it a tougher sell both among the young and among R-averse, faith-based audiences.
In that case, the MPAA’s Classification and Rating Administration publicly declared that “a film is never rated more than PG-13 for theme alone.” But creators are under growing pressure to conform with crowd-based notions about what’s right, and what’s not. How long before the ratings board is pressed to tag a film like Juno as R for perceived anti-choice tendencies? With the New York Times counting Margot Robbie’s lines, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood might find itself dodging a new rating of FD, for female deficient. Marvel and the James Bond producers would step carefully to avoid a future kiss of death, a rating of ID, for insufficiently diverse.
Better, perhaps, that the ratings should recede, or, at least, leave plenty of space for the hundreds of movies that now leak around them.