Recently I re-watched the delightful Planes, Trains, and Automobiles on Netflix, and two things struck me as interesting in the gaps between things striking me as hilarious. One is the way this movie seemed pretty lame when I saw it as a kid (I think I giggled a few times when Steve Martin made hilarious Steve Martin Faces but otherwise didn't get it). Now it seems brilliant. Sure, it's full of plot holes and it's completely over the top, but it captures the misery of traveling at the worst possible times. Second, it's rated R.

No, really. The delightful John Hughes-directed family comedy Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is rated R. In comparison, the 1984 classic Sixteen Candles, which features teenagers doing drugs, drinking, boning, and swearing in addition to actual frontal nudity and somehow it is rated PG. PTA apparently got the R for dropping one too many F-words in the classic rental car counter scene. And let's be honest, who among us does not want to tell Edie McClurg to go fuck herself.

Movie ratings were a bit random for a while in the 1980s until PG-13 came along to bridge the chasm between PG, which are presumably films suitable for anyone over five years old, and the adult content of R films. The decade featured a lot movies that seem completely tame by today's standards that carry R ratings while there are PG films that now appear borderline R-rated. Meanwhile, since the late 2000s – I blame The Dark Knight entirely for this trend – the big studios are essentially allowed to give their big summer blockbusters a PG-13 rating no matter how high the body count. Once they figured out how much they stand to gain financially from getting the lower rating (There sure are a lot of 14-16 year old kids eager to see these movies) R ratings are rare outside of genres like horror, T & A vehicles, or the crudest comedies.

A lot of people in Hollywood complain about the arbitrariness of the ratings and the capriciousness of the MPAA, and it isn't hard to see why. The Joker can jam a pen into some guy's eye socket and walk away with a PG-13 while an uneventful romance-comedy with some brief nudity or two guys making out gets an R. It may seem like one can get away with quite a bit more today than in the past, but at the same time it is likely that the days of PG movies featuring boobs are gone forever.

28 thoughts on “NPF: RATINGS CREEP”

  • It was a pencil. The Joker used a pencil. Your whole article is thus invalidated. I'm pretty surprised the members of the MPAA ratings board aren't widespread and well known. But then again, I'm not sure all that many people really care about ratings tha much (unless they sink a movie's chance for success according to movie nerds).

  • Expecting consistency–much less sense–from the MPAA is like expecting decency and fairness from Roger Goodell. That's not what he/they are there for–he/they are there to create the illusion that the industry in question is guided by something other than money. It is not, despite the fervent wishes of their respective fan bases. It is also staffed entirely by creepy Puritans who think that blood is fine but sex is evil, which is why you will see a dick cut off and fed to its previous owner onscreen before you will ever see it put to one of its two proper uses. See THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED for just how batshit random this institution is–it makes the Electoral College look positively sensible.

    And you need to turn the Wayback Machine a bit further on locating the zero hour: The PG-13 rating was created in the mid-'80s so that Spielberg could continue to make the money-printing blockbusters while at the same time ensuring that the kiddies who wanted to get in to see Mola Ram rip a guy's still-beating heart of his chest could do so without their bitch mothers being able to stop them. (Full disclosure: I may have been one of those kids.)

  • I think it pre-dates Dark Knight because some of the Resident Evil sequels in the early 2000's were PG-13, as was Alien vs. Predator and its fellow train-wreck sequels.

    As many have already pointed out, sometimes covering up what actually happened to someone is just as bad if not worse than showing them get shot or whatever. If anything it takes the consequences of shooting people out of the picture.

  • I second J Dryden's recommendation of This Film Is Not Yet Rated.

    AIUI high body counts are OK in a PG-13 movie, as is implied extreme violence, you just can't show too much blood. The first Hunger Games film required significant cuts and some negotiation between the studio and MPAA to get from R down to PG-13.

    I once saw a heavily edited version of Watchmen on a plane. They felt it was fine to show the Comedian shooting a pregnant woman in the face, but the two women kissing in the opening montage were cut.

    My favourite British film-rating trivia: In the UK, city councils have a legal duty to ensure safety in cinemas. This was obviously meant for fire exits and things like that, but the law is so broadly written that councils have unilaterally changed film ratings to ensure the moral safety of the public.

    So it was that Monty Python's Life of Brian was banned in certain districts of the UK on its first release, because of its supposed anti-religious message.

    More recently, the 2002 Spider-Man film received a 12 rating, which at the time meant nobody under 12 could go in. Some councils decided to allow younger children to see it, which was directly responsible for the 12 rating changing to 12A (meaning accompanied children can see it, as with PG-13 and R in the USA).

  • The acceptability of:
    "The Joker can jam a pen into some guy's eye socket and walk away with a PG-13 while an uneventful romance-comedy with some brief nudity or two guys making out gets an R."

    Is not a new phenomena for 'Mur'ka F- yeah!! In either film or TV. Michael Franti—amongst myriad others—brings it up in "Television Drug of the Nation" where "a child can watch 1300 murders before he's 12yrs old, then we wonder why we have a 'Jason generation.'"

    One scene in "9 1/2 Weeks" was merely edited to reshuffle the scene. All of the footage as originally presented to the MPAA was there:
    Just the sequence was changed.

    Prior to Tipper and the "Darling Nicky" outrage it was pretty much open slather for music—is there a connection between the colour of the performer's skin and the level of outrage? Although "rock n roll" has always been the domain of the devil in 'Mur'ka.

    So yes 'Mur'ka F-yeah has this bizarre relationship between words/sex v violence. Violence = acceptable, sex = unacceptable!!!

  • I can remember going to see The Godfather at the drive in with my parents when I was about 10.

    I was checking my bed for horse heads every night for a week after that.

  • I remember listening to an interview with David Lynch, who had been approached by a TV network (USA maybe?) about broadcasting Blue Velvet, which was going to require more than a little editing, given the violence and the amount of screen time Isabella Rossellini spends naked. They invite him to help with the edit in order to preserve as much of the story as possible. Lynch was quite impressed by the technology that had been developed by folks wishing to de-rate movies, letting them place fake furniture and artificial shadows to cover nudity, blood, etc. Then he asks,"How about the scene where he punches her in the face?"

    "Oh, that can stay."

    Lynch: "Wait, what?"

    What Americans think is suitable for children to see or not see is enough to weird out David Lynch.

  • It always kind of blew my mind (no pun intended) that you can go to You Tube and watch movie after movie of real footage of snipers blowing the heads off enemy combatants, but the adult content pops up for a girl in a bikini.

  • "It was a pencil. The Joker used a pencil. Your whole article is thus invalidated."


    Last time I visit this miserable PG-13 blog.

  • Favorite movie-edit: Fish Called Wanda, Klein tosses his gun around the metal detector as he walks through. Edited out for airplane use. This is how we protect ourselves from terrorists…

  • I seem to recall, way back in the late 1960s or early 1970s, that there were "real" movies that were rated X.

    This was before the X rating came to be associated with porn.

  • I dunno. I was with McClurg. I even watched the scene again to be sure. There were mistakes made, but she didn't make them. She's just the poor schmuck who has to take the blast of his blockbuster F-bomb. That he left himself open to a retaliatory strike is his problem.

  • Allow me to be the third commenter to recommend "This Film Is Not Yet Rated." One of the more eye-opening documentaries I've ever seen, and it played into my general distaste for mainstream Hollywood.

    @Totoro That's incredible. I never knew that. One of the better examples of how our security theater is focused on making people feel safe, not making people safe.

  • A colleague of mine was born and raised in Denmark before emigrating as a young adult; yet like many people from small European countries, he spoke excellent English. He claimed he had learned it by watching American movies and television.

    These were run in English, but in print advertising described in Danish. He did not care for the Danish translation of "Trains, Plains and Automobiles"; his round-trip English-Danish-English rendering of this was "Assholes in First Class."


    Not long ago I read a book called You're Not Old Enough, Son by a British film critic named Barry Atkinson. He chronicles his efforts as a kid growing up in the 50's/60's to see movies that were considered kiddy fodder in the USA (monster/sci-fi mostly) but were forbidden in the UK to anyone under 16. It's very entertaining (although a bit tedious in places) and the rating standards of the time sound ridiculous by today's standards.

  • Emerson Dameron says:

    @Dryden @Talikser:
    Seeing the ratings board command so much fear among our Best and Brightest Creatives is a nice little peek inside Hollywood. Or at least a nice accompaniment to that terrible Sorkin op-ed.

  • Well, one thing I've read about the rating for Hunger Games is that the deaths were relatively bloodless. Rue dies onscreen as demurely as Camille dying of consumption.

    And, of course, female nudity is still considered differently than male nudity, in the same way that two women kissing is different from two men kissing.

  • "Planes, Trains & Automobiles" is a favorite. Rated R…I hadn't noticed but that's insane. How can they compare it to all the "Alien" incarnations for example? "Alien" is a bloody mess but it needs to be.

    I agree with Kevin Says. "South Park" and some newer made for TV series have pretty much shredded the ratings system (in its supposed original intent anyway) The latest being the terrible Syfy spectacle: "Ascension." Zounds! A little T&A for a change, sneaks through.

    "The Hunger Games," as cut, seems pretty tame. PG-13 works. The implied violence is stunning when it's thought of. It has no gunplay whatsoever. The story wouldn't work at all otherwise.

  • Bitter Scribe says:

    What the hell, "Midnight Cowboy," which won a Best Picture Oscar, was X-rated for a brief sex scene between Jon Voight and a now-forgotten actress named Jennifer Salt (which would barely earn an R today). It's so ridiculously arbitrary and changeable.

    Side note: I rate John Hughes movies in terms of their offensiveness. PTA was one of the least offensive, mostly because there weren't any people of color around to steal tires or entire cars.

  • RE. Hunger Games cuts: IIRC there was considerably more blood in the original edit. In particular the fight when the children first enter the arena had much more graphic violence.

  • Pure coincidence, I watched "Planes Trains and Automobiles" again tonight, with my brother who had never seen it. He laughed a lot.

    Outside of the many "fucks" at the car rental counter, there was nothing in it — sex, violence and/or naughty words — that would merit an R rating. Martin's serial "fucks" were just the set-up for the counter clerk's "fuck," which was funny.

    This time, I was much more impressed by John Candy than Steve Martin. The scene of him selling shower rings as something way more valuable is gold, and his transformation from boorish mooch to sympathetic loner yearning for human connection is the essence of the movie.

    Candy's best, and John Hughes' too.

  • I kind of liked those fake trailers at the beginning of Tropic Thunder which were accompanied by this message:

  • About Midnight Cowboy – its X rating was at least as much for its gay pickup scene (Jon Voight and a preposterously young Bob Balaban) as for any marginally more graphic straight sex. But the complete venal stupidity of the MPAA is illustrated by the fact the Midnight Cowboy was an X rated movie in its first release – then it won a boatload of Oscars, and was rereleased, without a single edit, as an R rated movie. Huh.

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