Skip to Content

Five Most Controversial Films Rated NC-17 #2: ‘Henry & June’

It’s easy to see why Philip Kaufman’s 1990 film, Henry & June, which chronicle’s Anaïs Nin’s love triangle with writer Henry Miller and his wife June, sparked so much controversy. The fear of sex, especially gay sex, was written all over the MPAA’s decision to rate the film “X.”  The film’s only major crime, however, was the exploitation of actress Maria de Medeiros’ large, oval eyes and the overuse of prolonged, meaningful looks between her and everyone she came across. Many in the film industry agreed that Henry & June didn’t deserve such a harsh rating, so, hot on the heels of Tie me Up! Tie Me Down! and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, the film proved to be the last straw.

The ratings battle earlier that year over Tie Me Up! had instigated an open letter to the president of the MPAA, Jack Valenti. The letter, signed by the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Spike Lee condemned the ‘outdated and unfair rating system’ and requested that a new rating, somewhere between R and X be introduced. While Valenti had stood in staunch (read as stubborn) support of his system for decades, the recent upheaval of appeals, lawsuits and negative press was finally wearing him down.

In September 1990, as a lawsuit over the MPAA’s rating of Henry & June loomed and accusations of censorship grew within the film community, Jack Valenti announced that the MPAA would be throwing out the X rating and adapting a new rating: NC-17.  On October 5th, 1990, Henry & June would be the first film released as NC-17.

As the first film to bear such a rating, Henry & June enjoyed relative freedom on the film market. Its distribution company, Universal Pictures, agreed to release it once the X had been removed and theaters were willing to give the yet-to-be-tainted rating a try. But the same was true for films when the X rating was still young and innocent. Midnight Cowboy (1969), one of the earlier films to be rated X, even walked away from the Academy Awards a winner–arms full of statues.

But all it takes is a dip into recent archives to find that NC-17 has become just as much of a death-sentence to filmmakers as its predecessor, the X (see: Weinstein’s Battle for ‘Blue Valentine’). Valenti thought that his main mistake with creating the X was failing to trademark the rating, something he’d done with G, PG, PG-13 and R.  That, he figured, was why the X had been over-taken by the port industry. But NC-17, a rating trademarked by the MPAA, also quickly came to be treated as if it were disease-ridden. So it remains that there are few mainstream theaters where an adult can go see a movie that hasn’t been reviewed by a board of parents in California.

– Alice Gray