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 The letter, signed by the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Spike Lee condemned the ‘outdated and unfair rating system’ and requested that a new rating, somewhere between R and X be introduced.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



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Alice graduated from the University of Massachusetts with a degree in Comparative Literature and Film Studies. But she’s really a Southerner (the liberal kind) and has made her way back to her hometown of Austin, Texas. In addition to contributing news articles to Sound on Sight, her strategic placement in this Central Texas city puts her at an advantage for covering festivals like SXSW, Austin City Limits and Fantastic Fest. She thinks Let the Right One In was one of the more beautiful films she’s seen. Apart from writing for Sound on Sight and visiting Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse for a beer and whatever strange movie is being shown, Alice works to help non-traditional students jump through financial aid hurdles so they can get to college. She salsa dances and likes to go for long bike rides, like that time she rode her bike from Seattle to San Francisco. She won’t be doing that again anytime soon.


  1. I worked at a theater in San Francisco when “Henry and June” was released, and I fell in love with the film. I thought the NC-17 rating was unjustified (Considering the films that have been released since, this is rather tame).

  2. Hi Justine,

    I’ll look into that, now I’m curious to know. I was sort of disappointed with the film too, but have started reading Anais’s diaries as a result and am enthralled. It might just belong on those pages rather than on screen.

  3. I am not a huge fan of this film, I would really like if the material which is so rich and daring be explored again by another filmmaker soon. If I remember correctly though, the film actually got the NC-17 rating over a single shot. In the film’s opening sequence, Anais’ is looking through some postcards and one of them is a naked Japanese women engaged in coitus with a sea creature. I could be wrong, but what I’ve read suggests that it’s actually this single image that pushed the film from R to NC-17.