Nudity, Three-Ways, Hints of Incest: A Studio's Plan to Sell 'Shame' to Oscar

 Abbot Genser/Fox Searchlight Pictures

Fox Searchlight's controversial and shocking film, directed by Steve McQueen.

When they shopped Shame to U.S. buyers, producers Iain Canning and Emile Sherman made it clear that they wouldn't allow McQueen's film to be edited to secure an R rating in the U.S. Together, the men run the London- and Sydney-based See-Saw Films, which produced last year's Oscar-winning The King's Speech. They and Speech director Tom Hooper were unhappy when Harvey Weinstein, who was distributing the film in the U.S., insisted on editing out several uses of the F-word after the R-rated film won the Oscar for best picture in order to secure a PG-13 rating. Weinstein hoped to lure families, a ploy that failed to attract significant extra box-office dollars.

Sherman and Canning, who partnered with the U.K.'s Film4 to finance Shame, knew from the start that McQueen's second feature -- his first was the prison drama Hunger, which also starred Fassbender -- would venture into rather adult territory.

Before he began filming, McQueen had the cast watch Bernardo Bertolucci's sexually charged Last Tango in Paris, the famous X-rated film starring Marlon Brando and French actress Maria Schneider. (A little-known fact: McQueen was so swept up by Last Tango that he named Fassbender's character Brandon, a variation on Brando.)

Released in January 1973, Last Tango belongs to a tiny class of titles released before the X rating -- the forerunner of today's NC-17 -- was co-opted by the porn industry.

Last Tango came in the wake of Midnight Cowboy, which opened in May 1969, only six months after then-MPAA president Jack Valenti established the current ratings system. Cowboy remains the only X-rated or NC-17 movie to score at the Oscars, walking away with trophies for best picture, director and adapted screenplay.

The X rating was intended to signal adult content, but the MPAA didn't copyright the rating -- a fact Valenti would come to regret as pornographic films began using the X, then triple X, as a come-on. With the rating tarnished, Hollywood studios and the larger independent distributors began avoiding it at all costs. And if a film did receive an X for sex or violence, distributors made whatever edits were needed to get an R out of fear that theater owners and the public would steer clear of their product.

In 1990, Valenti moved to establish a new adults-only rating by retiring the X and replacing it with NC-17. Two weeks later, Universal's Henry & June opened in theaters with the new classification. But despite great reviews and an eventual Oscar nomination for best cinematography, the film topped out at $11.6 million domestically as the stigma associated with the X rating quickly transferred to NC-17.

Since then, nearly all the big studios have stayed away from NC-17. Just as before, they force filmmakers to make cuts to ensure an R. The one exception was Showgirls, which MGM released in 1995. Although Showgirls is the top-grossing NC-17 rated film of all time at the domestic box office, it earned only $20.4 million.

However, some of the studio specialty divisions have sporadically tried to release an NC-17 film. Searchlight tried it with Bertolucci's The Dreamers, Sony Pictures Classics with Pedro Almodovar's Bad Education and Focus more recently with Ang Lee's 2007 Chinese-language film Lust, Caution. All three received the restrictive rating for their sexual content. Bad Education fared the best, grossing $5.2 million domestically, while Dreamers turned up an even-softer $2.5 million.

Utley says the Internet, still in its infancy when Dreamers was released in the U.S. in February 2004, should make a difference this time. "It will be pretty easy for us to create noise about Shame by releasing materials online," she says. "The communities that would support this type of movie are much more organized than when we released Dreamers."


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