A History of the X and NC-17 Ratings

David Russo/The Weinstein Co.

A look at some famous ratings decisions by the MPAA -- and the myth of "Midnight Cowboy."

The voluntary system, put in place by then-MPAA president Jack Valenti to deter censorship in November, 1968, includes the adults-only X rating.

December 1968: Greetings

The Brian De Palma-directed film, starring a young Robert De Niro as a New Yorker dealing with the draft, is the first movie to receive an X rating, doing so for its sexually explicit content.

June 1972: Deep Throat

The infamous movie is one of the first porn flicks to co-opt the X and use it as a marketing tool after the MPAA fails to copyright the rating.

February 1973: Last Tango in Paris

The sexually charged movie, starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, is one of the last X-rated films to achieve both critical and box-office success before the rating is ruined by the porn industry.

Hoping to restore credibility to the adults-only rating, the MPAA and NATO in September 1990 announce that the X is being replaced by the NC-17, but the prejudice continues.

October 2000: Requiem for a Dream

Darren Aronofsky's film about a mother and son caught up in drug addiction is among a growing number of movies that decide to go out unrated rather than carry the NC-17 stigma.

December 2010: Blue Valentine

Harvey Weinstein wins an appeal to overturn the NC-17 rating -- given for an oral sex scene -- and reclassify the Ryan Gosling-Michelle Williams awards contender with an R.


John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy, starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman, is famous for being the only X-rated film to win the Oscar for best picture. The movie, about a down-and-out hustler who moves to New York and pairs with a con man, was the second film released with the X rating, which was only six months old when United Artists opened Cowboy in theaters May 25, 1969 -- the height of the counterculture movement. The film, with its explicit sex scenes, including gay sex, caught fire. What's not as well known is that UA never even brought the film to the Classification and Rating Administration. That's according to David Picker, who was then president of production at the studio and oversaw Cowboy. "We didn't even submit it. I rated it X. We didn't want to go through the exercise since we weren't prepared to change the movie," says Picker, who is writing a book about that time. "I committed to John that the film would be distributed exactly the way he made it. If theaters don't want to play it, they won't play it. But a lot of theaters did play it, though we opened Midnight Cowboy very slowly, as was the custom in those days." Two years later -- also without UA ever asking -- the ratings board reclassified the best picture-winning Cowboy with an R rating. -- Pamela McClintock