It also includes a brutal rape scene.
Currently playing at Landmark’s Kendall Square Cinema and debuting on Netflix on September 28, the film was written and directed by Andrew Dominik and stars Ana de Armas as Monroe. Dominik based the film on a 2000 novel by Joyce Carol Oates, and although it features real events including Monroe’s marriages to baseball player Joe DiMaggio and playwright Arthur Miller, the film is a fictionalized version of his life.
It’s also the rare film with an NC-17 rating by the Motion Picture Association, or MPA (formerly the Motion Picture Association of America, or MPAA). The official rationale behind the rating is “some sexual content”, a nebulous term. It almost reads like a placeholder. One can imagine the ratings committee struggling to fit the film’s specific sexual and reproductive slights into a single line before giving in to the ambiguity.
The MPA grading system is a tortuously interpreted system. It was created in 1968, in the wake of the old production code – often called the Hays code, after Will H. Hays – and was intended to be less constraining than its predecessor, more nanny than cop. But he failed to revoke moralism. Over the years, the organization amassed hordes of criticism and a host of scandals, mostly around films it considered adults-only.
In theory, MPA ratings were meant to serve as a guide for parents. But they did a lot more in practice. An NC-17 rating was a bludgeon to a film’s commercial viability: many theaters in the United States would not screen it, and television networks and newspapers were reluctant to promote it. Left with little choice, the filmmakers who received the rating rushed to make changes, hoping their edits would result in a more tenable R rating.
To make matters worse, it’s the dodgy machine responsible for the ratings. Called the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA), this independent division of MPA is made up of a largely anonymous team of parents whose interests apparently lie in helping people make informed decisions for their children.
In 2006, filmmaker Kirby Dick made an entire documentary about this Byzantine process, titled “This Movie Is Not Yet Rated”. It’s a hilarious and eye-opening adventure, including a venture in which Dick hires investigators to identify secret CARA members. But Dick’s interviews with filmmakers are much more illuminating. In one, ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ director Kimberly Peirce recalls cropping a photo of a woman’s face as she reaches orgasm to lower her NC-17 rating. from his film to an R. The film became a box office success and won Hilary Swank an Oscar for his portrayal of Brandon Teena, a trans man; Chloë Sevigny, who played the character achieving the not-too-long orgasm, received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. It’s likely that none of this would have been possible had the film retained its original rating.
“Boys Don’t Cry” was released in 1999. Back then, an advice rating could make or break a movie. But Andrew Dominik’s “Blonde” raises a new question. In the era of streaming, how much a MPA ranking?
When I was a teenager in the 2000s (and now too), under 17s couldn’t watch R-rated movies in theaters unless accompanied by a parent or adult guardian. But that didn’t mean the rules were ironclad: I have memories of buying tickets for one movie, then sneaking into the theater for another. There was a thrill of excitement at the slight taboo. Torrenting, in which users upload and download files through an Internet network, and pay-per-view have changed the game yet again. A friend recently told me that as a kid he once scrolled through the movie schedule on his television to find “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut.” The film was rated R. He clicked “rent”. When his mother asked him what he was watching, he simply replied “a cartoon”.
A shocking, gripping and sometimes punishing Netflix original film, “Blonde” would normally be destined for a streaming premiere. Instead, the company set aside a few weeks for the film to hit theaters. This type of distribution plan is a trick of the streamers; it allows prestigious releases to be awarded prizes and appeases filmmakers who are still faithful to the cinematographic tradition. Only adults will be able to access this abbreviated theatrical route. But once the movie hits Netflix on Wednesday, no one will verify credentials before pressing play.
This streaming landscape is a stark departure from what the industry looked like a few decades ago. An NC-17 rating no longer triggers a chain of closed doors. It no longer requires a financial toll. On the contrary, the controversy that has formed around the conservative rating of “Blonde” is a boon for the film: people are talking.
During the final days of the Hays Code, filmmakers stopped playing the game. They injected fearsome profanity and sexual themes into their films. This disregard for the rules, in movies like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966) and others is part of what drove the nail into the coffin of the old Production Code. We may be entering a similar transition period. As directors like Dominik (and studios like Netflix) embrace the NC-17 rating rather than run away, the MPA rating system may become obsolete.
Again, it’s just as likely that the assessment chart will endure, becoming what it’s always claimed to be: a handbook for concerned parents. If the future of the industry sees filmmakers laughing and shaking their heads at the ratings rather than bowing to them, then that’s a win over what they’re up against now.
I’ve seen “Blonde” in theaters and on Netflix, and I assure you: the film’s wonderful visuals are its main delight, and they look much better on the big screen. No one but the rating committee knows for sure who shot the movie on the edge of R at NC-17, but that doesn’t matter. What’s important is that an anonymous board of inspectors didn’t get the final cut on a director’s vision.