Now that Steve McQueen's psychological drama Shame has received an NC-17 rating from the censors at the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), some are concerned that the film's two leads, Michael Fassbender (right) and Carey Mulligan, may be penalized by the generally conservative membership of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Oscar history, however, shows otherwise.
An X rating – the pre-1990 equivalent to NC-17 – didn't prevent John Schlesinger's Midnight Cowboy from earning seven Academy Award nominations, or from going on to win three Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay (Waldo Salt) of 1969. Stanley Kubrick's 1971 mix of sex, violence, and politics, A Clockwork Orange, was initially slapped with an X rating; it garnered four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. Despite Last Tango in Paris' much talked about butter-sex scene – offensive in its phoniness – Marlon Brando was one of the five Best Actor contenders of 1973.
Boys Don't Cry was initially rated NC-17 in 1999. After a few cuts, the film was released with an R rating. Nonetheless, a brutally graphic scene showing a close-up of Hilary Swank's vagina remained in the film. Swank was the year's Best Actress Academy Award winner. In a similarly controversial situation (minus the brutality and the vagina close-up), Halle Berry would win a Best Actress Oscar for Monster's Ball two years later. Veteran Ellen Burstyn received a Best Actress nod for Requiem for a Dream – released unrated – in 2000, and just last year Michelle Williams was a Best Actress nominee for Blue Valentine, a romantic drama initially tagged with an NC-17 rating, later removed in response to an appeal by distributor The Weinstein Company.
Hell, even The Exorcist's 13-year-old Linda Blair (right) got a Best Supporting Actress nomination in early 1974 after sticking a Christian cross between her legs while taunting both the film's Catholic priests and moviegoers (regardless of their religion, if any) with the following: “Let Jesus fuck you, let Jesus fuck you. Let him fuck you.” And the demon's voice wasn't even Blair's – but Mercedes McCambridge's.
If you look at the list of films that have been scarlet-lettered (or badge-of-honored, if you will) with the NC-17 rating since 1990, nearly every single one of them was either completely or almost completely ignored by U.S. critics groups and other entities – e.g., SAG, DGA, PGA, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association – during awards season. That, not the rating per se, explains why, say, Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers; Ang Lee's Venice Film Festival winner Lust, Caution; and Pedro Almodóvar's Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! and Bad Education were thoroughly bypassed by the Academy. (Ironically, Almodóvar's R-rated Talk to Her, which features a sympathetic rapist and some female nudity, earned the filmmaker a Best Director nod and a very rare Oscar for a non-English-language [original] screenplay.)
So, if Michael Fassbender gets a few Best Actor mentions by key U.S.-based film critics' groups during movie awards season – and ensuing SAG and/or Golden Globe nod(s) – he'll almost inevitably land a Best Actor nomination for his portrayal of a troubled “sex addict” in Shame. The same goes for Carey Mulligan, who plays the sister of Fassbender's character, as Best Supporting Actress.