Home International CinemaEuropean CinemaBritish Cinema Oscar-Winning ‘Sex Movies’: Academy Preferential Voting System Helps Nomination But No Guarantees

Oscar-Winning ‘Sex Movies’: Academy Preferential Voting System Helps Nomination But No Guarantees


Shame with Carey Mulligan and Michael Fassbender. Oscar chances? There have been precious few Oscar-winning “sex movies.”

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 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.

One thing that bears remembering when it comes to the Academy Award nominations is that thanks to the preferential voting system in place, it is perfectly possible – in fact, it’s perfectly likely – for an individual or a movie to be shortlisted even if only a relatively small minority votes for it. That is, as long as the minority in question is a very enthusiastic minority – listing the individual/movie in first or second place – and one that comprises, say, about 20 percent or so of Academy members. In other words, if about one in five Academy members list Michael Fassbender and/or Carey Mulligan in either first or second place – even if the other 80 percent abhor Shame and/or their performances – either one or both will be in.

Another Oscar possibility for Shame lies in the Best Original Screenplay category for Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan; and perhaps to a lesser extent, depending on how well he fares with critics and the American Society of Cinematographers, for Sean Bobbitt’s work on the film.

Best Picture chances, on the other hand, are iffy. But since Shame doesn’t seem like a top Best Film contender anywhere (except, perhaps, for the British Independent Film Awards or BAFTA’s Best British Film category), Best Picture Oscar chances would have been iffy even if Shame had earned an R rating. That is especially true considering the latest Academy rule for Best Picture nominees.

Fox Searchlight opens Shame in the United States on December 2.

Shame pictures: Abbot Genser / Fox Searchlight Pictures.

‘Shame’ Banned to most teenagers in the U.S. & U.K. - but not in France

Steve McQueen’s Shame, a look at a man suffering from what some refer to as “sex addiction,” has been screwed with an NC-17 rating by the censors at the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). That means no one under 17 is allowed to watch Shame at a movie theater in the United States. Shame is thus joining an illustrious – and at times not all that illustrious – list of NC-17 movies, including Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution; Phillip Kaufman’s Henry & June; Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education (gay sex is always a big no-no for teens); and, er, Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls.

As a result of the MPAA’s decision, which can seriously dampen a film’s box office performance, outrage has poured out on Twitter and other social media. But really, wasn’t the MPAA’s NC-17 rating exactly what everyone had been expecting from those torture-porn aficionados who freak out at the sight of a dangling penis?

Fox Searchlight, which is distributing Shame in the U.S., plans to open the movie, which stars Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, without any cuts on December 2. Fox Searchlight president Stephen Gilula told The Hollywood Reporter the following about the NC-17 rating:

I think NC-17 is a badge of honor, not a scarlet letter. We believe it is time for the rating to become usable in a serious manner. The sheer talent of the actors and the vision of the filmmaker are extraordinary. It’s not a film that everyone will take easily, but it certainly breaks through the clutter and is distinctive and original. It’s a game changer.

Now, to say that an NC-17 rating is a “badge of honor” is going a little too far. Just because the MPAA censors don’t want teenagers watching a movie featuring a man’s dick or x-number of thrusts during sex scenes – or both – doesn’t make said movie a quality effort. All a movie needs for the NC-17 stamp are the penis and the thrusts, or possibly an orgy or two thrown in as well. A film’s intrinsic qualities or lack thereof aren’t issues.

Ignoring the fact that a bunch of unelected, anonymous or semi-anonymous people decide what American teenagers can or cannot watch – hardly my idea of the democratic process even if we knew those people’s names and favorite sex fetishes – what I find scariest about the MPAA censors and their ludicrous rulings is that there may well be American parents and “guardians” who really pay attention to them. Now, that is a frightening thought.

Ah, before anyone says that this sort of idiocy could only happen in the puritanical United States: Shame earned an “18” rating from the British Board of Film Classification – the United Kingdom’s censors. In other words, “no-one younger than 18 may see an ‘18′ film in a cinema. No-one younger than 18 may rent or buy an ‘18′ rated video work.” In France, Shame is expected to get a “forbidden to those under 16” rating, though a “forbidden to those under 18” rating is a possibility. (Update: As it turned out, Shame was “forbidden to those under 12” in France.)

Shame picture: Abbot Genser / Fox Searchlight Pictures

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