When first reviewed by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), Henry & June was one of a dozen films this year facing an X rating and near-certain death at the box office.

Now it has become the first film released under the NC-17 rating, which replaced X on September 26. Like X, NC-17 bars admission to patrons younger than 17. (The NC stands for no children). Unlike X, NC-17 is copyrighted. Because it is not copyrighted, the X rating will no doubt continue to be employed gleefully by pornographic filmmakers as a promise of forbidden fruit.

The MPAA introduced NC-17 rating under intense pressure. In July, 30 directors—ranging from Francis Ford Coppola to Spike Lee—petitioned the MPAA to add a rating of A (for adult) or M (for mature). Time and Newsweek joined the chorus in September. Henry & June may have played a major role in the decision, since it was the first potentially X-rated film to be released by a major studio (Universal) since Last Tango in Paris (1978).

MPAA president Jack Valenti opposed the A rating. He maintained that adding an A (or M) while retaining the X would force the MPAA to distinguish between pornography and erotic art. The NC-17 rating merely warns parents about content inappropriate for their children while not making a judgment on artistic merit, said MPAA vice-president Barbara Dixon.

Some maintain, however, that the NC-17 might help separate mainstream films from outright pornography. “Something about the aesthetics and the sound of ‘X’ make it salacious,” said Ken Myers, editor of the cultural newsletter Genesis. “I can’t imagine porn dealers plastering their films with ‘NC-17s.’ ” The MPAA’s Dixon observed ...

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