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‘Lust, Caution’ took sting out of NC-17

Director Ang Lee helped take the pornography sting out of Hollywood’s NC-17 rating, which is reserved for explicit adult-themed material.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Ang Lee opened up a new world of tolerance and compassion for gay cowboys with “Brokeback Mountain.” For his next act, the filmmaker helped take the pornography sting out of Hollywood’s NC-17 rating, which is reserved for explicit adult-themed material.

Lee and frequent producing and screenwriting partner James Schamus were honored with a freedom of expression award Tuesday at ShoWest, an annual convention of theater owners, for their collaborations, which include last year’s sexually charged thriller “Lust, Caution.”

Though the $4.6 million domestic haul for “Lust, Caution” was small compared to the $83 million box-office return for “Brokeback Mountain,” Lee and Schamus’ latest production went a long way to legitimizing the NC-17 rating.

Set in the World War II era, “Lust, Caution” centers on a young Chinese woman (Tang Wei) who seduces a collaborator (Tony Leung) with the Japanese so she and her accomplices can plot his execution. The film features several carnal love scenes between the two.

“That’s the best part of acting. I’ve been directing actors for a long time. How many times do you see actors like that, even just a second or something?” Lee, 53, said in an interview alongside Schamus.

“You see the most private performances. The most brave and private,” said Lee, who won the best-director Academy Award for “Brokeback Mountain.” “I think those scenes are pivotal. They anchor the movie, so it would be a shame if we don’t see it.”

Only a handful of movies have gone out with the NC-17 rating, which replaced the old X rating in the early 1990s to offer a category that did not carry the connotation of smut for explicit movies.

The most notable NC-17 release before “Lust, Caution” was 1995’s “Showgirls,” a huge critical and commercial flop. Other NC-17 releases such as “A Dirty Shame” or “The Dreamers” played to small cult crowds or art-house audiences.

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The rating had been viewed as a kiss of death, with distributors usually choosing to release movies unrated rather than with the NC-17 tag. The expectation had been that theaters and audiences would shun anything with an NC-17 rating, but Schamus said that was not the case with “Lust, Caution.”

“It was one of those strange situations where the NC-17 was kind of an unused muscle. It was lying fallow, and everybody simply assumed the stigma was still there,” said Schamus, who heads Focus Features, which released both “Lust, Caution” and “Brokeback Mountain.”

“While there were small pockets of resistance, in fact, it was so minor as to be almost on the level, less than the level, of what we got even with ‘Brokeback,”’ said Schamus, who has worked with Lee on such films as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “The Ice Storm” and “Sense and Sensibility.”

John Fithian, who heads the National Association of Theatre Owners, said he hoped that with filmmakers of Lee and Schamus’ stature opening the door, other directors would not shy away from material that could get them an NC-17 rating.

“‘Lust, Caution’ showed people that an NC-17 movie is not pornography, which is kind of the legend we have been living with, that NC-17 was the same thing as X-rated,” said Dan Glickman, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, which oversees the ratings system.