On this day in 1990, Henry & June, starring Uma Thurman, Fred Ward and Maria de Medeiros and inspired by the novel of the same name by Anais Nin, opens in theaters as the first film with an NC-17 rating. Set in Paris, France, in the early 1930s, Henry & June tells the story of the American writer Henry Miller (Ward), whose novels include Tropic of Cancer; his wife, June (Thurman); and their love triangle with the French writer Anais Nin (Medeiros). The movie, which contains lesbian sex scenes and nudity, garnered an Oscar nomination for its cinematography, but critical reviews were mixed.
On September 27, 1990, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the organization that voluntarily gives movies their ratings, debuted NC-17 (No One Under 17 Admitted) as a replacement for the X rating, which was thought to have become too closely associated in the public’s mind with pornography. Newspapers and TV stations refused to advertise movies that were rated X, and video stores such as Blockbuster wouldn’t carry X-rated movies. It was therefore believed that a new rating was needed for adult dramas that dealt with serious themes but contained sexually explicit or violent content. According to the MPAA, the NC-17 rating “does not mean ‘obscene’ or ‘pornographic’ in the common or legal meaning of those words, and should not be construed as a negative judgment in any sense. The rating simply signals that the content is appropriate only for an adult audience.” The NC-17 is one step up from the R rating, which requires that anyone 17 or under must be accompanied by a parent or adult guardian. According to the MPAA, a movie with an NC-17 rating “May contain very strong sexual or offensive language, strong explicit nudity, very strong gore or disturbing violence, or strong drug abuse.”
Though the movie community–from producers to distributors–favored the new rating, some religious organizations and conservative groups initially opposed it. On October 13, 1990, the New York Times reported that “A theater in a Boston suburb removed ‘Henry and June,’ the first film to receive the new rating, from its exhibition schedule after local officials threatened to cancel the theater’s license. Radio and television stations operated by religious groups have condemned the new category, and in Birmingham, Ala., the city’s largest newspaper has said it will neither review nor accept advertisements for films that receive the NC-17 rating….Still, ‘Henry and June,’ which opened last week in 76 theaters in about 20 cities and grossed $863,000, does not appear to have been damaged commercially by the controversy. Beginning today, the movie will be shown in about 175 theaters in more than 60 cities.”
The MPAA, which was founded in 1922 as a trade group representing the American film industry, announced its first rating system on November 1, 1968, in response to groups seeking better guidelines to help parents determine whether or not a movie was child-appropriate. Jack Valenti, a former assistant to President Lyndon Johnson and the president of the MPAA from 1966 to 2004, was instrumental in developing the new rating system in conjunction with the National Association of Theatre Owners and the International Film Importers & Distributors of America.