In one respect, Blonde feels like the end of an era for Netflix. Andrew Dominik’s dreamily bleak, controversially fictionalized Marilyn Monroe biopic is the kind of project sources at the streaming giant were likely referring to when they spoke this summer of a shift away from giving major filmmakers “carte blanche” in pursuit of accolades. Though the $22 million Dominik reportedly spent is far from the budget afforded to, say, Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, that’s still money that could have been thrown at another algorithmic Ryan Reynolds vehicle instead. Yet if Blonde proves to be among the last gasp of this company’s fleeting flirtation with the art house, it also counts as a first in a different sense: As of this week, it’s the only Netflix original to be rated NC-17—and the first of its kind to be released on any major streaming platform.
It’s been a few years since any movie has come out under the Motion Picture Association’s strictest designation, reserved for films deemed unsuitable for anyone under 17, regardless of whether they’re accompanied by an adult guardian. The last official NC-17 release before Blonde was This One’s for the Ladies, a documentary about exotic dancers that enjoyed a quiet theatrical run in 2019. Going back about a decade adds only a few more titles to the list, including the scandal-plagued Cannes winner Blue Is the Warmest Colour and Steve McQueen’s Shame. That both of these films were flagged for sexually explicit content, as opposed to violence, is a clue to what the MPA (formerly the MPAA) considers most inappropriate for young viewers.
Before the introduction of the NC-17, the most restrictive rating used by the MPAA was the globally recognized X. Unlike the other letter ratings (R, G, PG-13, etc.), X wasn’t trademarked by the MPAA, and could hence be slapped on any movie without the association’s approval. It was used as an advertising tool, especially when distributors started adding extra Xs to imply even more explicit content. As a result, X became synonymous in the public’s mind with pornography, to the extent that any non-pornographic movie handed the rating would struggle to get booked in mainstream theaters or attract a general audience. It was a scarlet letter.
In 1990, the MPAA introduced the NC-17 as an alternative to X, in hopes of officially distinguishing “adult movies” from movies exclusively for adults. (Henry & June, about the relationship between the writers Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller, was the first recipient.) However pure the intentions, though, the stigma of a no-kids-allowed classification stuck—probably in part because many of the films that opened with the new rating contained sexual situations. Some newspapers refused to run ads for NC-17 movies, while Blockbuster quickly banned them from its shelves. Many of these movies might as well have been rated X.
Five years after the introduction of the NC-17, MGM tried to parlay it into titillated public curiosity with Showgirls, but the film managed to drum up only $20 million at the box office. It’s still the highest-grossing NC-17 release—and, ironically, probably the one that killed just about all Hollywood interest in creating a market for movies branded with the rating. The NC-17, too, had become a scarlet letter, and a kiss of death for a film’s financial viability.
After Showgirls, the rating became rarer and rarer, as studios began angling to appease MPAA censors, responding to a preliminary NC-17 by going back to the cutting room and snipping out potentially objectionable scenes or images to receive an R instead. There’s a much longer list of movies that caught an NC-17 on first pass, then made cuts: Scream, American Pie, Braveheart, Team America: World Police, and last year’s The King’s Man.
Blonde could have joined that list had Dominik or Netflix desperately wanted an R. Chances are, only a couple of scenes, or even just a couple of shots, earned the film its NC-17. In one of them, President John F. Kennedy coerces a pharmaceutically inebriated—and hence unconsenting—Marilyn (Ana de Armas) into going down on him in a New York hotel room. It’s disturbing and unpleasant, but not particularly graphic, because Dominik shoots the act in a way that obscures our vantage on it, concealing genitalia behind a strategically placed hand. The other scenes that likely incensed the MPA involve miscarriage and abortion; there’s a gynecological exam that’s effectively filmed from the POV of Marilyn’s cervix.
Whether such a pitiless portrait of degradation and exploitation should be readily available to anyone under 17 is a larger discussion; one could make the case that Blonde deserves its rating for just how gruelingly it depicts Marilyn’s variably fact-based misfortunes. This is, in multiple regards, a movie for adults. Nonetheless, the MPA’s decision fits neatly into a long history of trying to shelter audiences from films that feature frank or blunt depictions of sex. That the vast majority of NC-17 movies contain more nudity than violence says a lot about the particular hang-ups of our culture. (That said, it’s perhaps easier to excise a few seconds of bloodshed than to make an explicit sex scene less explicit after the fact; a lot of horror movies earn the NC-17 on the way to a multiplex-ready cut.)
The rating, of course, has become part of Blonde’s buzz—one of the many elements that’s made the film a talking point these past few months. “A bit of drama is a good thing,” Dominik recently told MovieMaker, before disputing that the film was worthy of the rating. The profitability equation that sank Showgirls nearly 30 years ago has changed in the age of streaming. While the NC-17 might soften Blonde’s performance at the box office (it hit some venues two Fridays ago, ahead of its wider availability from home on Wednesday), Netflix has always treated its theatrical releases as secondary to their platform residencies. Which is to say, Blonde’s success or failure will not be measured in ticket sales; the rating can’t really hurt it. In fact, it’s possible to wonder whether the film could become the most-watched NC-17 movie ever, thanks to appearing on a streaming service that puts its beautifully composed miseries a click away, available even to those too young to see it on a big screen.
Whatever one thinks of Blonde as a movie, the best-case scenario is that it proves a bellwether for a new movement of uncensored cinema, uninhibited by the rulings of a ratings board with decreased utility. If distributors didn’t have to worry about (in Kevin Smith’s words) the “commercial suicide” of releasing an NC-17 movie to theaters, would they be more inclined to bankroll projects likely to earn that rating, and more reluctant to ruthlessly edit ones that do? Could streaming, free of the traditional metrics of box-office profitability and the barriers to viewership imposed by the MPA, become the lucrative market for NC-17 movies Hollywood never uncovered?
Probably not at Netflix, which is already promising less Blondes and more Adam Projects. Its first NC-17 release could very well be its last. The sobering reality is that audiences looking for something mature, in multiple senses of the word, may struggle to find it on the big or small screen. It’s much more than a puritanical ratings system slowing the release of movies for adults; even the R-rated variety are endangered by an industry invested only in blockbusters, be they built for IMAX screens or “Recommended for you” queues. All we can do is hope that Blonde doesn’t mark the end of an era in a much larger sense. Because however flawed the MPA’s system may be, it’s dismaying to consider a future where that system would be completely obsolete, with no movies aimed at the over-17 crowd.
A.A. Dowd is a writer and editor based in Chicago. His work has appeared in such publications as The A.V. Club, Vulture, and Rolling Stone. He is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.