Great Movies You Didn't Realize Were Rated X

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Vote up the classic movies that earned their grown-up rating.

In 1968, the Motion Picture Association of America (known as the MPAA then, just the MPA now) introduced a movie ratings system. It was done in response to a situation that wasn't good for filmmakers. The Hays Code had been in use for decades, delineating what was and was not acceptable to show onscreen, with no genuine regard for its context in the story being told. There was also the matter of local censorship boards that would freely edit out content they felt was unacceptable. The new system was designed to self-police, and to provide information to parents so they would have an idea of a film's potentially objectional content.

Those ratings were G (acceptable for all ages), PG (parental guidance suggested), R (no one under 17 admitted without a parent or adult guardian), and X (adults only, no one under 17 admitted). In what has to rank as one of the biggest blunders in the history of movie-related things, the MPAA got a copyright for all those ratings except the X. That allowed the makers of adult entertainment to self-apply it, and even distort it into the meaningless “XXX” that was often prominently featured on p*rnographic films. 

What was meant to help movies intended for adult audiences turned into a burden for those same movies, as the public came to associate the X with truly explicit sexual material. In 1990, the MPAA finally replaced the X with a new NC-17 rating that unfortunately never took off as intended. The following films all received an X rating, some during its optimistic early days, others after it had been tarnished. Several wanted so desperately to avoid the association with adult fare that they opted to hit theaters unrated instead.

  • 1
    520 VOTES

    Ken Russell's The Devils was not only rated X, it has also largely been kept away from audiences for years. This 1971 religious drama is not available to stream or purchase because of accusations that it's blasphemous. Vanessa Redgrave plays Sister Jeanne, a lusty, hunchbacked nun who has sexual feelings toward a Catholic priest named Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed). He's later accused of witchcraft, which leads to his eventual execution.

    Nudity is constant in the film, and it's often nuns who are shedding their clothing or behaving in an erotic manner. Violence is abundant, as well, with everything from whippings to self-mutilation to outright torture. There's even a shocking scene where a nun is forcibly given a boiling hot enema. Because all this sex, nudity, and violence is inextricably intertwined with religion, the movie has an edge that even most of the other X-rated releases lack.

    The Devils first got Britain's X rating. It became scandalous immediately, with the Catholic Church condemning it. For the American release, Warner Bros. - to Russell's great displeasure - chopped a couple of the most extreme moments, most notably one involving a group of naked nuns who become sexual with a statue of Christ. Yet the film got an X rating anyway. That version did hit cinemas domestically, but so did a later R-rated version that had even more material excised. Because of its controversial nature, there were multiple cuts of The Devils. As director Joe Dante put it, “It was the incredible shrinking movie. Every time you saw it, something else was missing!”

    520 votes
  • 2
    440 VOTES

    Last Tango in Paris

    The X rating was perfect for the late 1960s and early 1970s. The sexual revolution was in full swing, and filmmakers increasingly wanted to deal with sexuality. Bernardo Bertolucci was one of them. His 1972 Last Tango in Paris was a landmark work in erotic cinema. Marlon Brando stars - and allegedly did Method work - as Paul, an American expatriate living and working in France. He begins a torrid affair with a young local woman, Jeanne (Maria Schneider). The two don't even exchange names because it's supposed to be a no-strings-attached deal. Nevertheless, emotions get in the way, leading to a painful breakup and Paul's eventual slaying at Jeanne's hand.

    Bertolucci didn't waste the chance to take advantage of the cinematic liberation of the time. Last Tango's sex scenes are explicit, with the most well-known involving the couple utilizing butter in the act. Material along those lines made the X rating appropriate, as did a scene where Paul sexually assaults Jeanne. The movie's tone, which mixes eroticism and anti-eroticism in a manner designed to make viewers uncomfortable, solidified the need for a more restrictive rating. It earned many rave reviews, but also condemnations that accused it of being p*rnographic. Such controversy created lines around the block at theaters showing the picture.

    440 votes
  • Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was so shocking that it took four whole years before anyone would distribute it. The film was a festival hit starting in 1986, yet unnerved people so deeply with its realistic violence that distributors were afraid to touch it, especially once the MPAA branded it with the X rating. It wasn't until 1990 that, bolstered by rave reviews, the thriller finally hit theaters in limited release. Michael Rooker gives a chilling performance as Henry Lucas, a serial killer who forms a connection with a dealer named Otis (Tom Towles). Together, they go on a murder spree.

    Those killings are presented in a stark manner that almost feels like documentary. One of the most harrowing sequences finds the men breaking into a house and videotaping themselves as they brutally execute the family living there. Because of the violence and the manner in which director John McNaughton filmed it, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer was denied an R rating. Critic Roger Ebert reported that the ratings board said there was actually no way it could ever be cut where they'd give it an R. That's how gut-wrenching it was. In lieu of going out with the X, the filmmakers opted to release unrated, with a self-administered warning on ads saying, “This is not a film for children. No one under 17 will be admitted.”

    346 votes
  • Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange is the rare film that still has the power to provoke and outrage audiences decades after its initial release. This 1971 drama stars Malcolm McDowell as Alex, the leader of a gang called the Droogs. They're hooligans who like to get drunk and then engage in, as the character famously puts it, “a little of the old ultraviolence.” Alex is eventually recruited for a scientific experiment designed to rid him of his aggressive tendencies. 

    The movie hit theaters just three years after the establishment of the rating system, and was precisely the kind of thing the X was designed for. A Clockwork Orange is a serious work that happens to contain horrific acts of violence, not the least of which is the vicious beating of a rich lady with a heavy sculpture. There's also some graphic sexuality onscreen. The media was not quick to embrace the idea of an adults-only rating, and many outlets refused to accept ads for the film during its original run. This led Kubrick to substitute 30 seconds of less explicit sexual material about eight months later, so the rating could be dropped to an R. It was an early case of the ongoing struggle that would eventually lead to the demise of the X.

    659 votes
  • 5
    260 VOTES

    Performance is the story of Chas (James Fox), a gangster who hides out in the home of rock star Turner (Mick Jagger). All kinds of debauchery takes place, much of it also involving Pherber (Anita Pallenberg), a woman who lives with Turner. There were plenty of signs that the graphic sex and equally graphic violence were going to cause a problem when a large portion of the audience walked out during a preview screening and the wife of a studio executive allegedly vomited in horror. Warner Bros. subsequently shelved the film for two years before releasing it.

    It has long been rumored that the wild sex scenes in Performance were real. Co-director Nicholas Roeg once claimed that when he went to pick up the developed film from the lab, he found nervous employees destroying the reels with hammers because they feared that they would be arrested for possession of p*rnographic material. When asked about the sequences, Jagger has always cheekily refused to confirm or deny their authenticity. Whatever the case, viewers get an eyeful during a lovemaking scene with three participants, as well as copious amounts of nudity. Although subsequent home video versions of Performance were rated R, the original release - once it finally made its way into cinemas - more than earned its X. 

    260 votes
  • 6
    323 VOTES

    Fritz the Cat

    Fritz the Cat holds the distinction of being the first animated movie to receive the X rating. Ralph Bakshi's boundary-pushing 1972 feature was so proud of this fact that it used the tagline “We're not rated X for nothin', baby!” on its poster. Based on a character created by cartoonist R. Crumb, the film follows the titular feline as he romances a string of lady cats, drops out of college, and goes through a series of adventures that turn him into a revolutionary. The intent was to spoof the counterculture movement that sprang up in the 1960s.

    You couldn't get further away from a Disney picture than Fritz the Cat. It has copious nudity and explicit animated sex, including a bathtub romp between Fritz, two female cats, and a kangaroo. Characters' genitalia is seen throughout this and similar sequences. Violence, substance use, and profanity are also pervasive. The movie's satire of racial issues includes politically incorrect images and exaggerated stereotypes, among them a woman in blackface. The idea of an X-rated cartoon caught the public's curiosity, leading to a worldwide box office gross of $90 million. Fritz the Cat became the most successful independently produced animated movie ever. 

    One person who wasn't enamored with the film was R. Crumb. Displeased over how his work was distorted into something hyper-sexualized - and angry about Bakshi cutting a deal for rights to the character behind his back - he sued to have his name taken off the credits.

    323 votes