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Ratings board inconsistent when it comes to expletives

From the April 24, 2012, Deseret News

Movie ratings are all about content, or so the people who administer them would have us believe. It's not supposed to matter what the story, theme or ideals may be, the Classification and Rating Administration (overseen by the Motion Picture Association of America) has always held that films are rated strictly in terms of what is seen and heard on the screen.

Except when they aren't.

On National Public Radio last week, movie mogul Harvey Weinstein said that in the documentary "Bully" the f-word is spoken six times — including three in the film's most important scene, in which a hidden camera captures schoolyard toughs harassing a victim.

The film received an R rating but Weinstein, whose company is distributing "Bully," wanted a PG-13, saying that it's an important film that kids should see. And we all know that kids never see R-rated movies.

Anyway, despite the very public battle that ensued the board refused to budge, citing a rule that the offending word may be spoken once and get away with a PG-13 — and then only if it is used in a non-sexual way, as an expletive — but two or more utterances warrant an R.

Since The Weinstein Company is an independent organization and doesn't belong to the MPAA, its films are not required to carry ratings, so it was announced that "Bully" would go out unrated. But before the release date rolled around, the film went to CARA's appeals board again, this time with three of the six usages bleeped — but not the three in the scene cited by Weinstein. So the film was granted a PG-13.

So now that "Bully" is a PG-13 movie dropping the f-bomb three times, not counting bleeps, is this an unprecedented move on the part of CARA? Not by a long shot.

There is a constant balance-of-power shift on the ratings board because most of its eight-to-13 members serve only two or three years. With that kind of revolving-door membership, one year the board may be quite conservative and the next year it might be more liberal. Which could explain a few things.

Also, once a movie is rated (unless it happens to be submitted for a re-rating down the road), it stays rated. Would you believe that in 1976 "All the President's Men" received a PG, even though that film uses the f-bomb some 10 or 11 times? How'd that happen?

Initially, "All the President's Men" received an R but the studio appealed the rating, citing its historical value to young people. The appeals board agreed and since there was no PG-13 rating at that time, the next non-R option was PG. (The PG-13 rating didn't come along until 1984.)

So if you rent "All the President's Men" today, you'll see that it carries a PG rating, and the language you hear in the film might surprise you.

In 1988, just four years after the PG-13 rating was put into use, two comedy/fantasies — Tim Burton and Michael Keaton's "Beetle Juice," and Penny Marshall and Tom Hanks' "Big" — each snuck in the f-word once but still managed to walk away with PG ratings.

You get the idea.

The brouhaha over "Bully" was a bit surprising to me because the board was so adamant about not letting a PG-13 movie use the word more than once, but I've heard that word at least twice in many PG-13 movies over the years, the most recent (that I noticed) being "The Social Network."

And there was an article last year in the Los Angeles Times suggesting that there is a sort of f-word creep in PG-13 movies these days, as it has shown up two or three times in a variety of films stamped with that rating. Examples cited in the story were "The Tourist," "The Adjustment Bureau," "Iron Man 2," "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" and "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps."

If these fiction films can get away with it, why did the ratings board give such a hard time to "Bully," which is as real life as movies get?

Really, though, the bigger question is for all these other films — and especially "Iron Man 2" and "Transformers," which are clearly aimed at young audiences: Why does the board allow that word to be in there at all?