A storm of controversy is brewing around the independent film Love is Strange, a small and delicate drama featuring John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as an aging New York couple, which opened in limited release (courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics) on August 22nd. The film, despite featuring no violence, sexuality, nudity, or drug content, was given a R-rating by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) because of a few throwaway curse words. It’s a measure that many critics are labeling as thinly-veiled homophobia.
The MPAA is an easy target. The trade association, which assigns ratings for feature films and television as an advocacy group for parents, has taken many hits throughout its history for a variety of perceived improprieties, including targeting movies made outside the major Hollywood studio system or those that feature sexual content with harsher ratings. Now, a new footnote may be added to the long list of controversies that have erupted from the MPAA in the form of the seemingly unfair rating given to Love is Strange.
The movie was directed by Ira Sachs (Keep the Lights On, Married Life) and premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Since then it has become one the strongest reviewed films of the year (96% on Rotten Tomatoes; 84 on Metacritic). Critics have praised the strong performances of Lithgow and Molina, as well as the modest but emotionally resonant restraint that Sachs shows in telling the story of an aging, recently married New York couple maneuvering through the difficulties and financial realities after one of them is fired from a job and the couple is forced to sell their long-standing apartment. The film has been praised for its specificity and honesty and yet shares the same R-rating of another movie that opened on the very same weekend – Sin City: A Dame to Kill For – which features explicit hyper-violence and considerable sexuality.
One argument that calls into further questioning the exact intentions of the MPAA and their bizarre curse word quota is the fact that LGBT films have historically received harsher ratings than movies portraying “traditional” romances. A cursory investigation shows that films with LGBT content and/or films with members of the LGBT in prominent roles typically receive ratings of R, or the even-more-restrictive NC-17 (NC-17 movies are barred from being advertised in most mainstream publications and from being exhibited by most large theater chains). When looking at the handful of LGBT-related films to receive PG-13 ratings, the vast majority of those titles were films released through major studios – like the 2002 Nicole Kidman Oscar winner The Hours (Paramount) and the 1997 Kevin Kline comedy In & Out (Paramount.) Some of these rating decisions make a certain degree of sense; Brokeback Mountain (2005) had sexual content and brief violence and The Kids Are All Right (2010) featured strong language and sexual content/nudity, for example. And last year, the lesbian-themed French film Blue is the Warmest Color featured graphic sex scenes that stunned audiences when it premiered at Cannes, launching a litany of controversy that continued until the film opened in the theaters last fall. That film received a NC-17 rating, even though the IFC Center movie theater in the New York chose to ignore the restrictive rating claiming the sensitive coming of age film had merit to a younger generation of filmgoers. So far no theater chains or art houses have mounted a similar campaign for Love is Strange.
The rating for Love is Strange already has its detractors. J. Bryan Lowder wrote an editorial on Slate saying, “Love Is Strange is, in comparison, as clean as a Mister Rogers episode. Yes, there are a few stray curse words, but nothing that warrants more than a PG-13.” Stephen Whitty chastised the MPAA in his review for Love in Strange in The Star-Ledger. The policies of the MPAA have long been a source of debate and critics argue that reform is long overdue. With recent features like The Expendables 3 and Transformers: Age of Extinction receiving PG-13 ratings, it seems that the endless barrage of carnage and attack sequences in those movies is, in the eyes of the MPAA, more family friendly than a story about a loving gay couple.