What a difference a year makes. Between 1969 and 1970, between Midnight Cowboy and Patton, some monumental shift realigned what kind of film could earn the Most Prestigious Award in western filmmaking. Not only are both movies enshrined as Best Picture winners, but are almost thematic polar opposites released just a few months apart. If we extend a film metaphor, that what we capture and release on film accurately reflects some kind of zeitgeist, it follows logically that we can assume the world changed significantly between the end of the decade and the start of the next. But let’s talk about a film’s MPAA “rating:” the elusive “X” given to Midnight Cowboy and the harmless “PG” awarded to Patton in 1970. Was public attitude shifting away from the queer and more towards the centre and the normal?
Since its creation, the Motion Picture Association of America has attempted to create some soft and hard guidelines as to regulate the movie-making process. Originally founded in 1922 (making it older than the Academy), the MPAA sought to create a standard for filmmakers, actors, producers and financiers to ensure stability, both financially and, for a while, morally. For the first 46 years in existence, the MPAA sought (especially under Will Hays) to standardize theme, content and production to a code up to focus on “wholesome” films and ones that don’t include “profanity” or “indecency.” In 1968, after several revisions and unraveling of the restrictive code, Jack Valenti sought to rework Hays’ code into the modern rating system still in use today – shifting the morality burdens off of the producers and onto the viewers, and specifically the parents of children Hays tried to protect.
Curious, then that Midnight Cowboy won an Oscar as the first (and only) X-rated film. This fact is mostly irrelevant seeing as the definition of an X-rated film has changed even more dramatically from 1968 to 2014 than the code has from 1922 to 1968; the definition of profanity has changed more than the actuality of the content; the technology and clarity of the filmmaking process has overshadowed the content somewhat. More likely than not, the rating created fantastic hype around the film, whose only true X-rated premise delves into the correlation between male prostitution and homosexuality. These themes in 2014 most likely would earn this film a soft R-rating – and in fact the newly reformed MPAA rerated the X-rating into an R fewer than 2 years after its release.
Much like Valenti set out to accomplish, the governing film body had loosened its standards and shifted moral responsibility and judgement onto the viewer, whether he or she was “mature” enough to watch a film. Sure enough, United Artists re-released Midnight Cowboy in 1971 to little new fanfare. The producers made no compulsive cuts and no extraneous edits. Hard enough to break free from convention almost 50 years after Will Hays set to standardize and control morality in film, director John Schlesinger rightly took advantage of a new shock-and-awe technique to tell his story – embedding a buddy/buddy coming-of-age tale into a boozy, sex-fumed pornography. At least according to the newly formed MPAA, whose guidelines had been relaxed and not yet defined, anyone 17 and up or a younger teen with a guardian should be fit to see the film.
Curiously, while Will Hays rolled over in his grave, The Academy turned over a new leaf: bestowing a film many considered a pornographic embarrassment with film’s highest honor. Then, just a year later, Patton felt more in line with a certain T.E. Lawrence biopic than it did pushing the envelope of acceptable or morally off-centre. A handful of hypotheses might explain the disparity in thematic elements between Midnight Cowboy and Patton. The simplest one, that neither production team had an agenda, seems more reasonable than some conspiracy claiming Midnight Cowboy took advantage of a new, untested system and Patton‘s win was some kind of course-correct. If you’ve seen Patton (and you should), you know that can’t entirely be the case. The 1970s crowned some of the most iconic films in the Academy’s 85 year reign; none as provocative as Midnight Cowboy or as relevant as In The Heat Of The Night, from 1967, which, of course doesn’t have a modern MPAA rating, but one can safely assume nothing as restrictive as a PG-13.
As modern MPAA restrictions have laxed through 2014, the tone of Oscar-tuned films has oddly softened. It might be that the population that grew up on the Hays code has dwindled with age or it might be that support (both creative and financial) for progressive filmmaking has overtaken adherence to state-mandated morality. 1998’s Shakespeare In Love is the most recent nominee (and winner) that has ruffled feathers, though other films – Brokeback Mountain, The Crying Game, Kiss Of The Spider Woman – have edged the border of the degenerate and the provocative. Modern film after 1970 has taken advantage of the increase in film technology more than it has the increasing complexity that the technology has brought. Male homosexuality, nudity, violence and other former violations of Hays’ famous code have become almost inanely passé. It also seems that the only films that receive the X rating (reevaluated to NC-17 in 1990) have to do with female homosexuality or straight up lewdness.
As the production of modern film tipped between 1969 and 1970, The Academy awarded the last Best Picture Oscars of the freewheelin’ 60s to the most controversial film by a wide margin. To say Midnight Cowboy was the best film released in 1969 is reductive of the accomplishments of the other films released and nominated that year; alas we only get five (until 2008). As far as range goes for 1969, take your pick: there’s a musical, a historical fiction, a western and a foreign political thriller to add to the X-rated Midnight Cowboy. The year is a toss-up for the “shoulda” part, but right in the midst of psychedelia The Academy certainly chose the most representative film.