Top Ten: NC-17 Box Office Champs

Posted by julian On 1:00 PM
Robert here. Did you know that yesterday was the twenty year anniversary of the NC-17 rating?  That tag, applied to the most controversial of films, has developed the most controversial reputation itself, with artists and advocates complaining that it's implemented unevenly and scares away theaters an rental providers.  We're going to leave all that be for now and instead celebrate the ten films that, despite or because of their NC-17 reputations, lead the pack.  Here are the top ten money-making NC-17 films.

10. Wide Sargasso Sea (1993) $1,614,784
Rated NC-17 for strong, explicit sexuality
Does this one not sound familiar to you?  Released early on in the rating's lifetime, speculation is that while there's plenty of sex, it was the full-frontal male nudity that pushed the MPAA rating's board over the edge, probably the sort of thing that would easily get an R today (but you never know).  NC-17 films were relatively rare early on (not that they're plentiful today) and the rating's promise of scandalous titillation added interest to this film that history has forgotten.

9. Bad Lieutenant (1992) $2,000,022
Rated NC-17 for sexual violence, strong sexual situations & dialogue, graphic drug use.
While most of the films on this list can attribute their rating almost entirely to violence or sexual content, Bad Lieutenant serves up a healthy helping of other material as well, specifically it's prolonged scenes of drug use.


Not that the rape of a nun and Harvey Keitel's almost legendary full nude scene are things to scoff at (and we may wonder if the drug use alone would have earned an NC-17).  The film's sacrilegiously controversial reputation undoubtedly has helped boost it's earnings (the quality product behind the hype doesn't hurt either) and continues to buoy the film's position as a cult classic.

8. Crash (1996) $2,038,450
Rated NC-17 for numerous explicit sex scenes.
Sex and car crashes.  Crash is a film which, fifteen years later, still divides audiences and still provokes shock.  It's a testament to Cronenberg's skill and bravery as a director that he can delve head-first into such unspoken fetishes and ending up with a film that many still consider a masterpiece.  As is always the case, the NC-17 film was both a boost and a hindrance, allowing producers to slap the tagline "The Most Controversial Film in Years" on the film while simultaneously cutting an R-rated version for more sensible tastes.

7. The Dreamers (2004) $2,532,228
Rated NC-17 for explicit sexual content
It's fitting that Bertolucci grabs a spot on this list, as his work has always advanced the cause of intelligent erotica.  The trick here, as it always has been, is giving you passionate sex and nubile bodies (in this case Louis Garrell, Eva Green and Michael Pitt) to gaze at packaged in a manner that makes you wish you hadn't been turned on.  In the case of The Dreamers, we're presented with an incestuous love triangle with enough full frontal that the eventual rating couldn't have shocked anyone.  Cinema lovers can enjoy the classic cinema homages.  Francophiles can drool over the setting of 1968 Paris.

6. Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (1990) $4,087,361
Rated NC-17 for scene of strong adult sensuality with nudity.
With a title that promised Sado-masochistic treats and s director coming off his biggest hit to date Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! boosted Pedro Almodovar's reputation as a chronicler of obsession and sexuality to the point where now we expect content for Almodovar that borders on the NC-17 line.  The film itself is the most delightful dark romp present on this list.


5. Lust, Caution (2007) $4,604,982
Rated NC-17 for some explicit sexuality.
Ang Lee's follow up to his Oscar win is a great example of how a distinct confluence of events can temper the NC-17 boogey man.  Combine a high profile director, and independent release and a sex scene so essential to the film, that to cut it would be disrespectful to said high profile director, and you've got uncensored success.

A brief aside about the bizzare marketing that accompanies NC-17 films.  The censored Lust, Caution DVD made for rental chain shelves, promises "the R rated film, not seen in theaters" and if you didn't know that was a downgrade, you'd assume, as I imagine is the point, that you're getting added kinkiness.

4. Bad Education (2004) $5,211,842
Rated NC-17 for a scene of explicit sexual content.
Pedro Almodovar's second entry on this list is a film where the sexual content is most definitely not meant to  arouse.  The film is a neo-noir based around the victim of an abusive priest.  As with his last NC-17 film, Almodovar uses the springboard of his greatest success to release a film that can only work with the content that most distributors would quickly flinch at.

3. The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and Her Lover (1990) $7,724,701
Rated NC-17 for adult situations/language, nudity, sex
My great old film professor's story goes, he showed this film to a class and got into a bit of trouble.  Truth told, the violence, death by forced feeding, sex in meat lockers and cannibalism can overwhelm some of the films other creative visual constructs (for example, the colors of characters' outfits change as they walk from one room to another).  But director Peter Greenaway knew what he was doing and knew what he wanted.  This film is still that for which he's most known.  And it's hard not to ignore the bizarre courageousness of any film where Helen Mirren utters the phrase, "Try the cock... it's a delicacy."

2. Henry & June (1990)
$11,567,449
Rated NC-17 for adult situations/language, nudity, sex
The first film ever slapped with the NC-17 distinction and it shows.  The story of Anais Nin's unconventional relationship with Henry Miller and his wife June and how it inspired Tropic of Cancer these days seems, if not tame, certainly unworthy of the rating.  But as the ratings board was still figuring out what would qualify (apparently three-way sex and brothel scenes made that list) they handed Henry & June a PR victory and the movie practically marketed itself.


1. Showgirls (1995) $20,350,754
Rated NC-17 for nudity and erotic sexuality throughout, and for some graphic language and sexual violence.
I give you, the grand champion.  Look at the difference between the moneys made by this monster and our number two film.  Showgirls is the only movie on this list that still has a place as a pop culture phenom.  That place may not come with the most respect in the world (although I'd argue it never was meant to) but the combination of good marketing, quality camp and copious nudity (hiring a previously "good girl" actress didn't hurt) propelled Showgirls easily to the top of this list.  Considering the small-release, art house atmosphere that most NC-17 films niche into today, I wouldn't expect a challenger to Showgirls' crown any time soon.

How many of these films have you seen?
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