The press release that arrived today touting the re-edited, PG-13 version of The King's Speech opening April 1 claims, "Oscar's Best Picture Is Now The Best Family Film Of 2011."
That's because, as you may have read, they have re-edited the movie so that you don't have to listen to the swearing in the scene where Geoffrey Rush encourages Colin Firth to unleash a stream of profanity as therapy, specifically because when Bertie swears, he does it without deliberation, so he doesn't stutter. It's a very funny scene that plays precisely off the fact that profanity is visceral and expressive; it is language, but at a building-blocks, elemental level. Swearing is not exactly talking, the scene suggests; it short-circuits the part of your brain that considers the precise meaning of what you're saying. In that way, it's actually a very thoughtful examination of what power we should and shouldn't allow language to carry.
In the new version, there will just be silence, on the theory that the words are so powerful that the version of the movie where you can hear them cannot be seen by anyone under 17 without an adult present (it was rated R), but the version where they're quiet can be seen by anyone of any age who can get to the theater (it will be rated PG-13).
It was not a family film before, says this press release; now, it is a family film. And now, this version — opening in 1,000 theaters on April 1 — will be the only one you can watch in theaters. If you want to see the scene as the director and the writer and the actors created it, and you want to do so in a theater, you are out of luck after April 1.
The debate over the MPAA rating system itself is an old one. Director Kimberly Peirce explains at the beginning of the flawed but interesting 2006 ratings-system documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated that she was initially given an NC-17 rating for Boys Don't Cry. Why? Well, the part where someone was shot in the head on screen was okay for kids as long as someone over 17 was there (okay for an R rating, that is), but there were other problems, one of which was that a character's orgasm was, as she explains it, "too long." According to Peirce, she was told that the too-long orgasm made the movie something that no one under 17 could see, no matter how confident a parent might be that they could handle it.
When the broken-marriage drama Blue Valentine was originally submitted last year, it also first came back with an NC-17 rating, which seems preposterous and indeed was eventually reversed. (The controversy is explained here, including star Ryan Gosling's discussion of why you don't have to think a movie is appropriate for 16-year-olds for an NC-17 to be problematic.)
But as troubling as the ratings system is, it seems even weirder and more troubling for studios — including the Weinstein Company, which is releasing this PG-13 King's Speech after being the very studio that embarrassed the MPAA into changing the rating for Blue Valentine — to start buying into the rating system as an appropriate measure of what is and is not a "family film." The themes of The King's Speech are what determine its most appropriate audience, and that audience is just what it was before: Thoughtful 12- and 13-year-olds might well find it interesting, but young kids are probably going to be bored and lost in the royal politics and the family dynamics and the war and why the speech is so important in the first place.
The ratings system is what it is, and the MPAA will always have the ability to smack whatever rating it wants to smack on a film as long as this is the system we have. But for a studio — for the people who produce the content — to agree that the appropriate audience for a film becomes fundamentally different if you mute profanity that's only used in a very directed, intentional, thoughtful way? That's adopting the same value judgments that permeate some of these odd ratings choices in the first place, and that's flat-out creepy.
More to the point, the decision goes precisely against the point of the scene, which is that words are just words — some are appropriately part of a thoughtful argument, and some are appropriately part of a polite conversation, and some are only for whispering in private. Some are for humor, some are for beauty, and some are for rolling around in your mouth like chocolate truffles just because they taste good. And some, as Bertie learns in the scene, are just right for shooting out of your throat percussively and without hesitation.
Just as there's a time to every purpose under heaven, there are times to swear and times not to, and for the studio to embrace the idea that some magical transformation from adult-oriented to family-friendly takes place because you park your finger on the mute button for 45 seconds is profoundly unsettling. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.