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Harvey Weinstein may have cannily orchestrated a firestorm-sized ratings debate over “Bully” simply to boost ticket sales for a documentary that would otherwise be a tough sell. But Weinstein’s nonstop PR blitzkrieg for the film, now being shown in theaters as unrated, may end up accomplishing something far more lasting. In fact, it may turn out to be a pivotal chapter in the battle to overhaul the Motion Picture Assn. of America’s ratings system, which slapped “Bully” with an R simply because the film contained a few scattered F-bombs.


There have been dozens of high-profile brawls over the arbitrary decisions of the ratings board in the past, all of which have left the system largely unchanged. But this time, even if Weinstein ends up undercutting his own case by tweaking the film so that he can release a version with a PG-13 rating, there are some cracks in the MPAA’s wall of resistance against revamping its decades-old system.


Even though “Bully” was released this past weekend as unrated, a number of large theater chains that traditionally have steered clear of unrated films are now willing to play the Lee Hirsch-directed documentary, which focuses on the victims of school bullying. Regal, AMC and Carmike Cinemas — the country’s No. 1, 2 and 4 theater chains by size — are booking it.


When the controversy erupted, John Fithian, head of the National Assn. of Theater Owners, pointedly warned Weinstein that if “Bully” went out unrated, it would be treated as an NC-17 film — meaning that no one under age 17 would be allowed, even with a guardian. But Weinstein’s relentless media campaign, which enlisted support from scores of celebrities, political figures and educator groups, has prompted some exhibitors to break ranks. Most are treating “Bully” as an R-rated film, allowing minors to see the movie if accompanied by a parent or guardian or, in some cases, armed with a parental permission slip.


Moreover, there are now mutterings of discontent from top executives at the major studios that fund the MPAA. Although it seems unlikely that any of them will publicly criticize the ratings board, they are privately expressing concern that the board’s rulings could cause widespread public disenchantment. Such discontent, they fear, could lead to the rise of alternate ratings systems or metastasize into a partisan political issue.


Is it possible that we’re actually at a tipping point with the ratings system? To get some perspective, I’ve been studying the history of how Hollywood has policed the content of its films. From the early 1930s until 1968, when MPAA chief Jack Valenti unveiled the current ratings system, studios’ film content was tightly controlled by a rigid production code designed to keep the Legion of Decency and a variety of conservative-minded community groups from enforcing their own bans on movies.


Thanks to the code, America always looked like Ozzie and Harriet-ville: Married couples slept in separate beds, crime never paid and it required a prolonged siege on the part of producer David Selznick before Clark Gable was able to say “damn” in “Gone With the Wind,” a word that was routinely cut out of scripts submitted to code administration chief Joe Breen. Breen was a cultural dictator — if anything in your film offended him, it had to go, since no major theater would play a film without the production code seal.


Nonetheless, in the wake of World War II, with American society struggling with new issues such as racial inequality, feminism and anti-Communist hysteria, someone emerged who was willing to test Breen’s authority, much as Weinstein has done with the current ratings board. Big city audiences had begun flocking to foreign films, especially neo-realistic ones made by Italian filmmakers such as Roberto Rossellini. In 1949, an ex-publicist named Joe Burstyn acquired the U.S. distribution rights to Vittorio De Sica’s “The Bicycle Thief,” which had won acclaim in Europe.


The film broke records when it played at an art house in New York, but Burstyn knew that he would need a code seal to run “The Bicycle Thief” in other parts of the country. So he submitted the film to Breen for approval. It was rejected for two brief scenes, one where a boy stops in front of a wall, apparently to relieve himself; the other where the thief’s pursuers race through a bordello — a code no-no, even though the occupants were clothed and eating breakfast.


Breen wasn’t going to budge — he’d only recently cut a scene from a Hitchcock movie because it showed a commode in a jail cell. De Sica refused to cut a frame. So Burstyn, like Weinstein has done today, staged a publicity campaign, figuring that a film playing without a code seal would have the tantalizing air of forbidden fruit.


Soon the press was in a “Bully”-style uproar. The American Civil Liberties Union denounced the production code as a “violation of free thought and expression.” The New York Times’ chief critic, Bosley Crowther, ridiculed Breen’s code administrators, saying they’d “put their minds in deep freeze.” Life magazine smelled hypocrisy, since Breen had no problem with a “Bicycle Thief” shot showing a suggestive poster of Hollywood’s favorite pin-up girl, Rita Hayworth, yet objected to a realistic depiction of contemporary life.


To make matters worse, five days before the picture had a code appeals hearing, it won the Oscar for foreign film. Still, Breen refused to budge. Like Joan Graves, who heads today’s ratings board, he argued that if he granted an exception for “The Bicycle Thief” because of its artistic merit, it would set a worrisome precedent. However, even without a code seal, “The Bicycle Thief” played to large crowds in independent theaters, with Burstyn running ads featuring the boy in the film at the wall, captioned, “Please come and see me before they cut me out.”


In a move amazingly similar to today’s “Bully” controversy, three of the five biggest studio-owned theater chains agreed to show the movie, the first time any film without a seal had played in major theaters since the code had been instituted. The production code lasted for two more decades before it finally crumbled, unable to squelch interest in such groundbreaking films as “The Moon Is Blue,” “Lolita” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (For more details, read “The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship and the Production Code From the 1920s to the 1960s,” perhaps the best book on the subject.) Much of the impetus for the code’s collapse came not just from changing social mores but also from filmmakers who, like Weinstein today, used the myopic rulings of the code enforcers to drum up publicity for their movies.


In today’s warp-speed media universe, change comes faster than ever. As the number of movies from the six studios that fund the MPAA continues to dwindle, more films are being independently produced and distributed, spawning potential new Weinstein-style rebels.


Sixty years ago, it was “The Bicycle Thief” that started the ball rolling. Like “Bully,” it was a humane, compassionate film that deserved to be seen by all. But today’s rating’s board isn’t so different than the production code under Breen — both entities believed that making any exception would cause the whole house of cards to collapse. Of course, the code collapsed anyway, crippled by a refusal to change with the times. Who says history isn’t about to repeat itself?

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