Filmmakers sound off on censorship, ratings system
|Carl Gottlieb, left, and John Landis.|
FULLERTON, Calif. — There are always efforts, especially in
campaign years, to censor the movies, but “the First Amendment is fairly
absolutist on its face. Congress shall make no law… ,” filmmaker Carl
Gottlieb said at the opening program of the California First Amendment Assembly
at California State University, Fullerton.
“The First Amendment protects your right to be a bad artist as well as
protects your right to be a good artist,” he said
The Oct. 13 panel, sponsored by the First Amendment Center and the
Pacific Coast Center, featured three filmmakers discussing the efforts to
censor or in some way alter their work to fit ever-changing standards.
Gottlieb — an actor, director, producer, screenwriter and author
— co-wrote “Jaws,” “The Jerk,” “Jaws 2,” “Dr. Detroit,” “Which Way Is Up”
and “Caveman,” which he also directed. He was a television writer for “The Odd
Couple,” “All in the Family,” and “The Bob Newhart Show.” He received an Emmy
for his work on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Show.”
He said he is often approached by well-meaning organizations that want
to “improve” films in some way: “The aim is always the same: To affect
content,” he said. “Without that absolutist approach (of the First Amendment),
that slippery slope looms all around. There’s no place to turn. For the best of
purposes you wind up committing some of the worst offenses about art and
culture and expression.
“Just as the Fourth Amendment was gutted by the drug exemption —
if (the crime) was about drugs, you could search and seize personal papers. All
the abuses of the Fourth Amendment that we’ve seen, we’re going to run into
with the violence exemption to the First Amendment. And it’s going to be just
as well meaning and just as corrosive to our liberties.”
It’s important for “artists to be heard,” Gottlieb said, “and more
importantly than our individual right of free expression is the right of the
culture to be exposed to every facet of argument. And if the culture is not
exposed, then the culture can’t make a decision and there is a spiraling
increase in ignorance and disaster.”
As a result of outside pressures, Hollywood imposed a ratings system
on itself to ward off something worse, said John Landis, director of “Kentucky
Fried Movie,” “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” “The Blues Brothers,” “An
American Werewolf in London,” “Trading Places” and “Coming to America,” as well
as the HBO series “Dream On.”
The ratings system followed the film censorship by Joseph Breen, an
“anti-Semitic, racist, Catholic censor,” Landis said. “It’s fascinating to read
Joe Breen’s notes on the scripts. I’m trying to get a book published on it but
the (Roman Catholic) Church is fighting me, saying they own the material.”
Then “Hollywood hired Will Hayes to protect them and he put in the
decency acts. ‘If a man and woman are in bed, he has to have both feet on the
“The Hayes office eventually gave way to the ratings system,” Landis
said. “One of the great ironies is what happened to the X rating. Originally it
was an honorable thing. ‘Midnight Cowboy’ and ‘The Last Tango in Paris’ were
both X rated (and huge successes). What happened was that the porno industry
starting advertising triple X, so X became associated with pornography.”
Newspapers won’t run ads for NC-17 rated movies, he said. “Why?
Because they’re hypocritical pigs, that’s why. … What has happened is
that the ratings system that was put in place to protect filmmakers, and really
to protect the audience, is censorship — self-censorship. It’s censorship
and censorship by definition is arbitrary. It has to be. ‘In olden days a
glimpse of stocking… .’ Things that were offensive are no longer
offensive. Things change. Kenneth Starr did more to lower public discourse than
any American in the 20th century. Talking about oral sex became acceptable on
the evening news.
“What they call the liberal media have never been liberal, [they've]
been reactionary. [They react,]” Landis said. “Foreign films won’t get ratings
because they’ll get NC-17. So they go unrated and The New York Times will print
“I’ve looked at Hollywood stuff from the 1970s. It’s far more
explicitly sexual and far more violent than anything made in the last 12
years,” he said. One of Landis’ earlier films was “Innocent Blood” about
vampires and the Mafia. “It was full of sex and violence.” He says that the way
the ratings board operates is: “If there’s sex, they’re very hard on violence.
If there’s no sex, you can have all the violence you want.”
Landis raised an example of the malleability of the ratings system:
“When Steven Spielberg made the second Indiana Jones movie, there is a
still-beating heart torn out of a body. If I’d made that movie, it would have
been R rated, but I didn’t make four of the biggest pictures of all time. They
changed the rating. It was rated PG 13. It’s almost an R, but STEVEN SPIELBERG
The third panelist was Guy Green, a cinematographer who co-founded the
British Society of Cinematographers in 1949. He did the photography for “One of
Our Aircraft Is Missing,” “In Which We Serve” and “This Happy Breed.” He won an
Oscar for cinematography for “Great Expectations” in 1946. He shifted to
directing in the mid 1950s with “Desert Patrol,” “The Angry Silence,” “The
Mark,” “Light in the Piazza” and the then-controversial “A Patch of Blue” in
The picture, which had an interracial theme, won five Academy Award
nominations and an Oscar for actress Shelley Winters.
“They thought it was a dirty film,” Green said, recalling his studio’s
“The need to protect children is the motivating force” for censorship
and ratings,” Green said. “There are a lot of films I don’t like and would hate
my children to see them and I would like to prevent them from seeing them. I
don’t know how you legislate for this, but I think the main thing is the taste
of the filmmaker and the responsibility of the parents. How one would promote
this and encourage this I don’t know, but I don’t think it’s going to be done
“The ratings system unfortunately is the best way,” Landis said. “I
made ‘Innocent Blood.’ I have two children and they never saw it. My daughter
finally saw it this year; she’s 18. She said ‘I can’t believe you made that
picture.’ I’m fascinated by the argument that we can’t protect our children. I
have children. They’ve only seen what I’ve allowed them to see.”
The panelists all seemed to agree that “Hollywood” as a unified and
mighty cultural force is history.
“Hollywood and big studios don’t exist any more,” Landis said.
“They’re part of huge corporations (and an insignificant part). We’re now
dealing with Rupert Murdock and Sumner Redstone who could care less about these
very small divisions of their companies. They’re part of huge multinational
Gottlieb added: “It’s not a [monolithic] industry. It doesn’t wield
any power. … General Electric could close NBC and it would be a 3 percent
drop in their bottom line at the end of the year. … If Rupert Murdock,
Sumner Redstone, Hachette and Bertelsmann decided that they would print nothing
about the color green, it would disappear from the spectrum. But they
The fragmentation of independent films, niche broadcasting, the
Internet, DVD and an independent distribution system are diffusing the power
Hollywood once had, he said.
Moderator Gene Policinski, deputy director of the First Amendment
Center, asked where the limits of free expression should be.
“It stops at the taste of the filmmaker,” Green said. For example, he
said, “‘The Angry Silence’ (is) about a man’s right to express himself against
all of his compatriots. And ‘The Mark’ where I asked for some understanding and
compassion for a man who is accused of interfering, as they used to call it,
with a young girl. I, who had two children, was accused in the press of being
pro child abuse.”
He quoted Rupert Mamoulian: “We must affirm and insist that the
ultimate goal of a film, no matter what the subject matter it deals with, is to
add to the beauty and goodness of life and the dignity of human beings and to
have faith in a better future.”
Landis said sometimes the political agenda of movies, including his
movies, isn’t noticed.
If it isn’t, “it works. I consider it my duty to be as subversive as
possible at all times,” he said.
“I made one of the most successful comedies of all times called
‘Animal House.’ Here’s a movie that’s perceived as one thing and is really
something very different. Because it was set in 1962, it could deal with race
and sex in a way that was protected by the period. It’s a movie that ends in
civil insurrection. For years it bothered me that nobody noticed the politics
of this movie because it’s such a sophisticated script. And then one day it hit
me: Schmuck! That’s because it worked! For George Bush to say it’s his favorite
movie and not understand that he’s an Omega… .”
Landis also made the Eddie Murphy movie, “Coming to America”: “It was
Eddie Murphy as Cinderella.” The movie pitch was bad, but “he was such a big
movie star at that time. I’ve never said this publicly — why I made
‘Coming to America.’
“The idea was Cinderella. The writers said it’s Cinderella, but he’s
Eddie and he’s black, so it can’t be a European country. Then it struck me.
It’s a big Hollywood picture and they’re going to throw money at it because
it’s an Eddie Murphy picture and I realized that up until that moment in the
history of Hollywood, there had never been a picture with a black lead where
his or her color was not the plot. … I’m going to make this silly fairy
tale and everyone’s going to be black and no one’s going to notice because it
doesn’t matter to the plot.
“It was shot without a completed script. It never had a preview. We
were cutting it as we went, to get it into theaters three weeks after
production, It needed to have 20 minutes cut out of it but it never had a
preview. (The studio heads) said: ‘It made $400 million. It’s perfect.’ It was
a huge hit all around the world and no one watching it thought ‘this is a movie
about colored people.’ It was about people.”
The First Amendment Center is an educational organization and cannot provide legal advice.
Ken Paulson is president of the First Amendment Center and dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University. He is also the former editor-in-chief of USA Today.
Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute, also is senior vice president of the First Amendment Center, a center of the institute. He is a veteran journalist whose career has included work in newspapers, radio, television and online.
John Seigenthaler founded the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center in 1991 with the mission of creating national discussion, dialogue and debate about First Amendment rights and values.
Dr. Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center at the Newseum Institute.. He writes and speaks extensively on religious liberty and religion in American public life.
David L. Hudson Jr. is an expert in First Amendment issues and a regular contributor to the First Amendment Center's website. Hudson teaches law and was a scholar at the First Amendment Center.