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Why Did “Cabaret” Originally Merit an X Rating in the UK?

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Different countries use their own rating systems to review film material and determine suitable audiences. Though rating systems are based on subjective cultural standards for acceptability in ethics, explicit material, sexuality, and other factors, it is adhered to and respected by theaters and many viewers.

In America, the “X” rating is a long-dead creation of the MPAA. In the early years of the system, in use since 1968 following the abolishment of the Hays Code, X-rated films were considered unsuitable films for children but not pornographic, created for consumption by the general public. Early films that merited the rating in the USA include Midnight Cowboy (1969) and A Clockwork Orange (1971). However, it was common practice for pornographic films to give their material an X rating, as the term was not trademarked and therefore misused. X became aligned with pornography (as it still is today), and in 1990, the MPAA cut the X rating and replaced it with NC-17. This rating allowed for more mainstream distribution, though limited to people 18 years old and above (NC-17 equals “No one 17 and under.”)

In the United Kingdom, the “X” rating existed until 1982, at which point it was transitioned to the “18” certificate still in place. Where the American rating system goes from PG-13 to R, and then the barely-used NC-17 (equal to UK’s “18”), the UK system contains more specific ratings of 12A, 12, 15, 18, and Restricted 18.

When released in 1972, Bob Fosse’s Cabaret was granted a mere PG rating by the MPAA, but received an X rating in other countries, such as the United Kingdom, for its controversial material. At the time, the UK was still being very rigid with its rating of questionable content in films. Apocalypse Now (1979), The Shining (1980), Taxi Driver (1976) and The Exorcist (1973) are a few examples of other popular titles that originally merited an X rating in the UK. As AMC’s Filmsite summarizes on behalf of Cabaret, “The sexually-charged, semi-controversial, kinky musical was the first one ever to be given an X rating with its numerous sexual flings and hedonistic club life. There was considerable sexual innuendo, profanity, casual sex talk (homosexual and heterosexual), some evidence of anti-Semitism, and even an abortion in the film.”

Cabaret’s characters don’t follow any formula and divert dramatically from the social and moral identities of old Hollywood musicals. They exemplify the counterculture spirit leftover from the 1960s, the decade in which Cabaret first rose to prominence as a Broadway musical.

The Movie Jerk writes, “Its setting, the decadent period of the ’30s Weimar Republic, seems to mirror the growingly cynical ’70s zeitgeist, with Vietnam War, presidential assassinations and hippie movement spreading morass in the streets of America, and Cabaret must have been a shock to the old Hollywood musical system. Its central protagonist, Sally Bowles, an American émigré in Berlin and a star performer in the notorious, prostitution hot-spot Kit Kat Club, is certainly no soul-saving nun or some saint Hollywood is accustomed in seeing. She’s a free-spirited egotist, a female gigolo who eschews any notion of settling down and a proposal of a brighter Cambridge future and instead opting for a lavish, morally debauched life. And she does this all with a flourish of her emerald-painted fingernails, chirping ‘Divine decadence, darling!’ When she’s not performing on-stage, she has tentative flings, left, right and front-centre, and even falls into aménage-a-trois – one with an English language tutor Brian (played to a finesse by Michael York) and another, a German baron Maximilian (an equally wanton character played by Helmut Griem). If the complexity doesn’t stun us enough, there is also a criss-crossing of relationships with Brian gratifying his bisexual pleasures with Max.”

Having been re-evaluated years later, the picture now holds a “15” rating within the UK rating system.