6 Famous X-Rated Movies And What Made Them So Controversial At The Time

 Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange.
Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Nowadays, we have the ultra rare rating of NC-17 when something goes beyond the R-rating. However, back in the day (“the day” being prior to the 1990s), there was the much cooler-sounding X-rating that came attached to movies that were seen as being way too hardcore for anybody under the age of 17.

Now, a lot of these movies were later changed to an R-rating, but the legacy of the X-rating still lives on today, as it remains an important part of cinema history. So, here are six famous X-rated movies, and what made them so controversial at the time.

Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy
Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

The only X-rated movie to ever win Best Picture (and also one of the greatest), Midnight Cowboy is about a sometimes gigolo – but mostly a male sex worker for gay men – played by Jon Voight, and the relationship he forges with an enfeebled con man, played by Dustin Hoffman.

I just mentioned how Voight’s character mostly works for gay men, and that’s mainly why the movie got its X-rating. That said, it might not be for why you think. There’s a tremendous Vanity Fair article that details how the movie actually could have had an R-rating, but some of the powers that be were legitimately concerned that the movie would turn some young men gay.

Obviously, it is a silly notion that any movie could make a whole generation of teenage boys gay, but this was the late 1960s, mind you, and people thought differently back then. These days, we widely support gay rights, and even promote movie and TV characters played by gay actors. So, we’ve come a long way since 1969. Not as far as we need to go, but progress has definitely been made.

A scene from A Clockwork Orange
A scene from A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

And now for a bit of the old ultraviolence. One of Stanley Kubrick’s best movies is also one of his most controversial. My older sister once warned me not to watch this movie, and for good reason. The content of this film is definitely not for kids.

A main reason for this is all of the sexual violence. According to Slashfilm, the tipping point that caused the censors to likely tear out their hair is probably the most famous moment in the entire movie (Well, besides the part where Malcolm McDowell has his eyes forced open with clamps), and it’s the infamous home invasion scene, where McDowell’s character belts out “Singing in the Rain” before sexually assaulting a man’s wife right in front of him.

These days, the droogs are apparently seen as being so harmless that they’re included as audience members in the Space Jam sequel. But, back in the early ‘70s, this movie was way too harsh for younger eyes. Now, they cheer on Bugs Bunny.

Driving around in Fritz the Cat
Driving around in Fritz the Cat

Fritz The Cat (1972)

The very first X-rated cartoon, Fritz the Cat took pride in that distinction, even proclaiming, “We’re not rated X for nothin’, baby!” on the movie poster. And, it’s pretty easy to understand why this movie’s Rated-X, but BBC has a pretty detailed article on why it received that usually dreaded rating.

Directed by Ralph Bakshi (In his directorial debut!), and based on the R. Crumb comic strip of the same name, Fritz the Cat seems like the kind of movie that the X-rating was invented for.

Featuring drug use, sex, political activism, and some pretty dated racial stereotyping (though, you get a sense that Bakshi was riffing off of the black crows from Disney’s Dumbo), there was no way that the film industry wanted parents to take their children to see a movie where a cat has a foursome.

That said, without Fritz the Cat, we likely wouldn’t have had more adult-themed cartoons like The Simpsons (which I’m glad that I grew up watching), Family Guy, and South Park, so thank Ralph Bakshi and R. Crumb for that.

Cheryl Deadite in The Evil Dead
Cheryl Deadite in The Evil Dead

The Evil Dead (1981)

The Evil Dead is my favorite horror franchise of all time. With five films under its belt, I would argue that there hasn’t been a bad one yet, with the most recent entry, Evil Dead Rise, getting a respectable four out of five star review from us.

The series has wildly varied in tone, though. In the last two entries, 2013’s Evil Dead, and the aforementioned Evil Dead Rise, the creative teams have gone back to making straight up horror movies. That said, Evil Dead II, and Army of Darkness are definitely examples of horror comedies.

However, it’s the first movie, 1981’s The Evil Dead that was considered so extreme, that it received an X-rating when it first released. Looper goes into why this was, but the long and short of it is basically down to one specific scene, which even Sam Raimi regrets these days. Basically, if you’ve seen the movie, then you’ll know it involves a woman out in the woods…and a tree. I’ll leave it at that.

There’s also a great deal of bloodshed, and all of the demonic stuff definitely didn’t help its case. These days, the film is still kind of shocking, especially when you think about when it was initially released.

Melvin Van Peebles standing in front of a black background in Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.
Melvin Van Peebles standing in front of a black background in Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.

Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971)

A forebear to the blaxploitation genre, Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song perfectly exemplifies why the X-rating was created. The film can be seen as many things – political statement, a Black empowerment film, or, as some people likely deem it as, borderline pornography.

In fact, according to Den of Geek, that was partly how the film got away with some of the more salacious elements in the film, such as a scene that was excised out of some later versions involving Van Peebles' own son, Mario (at 13, no less), playing a younger version of his character who copulates with a sex worker.

But, Van Peebles proudly took upon the X-rating, as nobody in Hollywood would touch this movie with a ten foot pole. That’s why he starred in it (performing his own stunts, even) and funded it.

As somebody who’s seen a great many films, and hardly ever gets shocked, I have to tell you, Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss’ Song genuinely shocks me (Like, how did he get away with a movie like this?!), which is no small feat.

Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris
Marlon Brando in Last Tango in Paris

Last Tango In Paris (1972)

Lastly, I want to talk about Last Tango in Paris, which, believe it or not, was the seventh highest grossing film of 1973. Starring Marlon Brando and Maria Schneider, the film is basically about two lovers who have lots of anonymous sex…until they don’t.

Now, the reason for this movie’s X-rating is, like many of the movies on here, for one particular scene. But, unlike The Evil Dead, which had a graphic moment featuring a tree, Last Tango of Paris has a graphic scene featuring butter.

I don’t even want to get into the scene in question, because it’s sickening, but even more sickening is the revelation that the actress didn’t even know the scene was going to happen.

There’s a Glamour article all about it, and even though Marlon Brando is still a highly revered actor, this movie is definitely a stain on his career, as there’s no excuse for what he and the director, Bernardo Bertolucci, colluded to do to Maria Schenider. No excuse at all.

And, that’s the list. There are many other X-rated films I could have talked about, but these were the six that I feel are the most widely discussed. How many of these X-rated movies have you seen?