Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at email@example.com.
This week, frequent A.V. Club contributor Kenny Herzog asks us: What was the first R-rated movie you saw in a theater, and what was the experience like?
My mom was a devout churchgoer with definite ideas about what was and wasn’t appropriate for kids, so as I’ve mentioned in other AVQAs, I grew up on a steady diet of Disney movies, The Sound Of Music, and revivals of Charlotte’s Web at the dollar theater. But Mom loved Dolly Parton, and she apparently trusted musicals to be reasonably wholesome, which is how I ended up seeing The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas when I was 12. It was a big family outing, as I recall, so I was sandwiched between other kids, and not somewhere where a shocked parent could cover my eyes when the clothes came off. Strangely, the naked men in the shower scene made much less of an impression on me than the topless women—I didn’t even recall there being male nudity in the film until I encountered that sequence again years later on the TVs at a gay video bar on Showtune Sing-along night. That said, while the film’s squealing naked-in-bed couples were eye-opening for a sheltered kid, the film wasn’t particularly raunchy after that point, and apart from the vague embarrassment of watching something vaguely sexual with my parents in the room—the same vague embarrassment that still touches me when we happen to watch R-rated films together today—it mostly wasn’t different from any other filmgoing experience of my youth.
My first R-rated experience wasn’t terribly titillating. In fact, it was a downer. My mom and dad were taking my brother and me on a Civil War tour through the south when I was about 13. (I distinctly remember listening to the Wayne’s World soundtrack on my Walkman in the backseat of the car and enjoying my Hypercolor T-shirt on that trip.) We were in our hotel room in Charleston when the film Glory came on TV. My mom was usually pretty vigilant about what we were and weren’t allowed to watch when I was young (for a while, I couldn’t even watch TGIF TV, since prime-time sitcoms were verboten) but my parents decided that since we were on the trip, the movie was timely and appropriate. I learned a lot that night: not so much about the Civil War, but that R-rated movies aren’t necessarily more fun than their tamer counterparts.
I’m not sure whether it was cool or a curse that my grandmother managed a movie theater when I was a kid. On one hand, I got to see Star Wars—multiple times—in her little strip-mall two-screener during its original run in 1977, when I was a spongelike 5-year-old. On the other hand, it was way too easy to sneak into retina-scarring, rated-R movies while she was distractedly babysitting me and my brother at work. Already an avowed science-fiction fan by age 8, I stole my first taste of such guardian-free fruit in 1980—and that fruit was Saturn 3. Man, was it ripe. Granted, it had all the space-opera fiber a growing geek needs: killer robots, spaceships, ’splosions, the works. But even then, my Star Wars-honed senses could smell the lameness of the script and special effects. Curiously enough, the film’s many glaring faults were completely eclipsed in my critical young brain by the vision of a topless Farrah Fawcett (whom I was totally aware of at the time) carrying on with some cliff-faced fossil of a dude (whom I later realized was Kirk Douglas). Okay, so it wasn’t exactly a traumatic experience—that is, until nostalgia and curiosity drove me to rent Saturn 3 a couple years ago, and I could barely watch it long enough to get to the nude scene. Barely. NSFW:
I’m fairly certain my first R-rated movie was The Blues Brothers, which I distinctly recall watching multiple times on HBO as a kid. I hated waking up early—still do—but I remember having my dad set an alarm clock so I could catch the 6 a.m. showing. (This was before anybody really had VCRs, and DVRs were like a magical dream.) But that R-rating doesn’t make any damn sense, anyway. There’s some cartoonish violence and several F-bombs, but virtually no reference to sex of any kind, and though many cars are destroyed, nobody dies. (Onscreen, anyway.) I can’t imagine it’d be rated R nowadays. Around the same time in my life, I also tried to watch Stripes as often as possible, for its witty dialogue, huge concentration of Bill Murray, and one totally unnecessary (and awesome) shower scene. Quoth John Larroquette as Captain Stillman: “Oh, I wish I was a loofah!”
I don’t remember what the first R-rated movie I managed to see in the theater was, but I do remember the first time I tried to see one. For some reason, my friend and I were set on seeing The Birdcage, which was rated R presumably for the prevalence of Nathan Lane in a dress. We decided the best way to go about getting in, seeing as how we were 15, was to buy a ticket for another matinee and then sneak into The Birdcage. As we got to the front of the line, though, another ticket window opened up across the way and one of us was ushered over to that cashier. We got into the snack line to discover we’d purchased tickets to different movies—I just remember that one was an Adam Sandler vehicle—and proceeded to freak out like only two straight-A-getting, never-been-grounded teen girls could. We must have looked shady as hell, sitting in the corner plotting how we would go in separately and then sneak back toward the theater directly behind the ticket taker, which is where The Birdcage was showing—another setback in our devious plan. The second we were both through the gates, an usher approached us and we fled, fearing being thrown in movie jail, or worse, our parents being called because we just wanted to see Robin Williams playing gay that much. It’s a situation so ridiculous and so shameful that I cringe thinking about it to this day.
The first time I saw an R-rated movie in a theater, I was with my mom, so there was no chance that sexual content was going to be a factor. Instead, it was that one movie in a blue moon that played at the two-screener in McComb, Mississippi that both of us wanted to see: Southern Comfort, Walter Hill’s super-violent action flick about a bunch of Louisiana National Guard members caught in a Most Dangerous Game situation with unseen Cajuns in the bayou swamps. Good movie, and the audience reaction was pretty memorable, too: The theater was full of crackers who loudly identified with the most trigger-happy, redneckiest characters. They started angrily cussing at the screen as those guys got picked off one by one, and it became clear that the two college-educated, white-collar characters, who kept shaking their heads in disgust at the rednecks’ stupidity, were the movies’ heroes. (The guys in the audience clearly regarded them as soft, pantywaist elitists and wanted to see them broken, whimpering, and promising, with their last breaths, to vote for Rick Perry.) I don’t guess I’ll ever know whether the mood in the theater would have been more muted if the violence had been PG-rated.
I spent my whole childhood dancing around the fact that the movies I wanted to see were also the ones I would not be allowed to see. And make no mistake: The movies I wanted to see weren’t R-rated. They were PG-rated. When I finally got to see Ernest Goes To Camp, it was a pretty big deal for me, and when I accidentally saw the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie at a sleepover, I actually apologized to my mom for being subjected to it. My younger sister pretty much just ignored the limits and tried to get away with whatever she could, which always drove me nuts. We’d rent movies at the local Co-op, where a dingy shelf of mostly new-release videos was plastered against one of the walls, and every time, my sister would suggest, say, Eddie Murphy in The Distinguished Gentleman, I would counter with something like Fantasia, which I knew would be seen as acceptable, and we’d end up with something like Turner And Hooch. So it was enormously strange when my mother pulled down A Few Good Men and decided it was high time for me to see it (at the ripe old age of 13). Why that movie? Well, she’d liked it. Why then? I still have no earthly idea. Maybe she was as tired of my attempts to keep everything aboveboard as I was. (For the record, I liked the movie very much.)
My mom would never have taken me to an R-rated movie in a million years, but I spent summers with my dad, who tended to be more lax. Because he didn’t want to force us to go to bed, and because he wanted to watch HBO, we often got to see raunchy stand-up comedy specials and movies like Stripes with only a cursory warning to not repeat any of the language we heard, and to close our eyes when the women started taking off their clothes. But the first (and only) time he actually paid for a ticket for an R-rated movie with me in tow was in the summer of ’83, when I was 12. The movie was Blue Thunder, which barely should’ve been rated R in the first place. Aside from some profanity, and one scene where L.A. police officers Roy Scheider and Daniel Stern use their state-of-the-art/whisper-quiet assault helicopter to spy on a naked lady, Blue Thunder was a fairly unobjectionable action movie. Nevertheless, I thought it was the height of sophistication, and felt like a mature adult, trusted by my dad to handle the occasional swear and a glimpse of boob.
My family never had HBO, Showtime, or any of the other pay channels, so whenever we stayed at hotels, scanning through the palm-sized monthly HBO guide was one of the first things I’d do. My parents were always strict about what we could watch at home—my sister and I were allowed to The Blue Lagoon once, but only the TV edit, and for sex-education purposes—but on the road, a more permissive attitude took hold, especially once everyone started falling asleep and the TV remained on. My first R-rated movie was 1981’s Wolfen, a forgettable chiller about urban wolf attacks, and I can only recall two things about the experience: 1) I saw it in the lingering twilight of August in Fairbanks, Alaska, a city that’s stayed with me for the stench of its paper mills and for being the single most depressing place I’ve ever visited. 2) There’s a shot in Wolfen of a decapitated head rolling in front of the camera, teeth chattering. Now this was the R-rated action I’d stayed up for.
I’m a little blown away by Scott’s Wolfen story (a true must-see flick), and also wishing for the very first time, and sake of this Q&A, that my father followed through on his intentions to escort my sister and me to The Color Purple. And had the ratings system not been so unwieldy 25 years ago, my R-rated cherry might well have been claimed by the inexplicably PG Spaceballs. But as it happens, and as a result of parental over-disciplining and vigilant theater security, I waited until I was newly 17 to achieve my cinematic bar mitzvah, by way of an afternoon Trainspotting screening at a multiplex in Huntington, Long Island. I went with a friend from high school named Benjamin, who I’d never hung out with before or after that day, making the whole experience that much more perfectly weird. Babies crawling on ceilings, toilet-diving junkies… I didn’t really get it, but I got it, and soon bought a horrendous, oversized, vaguely homoerotic, and eventually outworn Renton T-shirt that rightfully invokes mockery to this day. But that movie was crazy, and still feels like my generation’s Clockwork Orange.
We had premium cable channels before I hit my teens, so I’d long since earned a lifetime excuse to giggle knowingly whenever someone refers to “Skinemax” by the time I had the opportunity to actually see an R-rated movie in a theater. As it happens, though, my first such film was more about violence than sex. 1983’s Uncommon Valor starred Gene Hackman as a retired Marine colonel who, in his obsessive quest to find his missing-in-action son, teams with a ragtag bunch of veterans—Patrick Swayze, Fred Ward, Tim Thomerson, Randall “Tex” Cobb, Reb Brown, and Harold Sylvester—and heads to Vietnam to find him. Oh, right, and the whole thing’s on Robert Stack’s dime, since his son is also missing. I have no idea why my buddy Joey wanted to see the movie, and I have even less idea why my parents would’ve let me go see it with him and his mother, which leads me to figure that they might only be learning about it by reading this article. Whoops. Anyway, it wasn’t a great movie, but it was rated R, which meant that it was, by definition, the most awesome thing I had ever experienced up to that point.
I gotta say, my first R-rated experience in a movie theater was pretty awesome. I was 11, and my mother dropped me and my brother off at the local cineplex for an afternoon screening of Lethal Weapon 2. My mom knew my brother and I were smart, fundamentally good kids, so she trusted us to watch a movie like Lethal Weapon 2 without parental guidance. As for the theater cashier, he was barely older than we were, so we entered without dispute. Which still sort of amazes me, because this was a movie with a true, hard R—there was tons of horrible violence, awful vulgarity, and nudity, most memorably Patsy Kensit’s larger-than-life breasts. It was probably more than my brain could handle, though it definitely didn’t mind at the time. I had an incredible time—Lethal Weapon 2 is still one of my favorite action movies ever, even though I haven’t seen it in about 20 years—and while it wasn’t exactly an innocent experience, it does seem like a throwback to a simpler time. Kids today have instant access to all kinds of smut. How will they ever know the thrill of gaining entry into a world of previously forbidden adulthood?
Like many of my fellow commenters, R-rated movies were irresistible forbidden fruit when I was growing up, as well as the height of sophistication. As a child, I dreamed about the day I’d finally be able to strut into a video store and rent anything I wanted. Little did I know that the days of video stores themselves were limited. I was particularly fascinated by the oeuvre of Eddie Murphy. If he was half as good as the kids on the schoolyard performing large portions of Beverly Hills Cop and Raw, then he was clearly something special. Strangely enough, I still haven’t seen either of those films, but when I was 5, my father inexplicably dropped me off to go see Conan The Barbarian while he ran errands. I have no idea why he thought it would be an appropriate movie for a prepubescent boy, but it had a profound effect on me. I doubt I’d be the hyper-masculine brute I am today if it weren’t for that formative cinematic experience.
Peer pressure is a hell of a thing. When I was in third grade, my mother came to help out with a class party and all my friends were talking about a hilarious movie they had just seen at another kid’s party: National Lampoon’s Vacation. My parents were usually good about screening movies before my sister and I saw them (example: Back to the Future, which I then saw about a dozen times in its first theatrical run). But for whatever reason, maybe because these were friends of mine my mother knew and whose parents she knew and trusted, she took my friends’ acclaim at face value and rented the movie for me to watch without pre-screening it first, which she instantly regretted, thanks to some nudity and plenty of swearing. A lot of it went over my head—well, the boobs didn’t, but the masturbation joke did—and I don’t remember being particularly warped by anything I saw. (Growing up in Alabama provided plenty of real-life events that would do that.) Still, it was probably the last time my mother trusted any 8-year-olds with movie suggestions.
My parents were early adopters of cable—we even had the remote that looked like a calculator and had a cord!—because they wanted to watch Inside The NFL on HBO. I was home alone a lot and stayed up late on weekends, so I saw plenty of stuff that would have upset my mom, had she known. But one of her favorite movies ever was National Lampoon’s Vacation, so she was more lenient with her 9-year-old son when it came time for its 1985 sequel, National Lampoon’s European Vacation. I didn’t see it in the theater, but when it came to HBO, we recorded it on VHS and watched it repeatedly. Despite the rampant sex humor (and a couple scenes with bare-breasted ladies), my cousins and I managed to get European Vacation into our regular rotation with no blowback from our skittish parents, at least that I remember. That’s how I learned about the storied French tradition of strip clubs, and why I get choked up whenever I see the German countryside. “Well, there it is, kids—sniff—my mother’s land.” (“Dad, grandma’s from Chicago.”)
I was 14 when I saw my first R-rated movie—a freshman in high school. A guy I knew and desperately wanted to be friends with invited me over to his house, and we were hanging out when his 16-year-old other friend called him and wanted to go to the movies. Now, this older/wiser/sager friend worked at the movie theater in Northbrook Court (it was a cool place), so he was able to get us in for free—as many people as he wanted, to any movie. He also got free popcorn or some shit, but the important thing was that I was about to commit two terrible atrocities that my parents had forbidden me to do at the time: 1) Drive with a 16-year-old, and 2) See an R-rated movie. So what did we see? Chasing Amy? Private Parts? Anaconda? No, we saw the most scandalous movie we could find… Grosse Pointe Blank. I was too nervous to enjoy the film at all, because I knew I would be returning to my parents later that night, and they’d ask what I’d done that day, and I knew I had to mention I’d gone to the movies, because what else would account for all that lost time? So I did, but told them that my friend’s mom had driven us. I guess I wasn’t convincing enough, because my mom called that friend’s mom to thank her for driving, and she said, “What are you talking about?” I was, like, a really good kid, so the trouble I got in from that minor, minor incident was astronomical. I still hate that fuckin’ movie.
My first R-rated movie experience is a strange one, because it happened when I was 12 years old, and for some reason I remember my grandparents being there. My mom’s parents were visiting from Florida, and my dad was either out of town or at work. Someone—perhaps my brother or me—decided that the movie that we most wanted to see was the Eddie Murphy/Dan Aykroyd romp Trading Places, and the idea that it was R-rated or that the raunchy Murphy was in it didn’t seem to faze any of them, so we went. Keep in mind that at that point, I was regularly listening to George Carlin tapes and openly eyeballing my dad’s Playboys. But the first side of Eddie Murphy: Comedian had been banned from the house, because Murphy’s imagery of Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton having anal sex was a step too far for them, and for our not-so-virgin-ears. Still, we had heard enough of the album to know what Murphy could do, so we were excited about going to the flick. What we got was a pretty funny comedy, where there were a few more “fucks” then normal, and Murphy’s downtrodden Billy Ray Valentine observing that the only way he used to be able to make the tub bubble was by farting in it. Then Jamie Lee Curtis took off her top… It was in the presence of her wondrous breasts, projected 20 feet high onscreen, that I fully understood what a fantastic experience the R-rated movie could be.
I think the first R-rated movie I watched all the way through was probably, as with others, National Lampoon’s Vacation, watched at the home of a friend with more permissive parents than my own. (Hiya, Gregg.) Which makes sense: It was undeniably an R movie, but not that hard of an R. I have a lingering fondness for Beverly D’Angelo to this day, and still don’t understand why Christie Brinkley could turn Clark Griswold’s head. But the first R-rated movie I saw in the theater—with full permission, no less—was Platoon. My arguments: It was acclaimed and it was rated R for violence, not sex. Because, you know, that’s far preferable to sex. Oh, the horrible, scarring, critically lauded violence I experienced that day.
My parents were always stricter with books than with movies—I have no idea why. Reading the heavy stuff required my dad to vet each novel ahead of time, and not everything got a pass. But with movies? I remember one Saturday night sitting down to watch a video my folks had rented and realizing it was The Silence Of The Lambs, and having to tell them that maybe I wasn’t quite ready to watch Hannibal Lecter ripping people’s faces off yet. (For some reason, I assumed Lambs was only a small step down from an actual snuff film.) Still, R-rated movies on the big screen was a change, and I can still remember how I felt going to theaters with my dad to see Die Hard 2. I even remember being in the car on the way to the theater; Mom was taking my sister to see something, and she asked my dad what he was taking me to see. He casually said, “Oh, that new Bruce Willis movie,” and I immediately knew which one he meant. And I knew it was R-rated. Die Hard 2 isn’t exactly a hard R, but it’s not a soft one either. A dude gets stabbed in the eye (spoiler!) with an icicle. Also, Bruce Willis says “fuck” and “shit” a lot. I was 11 at the time, and I decided that was as adult as it got, which is probably why I still swear fucking constantly.