It's Great! Don't Show It!

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Henry Miller, an expatriate Brooklynite in '30s Paris, wrote rambunctious novels about sex and saw Tropic of Cancer banned in his homeland for 30 years. Anais Nin, a Frenchwoman who befriended Miller, wrote intimate journals that remained expurgated long after their publication. Now American director Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff) has made a biography of the two writers and Miller's wife June. Surprise! Henry & June has been rated X by the industry's classification board.

If the rating sticks, Kaufman could become the most notable victim of an increasingly misguided system of self-censorship. Even in a year when the rating board has slapped Xs on a dozen films, the Henry & June rating sent new shudders through Hollywood's creative community. "Phil Kaufman does not make X-rated movies," says filmmaker James Brooks (Terms of Endearment). "So if Kaufman makes a movie that is rated X, then there's something wrong with the system."

There is indeed. It is a system that punishes eroticism with an X rating, yet rewards violence -- from rape to dismemberment -- with an R. Each new violent movie, like this summer's Total Recall, wants to astonish jaded audiences with its special-effects audacity. But adult sexuality, even when investigated as discreetly as it is in Henry & June, is deemed objectionable. "You can cut off a breast," says Kaufman, "but you can't caress it. The violent majority is dictating to a tender minority."

So what happens in Henry & June? The main characters make urgent love, man to woman, woman to woman. They visit a whorehouse and watch prostitutes mime sex. They attend a dada Mardi Gras where nude women wear blue paint. But Henry & June is not a blue movie. Kaufman is a fastidious director; he bathes every love bout in soft focus, or covers it in lace, or reflects it in a goldfish bowl. It's not just that his intent is artistic, it's that his content is mild. Lesbian love, for example, was shown more graphically in Personal Best, Desert Hearts or Kaufman's The Unbearable Lightness of Being, all rated R. "I played by the rules," he says, "and they changed them."

Some rules never change. Even a studio as sympathetic to maverick talent as Universal Pictures will not release an X-rated film. "We want to support Phil's vision," says Universal president Tom Pollack, "as we did with Spike Lee on Do the Right Thing and Martin Scorsese on The Last Temptation of Christ." But if Henry & June loses its Oct. 3 appeal to the rating board, Kaufman has only two options: cut the film to the censors' pattern or take his movie to an independent distributor.

If reason prevails and Henry & June is released as is, its ads can run a money quote: "A masterpiece! Don't cut a frame of it!" What movie critic proffered that rave? Richard Heffner, head of the rating board, who made those comments to Kaufman as he awarded the film its toxic X.