Despite being given an X rating, the highest restriction, by the Motion Picture Association, the drama Midnight Cowboy starring Jon Voight and Dustin Hoffman went on to win an Academy Award. Today, that rating is known as NC-17.
Ira Sachs’ recent film Passages, featuring a love triangle between a gay couple (Ben Whishaw and Franz Rogowski) and a woman (Adèle Exarchopoulos), received a rare NC-17 rating from the Motion Picture Association. Sachs protested that “queer images are censored at all levels,” while the MPA stated that “sexual orientation is not considered” in their rating process.
This echoes a similar controversy in 1969, when John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy, adapted from James Leo Herlihy’s 1965 novel about a Texan gigolo (Jon Voight) who meets a grifter (Dustin Hoffman) in New York, was given an X rating, the most restrictive at the time, largely due to its gay themes.
Midnight Cowboy was produced by United Artists, which was looking to take artistic risks after the success of 1967’s The Graduate, also starring Dustin Hoffman. The film was initially given an R rating by the Motion Picture Association. However, as Glenn Frankel, author of Shooting Midnight Cowboy, explains, “United Artists was nervous about the gay sex scenes, so their head Arthur Krim consulted a psychiatrist who recommended rating it X himself.”
The X rating fueled curiosity, and Midnight Cowboy went on to gross $45 million ($374 million today) on a $3 million budget. In 1970, it became the only X-rated film to ever win the Academy Award for Best Picture. In 1971, it was later re-rated R.