Rather than throw a media-friendly temper tantrum about ‘Hamilton’ having too much profanity for a PG-13, Lin-Manuel Miranda snipped two out of three “f-bombs” and avoided an R.
We may never know the actual viewership numbers, but if social media and online coverage is any indication, quite a few folks will be watching Hamilton on Disney DIS + this Independence Day weekend. The filmed stage production, featuring two live Broadway performances from the original cast in 2016, sold to Disney for $70 million with the intent of a theatrical release in October of 2021. But the pandemic changed the equation, and the Mouse House released it to their streaming service yesterday. The film is a time capsule reproduction of the Lin-Manuel Miranda show, with every moment included save for two out of three utterances of the dreaded “f-word.” Hamilton got its desired PG-13 because Miranda was, in his words, willing to give exactly “two fucks” in order to avoid an R-rating. Bless him for that.
We’ve been having debates about the arbitrary and arguably capricious nature of the MPA rating system as long as I’ve been old enough to read about it. Yes, they tend to consider sexual content, especially non-hetero (and non-white) sexual content, more worthy of a restrictive rating than violence. Yes, broadly speaking, it’s madness that more than one “F-word” can garner an automatic R while countless people being bloodlessly murdered (or not-so-bloodlessly in a fantasy setting) can get away with a PG-13. In the 1990’s, when studios actually released major R-rated films on the regular, the issue was print media and TV networks refusing to accept advertising for X or NC-17 movies while major theater chains and video stores wouldn’t carry them, making what was supposed to be a voluntary rating guide into something commercially mandated.
The issue of PG-13 versus R came to the center in the 2000’s as Hollywood tried to stuff almost every vaguely “big” movie into the PG-13 box. The post-Columbine cultural backlash over R-rated films aimed at older kids combed with the commercial potential of a four-quadrant global fantasy blockbuster turned the PG-13 into the rating of choice even for slashers like Prom Night, actioners like Live Free or Die Hard and “meant for adults” thrillers like Bourne Supremacy, Taken and Angels & Demons. The desire for a PG-13 created a false impression of PG-13 as a “PG+” and an R-rated film as something too hardcore not just for kids but for sensitive adults. That is why we saw (for example) the R-rated (but relatively vice-light) Mortdecai arrive on DVD and VOD in a PG-13 cut.
If you followed this in the 2010’s, you probably remember Harvey Weinstein raising a ruckus on the regular for just this reason. Be it in 2010 with both The Tillman Story and The King’s Speech, 2012 with the anti-bullying documentary Bully or 2013 for Philomena, the playbook was always the same. Weinstein would have a movie that was aimed at adults and relatively light on objectional content save for containing too much profanity for a PG-13, and he would raise a ruckus in the media arguing everything “Censorship,” “Family values!,” and “Think of the children!” An attempt to appeal Philomena’s R-rating was successful (to the delight of countless Judi Dench-loving teens everywhere), but it was mostly just a show for free media attention and a chance for Weinstein to play progressive crusader and promote upcoming movies.
Weinstein Company released Tom Hooper’s R-rated The King’s Speech to massive critical (several Oscar wins, including Best Picture) and commercial ($424 million worldwide) success only to then offer a PG-13 version with the offending material (a litany of f-words during an emotionally cathartic moment) conveniently altered. Philomena also went on to Oscar-nominated success, earning $100 million worldwide on a $12 million budget. The Tillman Story earned $802,535 in theaters while Bully earned $461,105 in theaters despite the Weinstein Company eventually making the requested edits for the film to get a PG-13. I’ll avoid commentary about Weinstein being an advocate for victims of bullying, but I’d again argue that the desire to avoid an R-rating was less about appealing to kids than to appealing to oversensitive adults. Into this small piece of Hollywood history stepped Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Knowing that three “f-words” would get the filmed version of the stage production an R-rating, and knowing that would create problems for a film intended to stream on Disney+ (and presumably be seen by kids and/or used for in-school educational purposes), he didn’t huff or puff. He just slightly altered the 162-minute feature, removing two of the three utterances, winning the PG-13 and saving Hamilton not for the kids (who can handle profanity) but their pearl clutching parents. If you’ve seen the show in its filmed format, you’ll know that losing those profane moments costs the production nothing in in terms of character, plot and emotional engagement. Moreover, he even shot down attempts to turn it into a SEO-driven controversy right from the get-go, which qualifies as a miracle in this all publicity all the time era.
Michael Moore tried to win a PG-13 for Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004 despite some brutal (non-fiction) violence. The R-rated documentary would gross a still-stunning $119 million domestic and $222 million worldwide. There was a period in the 1980’s and 1990’s when horror movies like Leatherface were being threatened with NC-17 ratings over “tone,” which required more than a nip or a tuck to alter. Drew Barrymore being hung from a tree in Wes Craven’s Scream was NC-17 presented as is but R-rated with every other frame removed. There are plenty of stories about sexually explicit movies with non-white actors and/or non-hetero characters having challenges getting a desired rating. Harvey Weinstein wasn’t the only studio executive or filmmaker to haggle with the MPAA over a preferred rating, but he turned it into a sport.
In most of the cases where Weinstein was involved, it was arguably about drumming up free media attention for an otherwise low-profile movie whereby the Weinstein Company demanded special consideration be offered for their movies despite breaking the MPAA’s one ironclad rule. My opinion was always: A) Stop pretending kids can’t see an R-rated movie in theaters. They can when accompanied by a guardian. B) If the PG-13 means that much, cut the f-words and avoid the R. C) Stop loading your otherwise vice-light movies with R-rated language and feign shock when the MPAA denies you a PG-13. Lin-Manuel Miranda didn’t feign outrage or try to drum up free media attention. He just snipped two words and released the movie otherwise as is. That doesn’t make him a hero, but it does make him a professional.