Comment by Shane McNally

If Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman kissed for more than three seconds, it was too provocative. When Boris Karloff first appeared as Frankenstein’s creation, it was too scary. When anyone uttered profanities such as “gawd” or damn” or “Lord”, it was down-right offensive.

It was the era of the Motion Picture Production Code or Hays Code, a set of rules were enforced between 1930 and 1968 to ensure moviegoers had a safe and sanitised cinema experience.

Now, it seems, the public again needs protecting from such vulgarities after Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri won the Golden Globe Award for Best Drama. Many film critics and columnists suggest Three Billboards sends the wrong message because people of dubious morality were not sufficiently punished for their behaviour.

Favourite for this year’s Best Picture Academy Award, Martin McDonagh’s black comedy has been widely criticised for its handling of the racism and domestic violence demonstrated by certain characters. Critics said the Hollywood Foreign Press Association missed an opportunity to send the right message by rewarding a film that had a racist and wife basher as central characters.

In the 1930s, The Code determined “what is acceptable and not acceptable content” and made sure the studios understood what was expected of them. Wrongdoing and villains could be shown in film, but they had to lose in the end. It was The Code.

There was a long list of what was not acceptable. Licentious or suggestive nudity, white slavery and ridicule of the clergy were outlawed; cruelty to children, the sale of women and wedding nights needed to be handled with “good taste”.

Many directors questioned The Code but were hamstrung by their studios. Some, like legendary Frank Capra, mocked it when the opportunity arose. He steered around it in his 1946 classic It’s A Wonderful Life, when he intentionally let corrupt bank manager Henry Potter go unpunished.

It wasn’t until Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni called the bluff of the Motion Picture Association of America and released Blow-Up in 1966 without its seal of approval, showing that The Code had no legal foundation. The Code soon disappeared.

While the strict rules of The Code years may have sanitised film, there was usually some vocal opposition from critics and artists. Such resistance is missing in the current film dialogue. Make a film with a trite message that fits into a conformist mindset and filmmakers are applauded for their bravery. Reject the guidelines and, ironically, they are accused of weakness.

If Presbyterian elder Will Hays and his puritan cronies had been smart enough to come up with this sort of strategy in the late 1920s, the public still wouldn’t have seen a pair of breasts outside an art gallery. We’d have throats slit, heads cut off, rivers of blood and all sorts of dismemberment but there would be no nudity and no hint of sex.

And if McDonagh had toed the line and shown every Three Billboards wrongdoer getting their just deserts, this wouldn’t even be an issue.

Just as James Cagney wasn’t rewarded for his stellar work with the occasional dark victory during cinema’s prohibition, those who would reintroduce The Code insist that anyone who might be racist, sexist, corrupt or violent towards the wrong people has no place going unpunished by the time the credits roll.

Cagney won an Oscar for his remarkable turn as songwriter George M Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy but wasn’t even nominated for benchmark portrayals of psychotic or corrupt villains in classics like White Heat, The Roaring Twenties and Public Enemy.

Imagine if Hannibal Lecter had been bad enough to kill women, children or members of minority groups. No, he generally had the decency to wash down the liver of dispensable men with a nice Chianti. Anthony Hopkins managed to captivate audiences while picking up a worthy Oscar for his performance. How? Because Silence of the Lambs was made in the 1990s, in that window between the codes.

The morality of actors and films will always be questioned by those who force their views on others and insist on stopping them from seeing productions that they believe contain inappropriate content. Even in supposedly broader times, participants are branded for their artistic choices.

When New Zealand great Kerry Fox was being demonised for her sexually explicit performance in Intimacy, the politically correct were conspicuously quiet. Fox was widely attacked by women and men alike for her part in a ground-breaking film while male co-star Mark Rylance escaped largely unscathed and has gone on to win an Academy Award for his brilliant work in Bridge of Spies. He’s rightly getting plenty of work; she hasn’t landed one single role in a major studio film since.

Both were willing participants. Both are exceptional actors. And both would have been blacklisted in the 1950s for their performances. In 2001, though, only one suffered. In 2018, who knows? Perhaps Fox would be applauded and Rylance condemned?

The Production Code may have been dismantled 50 years ago but there’s a strong conservative push – cleverly dressed up as progress – to introduce a new PC into mainstream cinema. These days, the issue isn’t sex or nudity or even criminal behaviour. It’s about conforming, knowing which stories should be told and how to tell them. It’s the new Code.


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