For those of us who grew up in the suburbs in the pre-home video, pre-cable TV and pre-Netflix coupons 1970s and early '80s, there were few dangerous pleasures as heady as sneaking into an R-rated movie at the local multiplex. The multiplex cinema was a '70s phenomenon that made regulating children's viewing habits infinitely more difficult than the old days of stand-alone, single screen theaters. Ironically, the new freedom that filmmakers enjoyed with the advent of the MPAA rating system in late 1968 was almost in perfect synch with the rise of multi-screen cinemas. Some things do happen for a reason.
My first R-rated film was during Thanksgiving of 1976. We were visiting my dad's family in Birmingham, Alabama and the men adjourned after dinner to go see Two Minute Warning, a Charlton Heston-led, all-star splatter fest boasting an impressive cast (John Cassavetes, Gena Rowlands, and Martin Balsam, to name a few) about a psycho with a scoped .306 rifle picking off sports fans at an LA Rams game. Even at age nine, I knew the movie sucked, but I was quite thrilled to be watching bare breasts, geysers of spurting blood, and liberal use of the f-bomb, feeling the kind of euphoria that can only be found in nibbling on previously forbidden fruit. I also noticed something else: there was little, if any, usher presence regulating who went into the theater playing the R-rated film. On the screen next door was Martin Ritt and Woody Allen's PG-rated (and far superior) offering The Front. My 108 month-old synapses starting firing.
The following years found numerous R-rated fare that I yearned to see: Marathon Man, Black Sunday, Taxi Driver, Which Way Is Up?, and most significantly Louis Malle's Pretty Baby, which ushered in my pre-adolescent Brooke Shields fixation. So determined was I to see this movie that I spent weeks devising a careful plan to gain admittance for myself and my more adventurous friends. Upon opening the Friday paper one afternoon, it seemed as though lady luck had smiled upon me: Pretty Baby was in a double-bill with King of The Gypsies, my virtual girlfriend's latest cinematic outing, playing newcomer Eric Roberts' younger sister (if Brooke only knew what a coveted part that would become in reality years later). It was showing at the UA 5 Theater in Scottsdale. In those days, it was a safe bet that a film would play at least 2-3 weeks, so I convinced my parents to drop me and my best bud at the theater two weekends in a row, to cover all the PG fare and case the joint, to find the weak link into the Shangri-La showing on screen number three (for the curious, some of the unfortunate '70s fare we saw included Slow Dancing in the Big City Caravans, and Death on the Nile. Contrary to popular belief, a lot of '70s movies sucked, kids).
After careful deliberation, my friend and I thought we'd discovered an opening: at around 3 PM every Saturday and Sunday, the two shaggy-haired ushers would disappear from the lobby for 15-20 minutes. There was a Pretty Baby showing that began at 3:15, and a 3 PM show of the PG-rated A Bridge Too Far. Simple math, or so we thought...
The fateful Sunday came. My buddy's mom dropped the two of us off at the UA 5, where we got our Bridge Too Far tickets for a whopping two bucks apiece. Upon entering the theater's semi-circular lobby with the color-coded doors (red, yellow, green, blue and orange) we scanned the area and saw nary an usher in sight. Just to be safe, we got popcorn and Cokes, and then calmly walked the long mile to cinema 3, the blue door.
There were many thoughts and emotions running through my head as we walked, not to mention more intense physiological happenings occurring in the pit of my stomach, spreading like a wave through my body. My forehead broke out with beads of sweat, my mouth grew dry, my palms clammy. What really lay beyond that blue door? Would I find the secret that lay behind my nightly dreams of the lovely Miss Shields or perhaps something bigger? Maybe the answers to all the riddles of life lay not only in the movies, but more specifically in R-rated movies? Could it be...salvation? That was it. Salvation lay beyond that blue door, and my hand was now on its handle.
"Hold it right there, scumbag!" the voice rang out. A hand clamped down on my shoulder. My buddy turned to me, face ashen. The other usher approached us, nodding to his friend. "What's this?" His friend responded: "Caught 'em trying to sneak into the R-rated movie." "Whoa. Bad move, boys." Sandwiched between the two hulking teens, I was overwhelmed by "a strong, sweet smell of incense" floating off them both like steam. Five years or so later when I was introduced to the giddy pleasures of cannabis, the question in my sense memory finally made sense but in early 1978, they just smelled funny, in addition to being total assholes.
We were not-so-gently ejected by these two 18 year-old virgins and told never to return.
My game, I'm happy to say, got much better after that humiliating maiden voyage. The Fall of 1978 brought my neighborhood a much-needed local theater that we kids could walk or bike to, happily taking our parents and their cars out of the equation. The Lakes 6 theater was one of AMC's flagships, with a half-dozen screens shaped like bowling alleys housed in an equally oblong, rectangular building with its center section containing box office, concession stand and usher area. This made the Lakes 6 blissfully ripe for sneaking and hopping from R-rated gem to gem. It was such a cakewalk, in fact, that not only did my friends and I never once get caught, but the kids who manned the box office and ticket-tearing duties knew that trying to enforce the MPAA's censorship dictates was absolutely useless given the building's architecture.
The Deer Hunter, Midnight Express, Apocalypse Now, The Boys in Company C, and Raging Bull were just a smattering of the great films that rocked my pre-pubescent body and soul during these heady days, a highlight being the '78 re-release of William Friedkin's The Exorcist, when my two Irish Catholic altar boy buddies and I (an agnostic half-Jew, which perhaps accounts for my initially-brave face) bought tickets for Rocky II, but sidled into the hard-R horror classic next door instead. Our tough facades quickly melted as the movie progressed, with Tommy Kehoe running out of the theater during Linda Blair's notorious intimate encounter with a Crucifix. No one saw Tommy for ten days after, and there is still speculation to this day as to where he disappeared to, although one hopes it wasn't too far south of the material plane.
My other friend (whose name is lost to time) and I bravely kept our game faces on for the rest of the movie, but didn't speak a word to each other during the bike ride home, and never again spoke of the traumatic cinematic experience we shared. My fifth night or so of fitful sleep afterward, I began to think, for the first time, "Gee, maybe they're onto something with this rating system. What the hell was I doing watching that movie?" Years later, when I interviewed William Friedkin and told him I'd snuck into both The Exorcist and Cruising, he responded that I owed him six dollars. I replied that he owed me thousands from all the therapy I needed after recklessly exposing my delicate psyche to two pictures no kid should ever watch. Friedkin agreed to drop his claim if I would.
When Taxi Driver came to Tempe's venerable Valley Art Theater on Mill Avenue, one of two second-run/arthouse screens in Phoenix along with the long-gone and greatly missed landmark the Sombrero Playhouse, my dad took me for my 13th birthday. As I sat through Martin Scorsese's visceral masterpiece without flinching and showed no signs of PTSD afterward, my parents' selective censorship of R-rated fare suddenly disappeared, and from 1980 onward, they took me to pretty much any film I wanted to see. That, coupled with the fact that by freshman year in high school I'd grown to over six feet in height, I was able to buy my own damn R-rated tickets from then on, without ever getting carded. With that new-found freedom, however, much of the joy that came from viewing technically-forbidden fruit vanished. No longer when I entered a cinema showing an R-rated film did I get that giddy/frightened/euphoric burning that started in my gut and spread like a wave through every molecule in my body. I was going to the movies, so there was the joy and excitement that I feel to this day when the lights go down and I ready myself for one of the few communal experiences left in society, but that's all it was. Going to the movies. Before I knew it, I stopped looking at what a movie's rating was, and just went to the ones that sparked my interest. There was however, a final exception in 1983, when I was sixteen.
There is something you have to understand about Phoenix in the dark days before the Internet: it had something of a coolness embargo foisted upon it. In other words, a cutting edge film, piece of music, or even book release might hit the left and right coasts in the Fall of 1980, along with releases in major markets such as Chicago and Dallas, or high-end niche locales such as Ann-Arbor or Austin, but in Phoenix, you'd be lucky if that high-end item reached us by 1982 or '83. Such was the case with Tinto Brass' notorious Caligula. Correctly described by one critic as "A train wreck of a film that looks as if it were made by Cecil B. DeMille gone psycho," Caligula was a multi-million dollar pornographic epic that purported to tell the true story of the debauched Roman emperor who was utterly insane. It also featured an A-list cast, including Malcolm McDowell, John Gielgud, Peter O'Toole and Helen Mirren. Rated X? Hell, it was so far beyond X or even XXX they couldn't even come up with a rating for it, so it was one of the first releases to go out without an MPAA seal or rating on it. It was playing at the Valley Art for a week-long engagement. My buddies and I, with freshly-minted driver's licenses, decided to go for it. That burning feeling in the pit of my stomach was back!
The Valley Art was Arizona's oldest continuously-operating theater, and in the early '80s was run by aging hippies who'd arrived on Tempe's Mill Avenue between 1968 and 1970, and hadn't moved, either physically or temporally. They didn't really give a shit who went to the movies there, so long as you paid your three bucks admission so they could keep buying cheap weed and some hot wings from Long Wong's down the street. As we approached the box office, we saw an anomaly for the uber-liberal Valley Art: a hand-printed "Adults Only" sign in black, block letters, Scotch-taped to the inside of the box office window. We halted in our tracks. The groovy dude inside the glass booth saw our hesitation, smiled, and beckoned us forward. Looking us over, he inquired "You guys twenty-one?" The three of us exchanged hasty glances, gulped in synch, and replied "Yeah. Sure" (None of us were even shaving yet). The hippie dude smiled, looked us over once more and said "Right on. Enjoy gentlemen." We got our tickets and went inside. The theater was packed. By the film's mid-point, half the audience had walked, most in disgust, muttering to themselves. The week-long engagement ended two days later, after vigorous protests from pillars of the community. This was Arizona, remember, and then as now, "progressive" was not the dominant vibe.
After seeing our first, official (sort of) X-rated film in a theater, my friends and I made our way to the equally venerable Chuckbox burger factory, and mulled over the fact that our days of pushing the cinematic censorship envelope had officially come to an end, and with a regrettably crappy movie, to boot. And after years of sneaking into "verboten" cinematic fare, to paraphrase George Carlin, none of us were inflicted with rotting of the soul, curvature of the spine, or a sudden desire to overthrow the government. For God's sake, they were just movies. What was the big deal, after all?
Indeed. Or not.
I did finally see Pretty Baby, on VHS, around the same time I saw Caligula. I thought, and still think, it's a brilliant film. And with each successive viewing as time has progressed, I find it more unsettling, and not the least bit titillating, which is how I'm sure Louis Malle intended it. By 1983, my attentions had moved onto real girls in my orbit, as opposed to the lovely, unattainable Brooke Shields. I wasn't any more successful with most of them than I had been in sneaking in to see Brooke au naturale all those years ago. But just to show what little sponges we are at that age, I did have an opportunity to meet Miss Shields at a party years later, standing a mere few feet from her and making eye contact. I froze like a star-struck 11 year-old and couldn't budge, while my friend chatted up Brooke and her gal pal, and got the gal pal's number. Awkwardness dies hard.
I often wonder what became of those two spotty, stoned teenage ushers who threw my friend and I out of the UA 5 (another theater long-gone), who unwittingly whetted my appetite for R-rated covert action. I'll quote a not-so-beloved slasher movie satire called Student Bodies, which came out around 1981. In the middle of the not-so-hilarious high-jinks was this gem: a stern-looking gent in a gray suit, seated behind an impressive desk, suddenly appeared on-screen, with the following message: "Ladies and gentlemen, in order to achieve an "R" rating today, a motion picture must contain full frontal nudity, graphic violence, or an explicit reference to the sex act. Since this film has none of those, and since research has proven that R-rated films are by far the most popular with the moviegoing public, the producers of this motion picture have asked me to take this opportunity to say 'Fuck you.'"