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Ratings rehab

NC-17 may no longer be Hollywood's scarlet letter. Why the new acceptance?

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British star Ewan McGregor releases his latest film, "Young Adam," this week but millions of young fans who know the actor as Obi-Wan Kenobi from the "Star Wars" franchise won't be eligible to see it. The movie carries the adult rating of NC-17: no one under 17 admitted - no exceptions.

McGregor's film is one of three this year that will berth in US theaters under the NC-17 banner, a rating whose social stigma has a reputation for scuppering a movie's chances at the box office. After all, this is the rating the soft-porn "Showgirls," now a camp classic, carried to its early demise in 1995. Since then, studios and directors have snipped objectionable bits from their films to ward off the dreaded NC-17.

But this year is different. While Sony Classics reportedly appealed the rating for "Young Adam," the director opted not to fight the adults-only stamp. Moreover, "The Dreamers," rated NC-17 for extreme sexuality, was released in February, and the violence of "High Tension," a French thriller, will also have theaters carding patrons this summer.

So, why is the adult rating coming of age now?

The answer, say observers, is that an industry whose economic lifeblood depends on nudging boundaries is taking advantage of a period in which eroticism has gone mainstream and violence pervades the daily news. More important, the growing cultural backlash against extreme permissiveness has created a receptivity among both social conservatives and religious fundamentalists for more accurate labeling of entertainment content.

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