Yippee-ki-yay and so forth

Speaking of “Live Free or Die Hard,” someone named “Pumpkin” posted a comment on my review of it wondering if, given the PG-13 rating, that meant Bruce Willis didn’t get to say his famous line, “Yippee-ki-yay, mother******.”

“BeeDub” responded, accurately, that Willis does say it, but there’s a gunshot over the crucial syllable.

Meanwhile, “Turkey” said: “I thought you had to drop three F-bombs to deserve an R, depending on the context. Or is MF the exception?”

For years and years, the MPAA wouldn’t lay out specific hard-and-fast rules for which elements would get you which ratings, even though it was apparent that they were (somewhat consistently) following some kind of internal system.

They’ve just recently begun to open up, though, and this page has become very useful. The relevant portion says this:

A film’s single use of one of the harsher sexually derived words, though only as an expletive, shall initially require the Rating Board to issue that film at least a PG-13 rating. More than one such expletive must lead the Rating Board to issue a film an R rating, as must even one of these words used in a sexual context. These films can be rated less severely, however, if by a special vote, the Rating Board feels that a lesser rating would more responsibly reflect the opinion of American parents.

In plainer language: You can use the F-bomb once in a PG-13, as long as it’s not being used literally. “Get the eff out of here!” or “That’s not my effing platypus!” would be permissible. If you use it more than once, you get an R rating unless the board holds a “special vote” — which they must be doing quite regularly, since about half the PG-13 films I see have two F-words in them.

However! If you use the F-word in its literal, sexual sense — even just once — you get an R. That’s why they had to put the gunshot over John McClane’s “mofo” line. Even though “mother——” is understood to be merely an expression, not a literal description of someone’s activities, the MPAA nonetheless considers it to be a sexual use of the F-word.

To the best of my recollection, there are no exceptions to that rule. Can anyone think of a PG-13 movie that used the F-word literally/sexually?

My beloved “Waitress” had a run-in with this rule. As the movie appears in theaters, there’s a scene where a very worn-out mother says to the pregnant protagonist, “Nobody ever tells you how ridiculously hard it is.” But when the movie played at Sundance, she said, “Nobody ever tells you how mother—-ing hard it is.” It got a huge laugh, in part because in context it’s a funny line however it’s phrased, but also because there hadn’t been any significant profanity in the movie up to that point, and now all of a sudden a mom was dropping that word like a bomb. The film has a very non-sentimental view of motherhood, and that line was a perfect example of it.

But of course that line alone would get the film an R rating, which it didn’t otherwise deserve. The director, the late Adrienne Shelly, must have foreseen the potential problem, because she apparently filmed the scene both ways, thus allowing the studio to replace the offending shot when the time came. (I assume Shelly filmed it both ways. The other possibility is that Fox Searchlight brought the actress in later to re-do that one shot, but that doesn’t seem very likely. They definitely didn’t just dub over the word, because the actress’ mouth clearly matches what she’s saying.)

One interesting thing I’ve noticed is that movies either use the F-word once or twice … or they use it a dozen times. It’s rare to see a film that uses it in that gray area of three or four times. I guess the reasoning is that filmmakers (or their studio executives, more likely) want to know in advance what the rating is going to be, so they record the dialogue accordingly. If they want a PG-13, they’re not going to tempt fate by trying to squeeze in more than two F-bombs. If they want an R, they want to make sure the ratings board knows that’s what they’re expecting. When the MPAA rates a movie, they’re too busy looking for pubic hairs and ignoring grotesque violence to be counting F-words. Better to make that part of it easy on them.