Helen Mirren Battled The MPAA For A Controversial Film

With a celebrated screen career charting back to the late-1960s, Helen Mirren is pretty much the definition of an icon. While her breakout role was the 1980 British gangster film "The Long Good Friday," one of the first films that got her noticed by U.S. movie lovers was Peter Greenaway's wildly experimental drama "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover." 

Set largely inside a posh eatery, the film finds Mirren playing Georgina, the wife in that titular equation. And if you've seen Greenaway's boundary-pushing, fiercely satirical drama, you know her role called for the actor to take some pretty major risks. You also know the term "boundary-pushing" doesn't quite cover how far cast and crew push matters throughout — including the film's infamous finale. So risqué is some of the content in the film, it even earned the dreaded X-rating from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) when it was released in the United States in 1990, after a UK release in 1989.

During a 1990 interview with Roger Ebert, Miren revealed that she actually flew to the U.S. to argue with the MPAA against the box-office poisoning rating. "I knew it was dangerous, but I didn't think it was that dangerous," she told Ebert. She apparently made a similar argument to the MPAA, claiming, "I told the board they absolutely could not legitimately criticize this film on its artistic merit."

Mirren learned the tricky nature of the MPAA ratings system arguing over The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, Her Lover

Unfortunately, Helen Mirren did not succeed in persuading the powers that be, with the MPAA slapping the X rating on the film anyway. To be fair, given its overtly expressionistic style, graphic sexuality, and the occasional bouts of brutal violence, "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover," didn't exactly scream "blockbuster" ahead of its release. For her part, Mirren seemed more concerned about getting the film and its inherent social commentary in front of as many eyes as possible, admitting to Ebert, "It may be pretentious, or boring, or whatever they want to say about it, but they can't deny where its heart is."

Still, the film's delicious provocations proved too much for the MPAA, with Mirren noting, "I've discovered I don't know much about the American rating system." She goes on to claim she'd become more used to the way the UK and European systems qualify work, particularly regarding sexual content. As it was, she was no particular fan of the American system, telling Ebert, "I've come to realize the American system is pretty bad on both levels. I think it's bad for adults, since it makes it difficult for them to see films they might really enjoy. And on the other side of it, children see films that I think are dangerous for them as well."

Thankfully, "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, & Her Lover" found an audience despite earning that X rating, and remains a beloved cult hit more than three decades after it was first released. As for the MPAA, some might argue they still haven't worked out the issues with their rating system.