When looking at the IMDb page for Midnight Cowboy, it says that the movie is rated X but won 3 Oscars. I always assumed an X-rated movie is a pornographic movie. Does this mean that Oscars can also be given to pornographic movies? If not, how does this fit together?

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  • 15
    are you suggesting that this is a Pornographic film because it has an 'X' certificate? This isn't quite accurate as all kinds of films could have this certificate if it is deemed appropriate.
    – AlasdairCM
    Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 14:14
  • 3
    @close-voters I have significantly reworded the question (or "worded" at all) after finally understanding what it was actually asking. I feel in its current form it seems a valid question and will retract my close-vote.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 14:27
  • 4
    Agreed with @NapoleonWilson, this question is actually very valid, and a good opportunity to highlight the history of the MPAA rating system, along with how flawed it's become in the last 30 years.
    – MattD
    Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 14:47
  • 1
    Isn't this a loaded question? Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 18:32
  • 3
    She's asking why a movie that would be perceived as pornographic due to its rating receieved an Oscar win for Best Picture, among two others. I'd say the question as asked absolutely pertains to the Oscars, even if it's a somwehat weak link to the overal discussion of the X-rating itself. OP arrived at their question because the Oscars don't reward pornographic films, and they were curious as to why this one X-rated film seemingly bucked that trend/rule due to them not knowing the history of the X-rating.
    – MattD
    Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 20:22

3 Answers 3


Quite simple: Midnight Cowboy is not a pornographic film. What we have here is a misunderstanding of the original intent of the X rating, which gave rise to the NC-17 rating.

Several films from the late 1960s through the 1980s had the X rating applied, including A Clockwork Orange, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Fritz the Cat (an animated feature), Last Tango in Paris, and the original The Evil Dead.

However, the key thing about the old X rating is that it wasn't trademarked by the MPAA, and could thus be self-applied to any film. Basically if a studio knew their movie would be deemed unsuitable for children, they could simply self-apply the X rating themselves without submitting it to the MPAA for rating, and that would be that. However, a movie could still be submitted to the MPAA for rating and be given a rating of X.

Well, as pornography became more accepted through the later half of the 20th century, pornographic film studios began to self-apply the X rating when releasing their films, and then began the trend of applying XX or even XXX ratings to really emphasize the amount of gratuitous sex in their films. This led to problems with any film that used the X rating being seen as pornographic, and led to issues for films that were submitted to the MPAA only to be given an X rating without actually being pornographic (because the MPAA would never apply any rating to a pornographic film to begin with). In late 1989 to early 1990, two critically acclaimed art films were denied ratings by the MPAA: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. This caused an uproar about films of this nature having limited distribution routes due to the ambiguity and misunderstanding of the X rating, as well as these two films in particular being given limited distribution routes due to what many felt was a flawed and misunderstood rating system.

The solution was to implement the NC-17 rating, which was first applied to the film Henry & June, but unfortunately many entertainment outlets began to refuse to showcase even NC-17 films, entertainment publications would refuse to advertise them, and many retail stores refused to stock and sell them, because they saw the NC-17 rating as a rebranding of the X rating. Today the NC-17 rating is essentially seen as a mark of death for many films, causing many production companies to cut down on the material the MPAA found to be offensive (if they can even get them to divulge such information in the first place) to earn it an R rating, often referred to as "Hard R" by the media and film-goers. Originally NC-17 was intended for anyone age 17 and older (16 and younger weren't allowed in, even with an adult present), but in the mid-90s was adjusted to mean no admittance to anyone 17 and under, only adding to the misunderstanding of the NC-17 rating being a rebrand of the X rating.

You can read about the history of the MPAA rating system, as well as the history of the X rating in the United States itself.

  • 14
    +1 MPAA sure does ruin it for everyone. No way would my local theater show NC-17 or X-rated. I didn't realize that's what X rated was for. Learn something new every day. Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 16:55
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    In the era of DVD and Blu-ray, it's often preferable to cut a film down to R and release an "unrated cut" to video later. Indeed, even older movies can get this treatment. One can watch the R-rated theatrical cut of RoboCop, or the unrated director's cut, in all its over the top, violent glory. Commented Mar 9, 2016 at 14:15
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    ...the porn version of any of the "X-Men" movies would barely need any rebranding or title changes, and could lead to confusion.... Commented Sep 13, 2016 at 22:07
  • I rolled back approved changes to this because it wasn't a matter of the distributors seeking an R rating, it's more a matter of the MPAA simply denying to provide them with ratings outright. Without a source there's no way to know if the distributors of the two films in that section of the answer were actively seeking R ratings for those films over another rating.
    – MattD
    Commented Sep 14, 2016 at 14:53

Midnight Cowboy was controversial for its time due to its nude scenes and its depiction of a male prostitute, but did not show penetration (which would have garnered it a Triple-X rating). As this quote points out, the rating was lowered to R when it was re-released the following year. As pointed out by MattD, this was not a pornographic movie, it just contained content that was beyond the R rating used at that time.

It was notable for being the first and only X-rated film (its nude scenes and bold content - sex and drugs - were shocking for its time, but its X-rating for its initial release was later downgraded to R when the film was re-released in late 1970) to receive the Best Picture Oscar from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It garnered seven nominations, including Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight), Best Supporting Actress (Sylvia Miles in an extremely brief on-screen role), and Best Film Editing (Hugh A. Robertson), and ended up with three Oscars - Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay (by Waldo Salt from James Leo Herlihy's 1965 novel). It was an archetypal film for the "New Hollywood" of the 70s, with its adult themes of alienation, sex and drugs, anti-authoritarianism, and a quest for freedom. (1)

All of the awards were won in 1970, so it's unclear whether they were awarded for the 1969 release or if anything was edited for the 1970 release.

(1) http://www.filmsite.org/midn.html

  • 15
    The first sentence is a bit incorrect, nothing is 'garnered' a triple-x rating. A triple-x rating is merely a self-given marketing ploy by the porn industry. It has nothing to do with the MPAA rating system.
    – DA.
    Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 19:03
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    The Academy Award ceremony for 1970 was held on April 7 of that year, so it would have pretty much needed to be the 1969 release. Not to mention Midnight Cowboy has the distinction of being the only X-rated film to win Best Picture, so that means it was definitely the X-rated version and not the R-rated re-release.
    – MattD
    Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 19:39
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    @JohnnyBones yes, it would be officially simply 'unrated'. triple-X isn't an actual rating. It's just a marketing line.
    – DA.
    Commented Jan 27, 2015 at 19:47
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    @DA. You say 'actual rating' as if the MPAA's ratings mean anything and hold any legitimacy...
    – KRyan
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 14:19
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    @KRyan sure, but it's not self-imposed. XXX is something you give your own film. PG-13 is something you need to get from a 3rd party, this case being the MPAA. My point being is that 'XXX' is not related to 'NC-17' in that they come from two entirely different places.
    – DA.
    Commented Jan 28, 2015 at 15:00

My understanding is that it did win the Oscar as an X movie, (The only movie ever to do so) but the rating was changed afterwards to R or R plus.

  • Was it? Once again, if you have a source for that (the "rating afterwards" I mean), it'd be nice to edit it in :) (also, doesn't the rating-changing contradicts the top answer?)
    – Jenayah
    Commented Mar 7, 2019 at 21:53
  • The film won three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Midnight Cowboy is the only X-rated film ever to win Best Picture (though such a classification no longer exists), and was the first LGBT Best Picture winner.[3][4] en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Midnight_Cowboy Commented Mar 11, 2019 at 18:16

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