Monday, October 2, 2023 Oct 2, 2023
80° F Dallas, TX

Movie Board: Rated C (Controversial)

By Chris Tucker |

Watching movies is a tough job, but someone’s got to do it. Don’t laugh. The members of Dallas’s Motion Picture Classification Board do their work somewhere between a rock and a hard place-damned by liberals as thought-policing censors, slammed by conservatives as toothless lapdogs. And while its services cost the city only a pittance-$8,321 this year-some city council members wonder why Dallas needs the board at all.

Now twenty-two years old, the board screens PG- and PG-13-rated movies and tags them with warning labels for parents: S for sex, V for violence, D for drugs, and so on. This year’s Oscar heavyweight, The Last Emperor, was hit with every possible exception: S, D, V, plus N (nudity), L (language), and P (perverse behavior). Most films receive just one or two of the labels, and the board seldom takes the more controversial step of rating a Film not suitable, which bars anyone under sixteen from seeing the movie without a parent or guardian.

Linda Bernstein, who has chaired the board since 1985, feels the pressure of heading a board that is seldom noticed unless it angers someone or lands the city in court. That happened in the early Eighties, with Lion of the Desert, Poltergeist, and Conan, the Destroyer. In each case the movie’s distributor appealed the “not suitable” ruling, the city went to court, and a jury overturned the board’s classification.

In a time of budget slashing, legal bills in a losing cause do not gladden the hearts of council members. Hence Bernstein, who is usually backed by a solid majority of board members, runs meetings with a firm hand and an eye toward staying out of court. “When the board is on shaky ground financially, you don’t want to rock the boat,” she says, adding that the legal battles are “bad public relations” for a city with more pressing problems. An attempt was made to scrap the board in the last budget tussle, but it’s an open secret that the movie panel is close to the heart of Mayor Annette Strauss, who served on the board back in the Sixties.

Should the board act as a mirror of contemporary society, or an anchor braced against what some see as declining moral standards? Bernstein, who heads the board’s liberal bloc along with vice chair Richard Troup, urges members to look at the “big picture” and focus on contemporary community standards. “We can’t be something we’re not supposed to be,” Bernstein says. “We’re for information, not censorship. And we are not to set the morals for this city’s children. 1 raised my two. I’m not raising the city’s.”

Board member Stuart Tears, who describes himself as a conservative Republican, believes the group should hand out more “not suitable” ratings without worrying about lawsuits.

“Most of the board is broad-minded,” says Tears, who often finds himself on the losing end of votes. “Linda is broad-minded. I’m not, because I know how powerful movies are.”

Some current and former members charge that Bernstein and Troup are too heavy-handed, forcing their opinions on undecided members and squelching discussion of controversial films. Recently, board member Henry Pardee tendered his resignation in a letter to city council members, citing “abuse of power” and intimidation by Bernstein and Troup. Pardee called for an investigation of the board. “I’m against youngsters seeing all this violence and drugs and sex,” Pardee says, “but the board should be corrected or done away with.”

Other board members say that Bernstein allows all points of view to be heard and seldom cuts off meaningful debate. “We need different views on the board,” Bernstein says, but she has little patience with members who are “out of control” and who are consistently unable to get a second for their motions.

Tears says that some of Par-dee’s charges are “a little overblown” and insists that the dispute is not over personalities but ideas. “My beef is with the movie industry, not with Linda Bernstein,” says Tears. “When the board was started in 1966, Dallas was an island in the wilderness, not a swinger city. I think the board was set up to keep it that way. I don’t agree that Hollywood should set community standards for Dallas.”