Never mind the R-rated cut – here’s the story of how Mrs Doubtfire missed out on a requested PG certificate when it first came to UK cinemas.
Spoilers for Mrs Doubtfire lie ahead.
The American PG-13 certificate has always presented something of a quandary for the BBFC. Originally introduced by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to bridge the gulf between family-friendly PG movies and more mature R-rated fare, the rating had no equivalent in UK cinemas until the introduction of the 12 certificate in August 1989, in the run-up to 1989’s Batman.
Even so, the 12 certificate didn’t initially allow parents to take their children to see any film rated 12 or higher, unlike the American system, in which any child can see just about any film as long as they’re with an accompanying adult. Most would identify later superhero films like X-Men and Spider-Man as flashpoints that led to the current 12A cinema certificate being introduced in 2002, but the first costumed hero movie to cause a major stir by shutting out patrons under 12 was 1993’s Mrs Doubtfire.
Adapted from Anne Fine’s popular novel Madame Doubtfire, the film revolves around Daniel Hillard, (Robin Williams) an out-of-work actor who uses his TV make-up and costuming connections to masquerade as a Scottish nanny for his own family following a bitter divorce. It’s one of those 1990s films whose optics have aged poorly, but it’s still held in high esteem by many because, as with the source novel, it provides a big-screen depiction of a family who aren’t either torn apart by divorce or fully reconciled by the time the credits roll.
Upon its US release in November 1993, the bulk of the film’s good notices were for Williams’ performance, which included a lot of improvised moments once director Chris Columbus had his scripted takes in the can.
In case you missed it over the weekend, the existence of ruder outtakes got people a bit Twitterpated about a potential R-rated version of the film. Columbus commented on the furore to Entertainment Weekly, confirming that some of the cut material would have pushed the envelope a bit and it could possibly be repurposed for a documentary about the making of the film if there was demand for it.
(It’s at this juncture we should stress that R-rated outtakes are not the same as a complete R-rated cut that’s just waiting for a release, not that this stopped people campaigning last time.)
But the cut of Mrs Doubtfire that 20th Century Fox submitted to the BBFC in early 1994 was rude enough for examiners’ taste as it was. Over time, the film has gone from 12 to PG and back up to 12A with various cuts along the way.
Please note that the following feature contains fruity language and innuendo, and the BBFC would rather anyone under the age of 12 didn’t read it. As of 2002, you may ask your parents if they’ll read it to you…
Jackhammers and crabs
In the days when films took longer to cross the pond than they do now, there was plenty of time for Mrs Doubtfire to build up some hype ahead of its UK release. The week before it hit cinemas, it won two Golden Globes – Best Actor, for Williams’ performance, and Best Comedy – and had a marketing campaign that urged cinema viewers to “bring the family” to see one of the biggest American hits of recent months over the February half-term.
The trouble was that anyone bringing younger family members was going to get turned away at the box office. Fox submitted the film with a request for a PG rating, but examiners – then led by notoriously strict BBFC Director James Ferman – weren’t happy to grant that certificate with the level of sexual references in the film. They gave the film a 12 certificate instead.
Passed at PG-13 with an advisory notice that the film features “some sexual references” in the States, the film features a scene where Daniel goes out as Mrs Doubtfire with his ex, Miranda, (Sally Field) and her new boyfriend, Stu, (Pierce Brosnan). Following Mrs Doubtfire’s line, “A fella gives a gift like that, he wants more than a piece of her heart, eh?”, Williams launches into an improvised torrent of innuendo and sexual references about Miranda that, in the eyes of the BBFC examiners, put the film squarely into 12 territory.
Fox appealed the decision before the film’s release and, as standard, the BBFC provided notes on how to achieve the desired rating. According to a subsequent press release, Ferman zeroed in on three lines that were unacceptable at the PG level, including references to sex toys, (“it’s her personal jackhammer”) oral sex, (“a going-down payment”) and STDs (“I hope you bring the cocktail sauce; she’s got crabs”), that would have to be cut to avoid a 12 certificate.
It’s worth noting that Brosnan, who’s on the receiving end of this tirade, made his debut as James Bond a year later and there’s more innuendo in this short scene than in his four films put together. A version of one of the lines, about “cunning linguistics”, made its way into his second 007 outing, Tomorrow Never Dies – it’s unknown if the idea came from Mrs Doubtfire, but the Bond film played for and got its 12 certificate in 1997.
Unwilling to make the suggested cuts, Fox accepted the 12 and released the film as planned at the end of January 1994.
The combination of the popularity of Fine’s novel and the hype for the film version led to a lot of disappointed parents and kids that year. The British press latched onto stories about under-12s not being permitted to watch the film even if their parents wanted them to, and according to the BBFC’s Annual Report for 1994-95, there were plenty of angry letters from “parents who had not been permitted to take their children to see the film.”
Reportedly, one cinema in Scunthorpe wrote that they had “turned away hundreds of tearful family groups” in a letter about their intention to ask the local authority watch their film and exercise their power to overrule the BBFC’s judgement and exhibit the film as a PG. The local authority duly did, and 37 others followed suit in early 1994, covering a total of 66 UK cinemas.
The Annual Report further details how the producers of Mrs Doubtfire conceded during the appeal process that the sex references were not essential to the film and had been included to ensure the film received a more commercial PG-13 rating in America.
Spurred by the public reaction, Fox once again appealed and this time, the Board reached a compromise with the producers and Columbus. The complaints seemed to show that a lot of the aforementioned references had gone over parents’ heads, as well as children’s, and so they were allowed to stay in. Eventually, Columbus approved and Fox cut 13 seconds of mucky slang, including “Little Jack Horny”, “Rumpleforeskin”, and (yes) “cunning linguistics”, to achieve a PG certificate in April 1994.
The 12 version of the film was withdrawn from UK cinemas and re-released in its edited PG form in selected cinemas that May, five months after its original release. A couple of months later, it was the cut version that made its debut on home video, but that still wasn’t the end of Mrs Doubtfire’s tumultuous history with the BBFC.
Some years after the initial UK VHS release, (with its PG certificate) Fox had to submit the film for classification of a widescreen DVD release in 2000. Ferman had retired as Director in 1998 and after a process of relaxing its guidelines, the Board agreed in this case that the uncut version of the film could be released at PG.
Not anticipating this, Fox withdrew the submission, having already started authoring the disc release with the cut version. This was the version of the film that hit shelves in summer 2001, with a Region 4 release using the same UK version despite the uncut version previously being available on video in Australia. Fox eventually resubmitted the uncut version of the film for a 2003 DVD release and it was finally released in the UK as a PG with the advisory note “contains mild language and sex references.” Subsequent disc releases of the film carried the same PG certificate.
In between these two disc releases, there was a similar rash of local authorities breaking ranks with the BBFC ruling on Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in summer 2002. It’s possible to overestimate Brosnan’s importance in the subsequent introduction of the 12A certificate, because regular public consultation found that both his Bond films (which are all classified 12, in contrast to the mostly-PG adventures of previous Bonds) and the Mrs Doubtfire affair had prompted consideration of turning 12 into an advisory rating in cinemas. A trial of the “PG-12” rating was undertaken at a cinema in Norwich in late 2001 (when films like The Others, Moulin Rouge! and A.I. were out) and the 12A certificate was properly introduced in August 2002.
Of course, a side effect of the BBFC continually updating its guidelines is that older films are prone to change certificates all the time when re-released on disc or in cinemas. We’ve previously written about how The Empire Strikes Back was given a PG certificate for the first time for its 40th anniversary re-release in 2020.
But to our knowledge, Mrs Doubtfire is one of the very few films to have its certificate lowered to PG and then put back up to 12. Although Fox submitted the uncut version with a request for a PG certificate ahead of its debut on Blu-ray in 2013, the Board ruled that the sexual references were too strong for the current PG guidelines, which allowed for “mild sex references and innuendo only.”
And so, finally, Fox accepted the 12 rating for the new disc, with the latest advisory note covering its “moderate sex references and rude gestures.”
When the film had a 2014 cinema release, it was granted a 12A certificate, which brought it back full circle to parents finally being able to take children to see it unaccompanied. In the time it took, the kids who were turned away first time had probably grown-up and become parents themselves, but here we are.
For now, the saga seems to be done and dusted, but any possibility of a further, R-rated cut of Mrs Doubtfire, however remote, would at least be a more open-and-shut case of classification for today’s BBFC examiners.
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