Hollywood Movies

How ‘Blow-Up’ caused the demise of the Hays Code

April 5, 20243 Mins Read

The Motion Picture Production Code, better known as the Hays Code, which applied to most major Hollywood studio movies between 1934 and 1968, was a set of self-censorship guidelines that detailed what was considered acceptable for American audiences to look upon when watching a motion picture. This restrictive code for cinema was largely undone by Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 psychological mystery film Blow-Up.

Blow-Up was Italian director Antonioni’s first entirely English-language film, which starred David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, and Sarah Miles. It follows Thomas, a fashion photographer who believes he has captured a murder while shooting in a park in the middle of the swinging London and mod subculture era.

Thomas dives deeper into the mystery behind his photographs, and Antonioni explores the elusive nature of truth and the ambiguity of perception. Blow-Up is something of an anxious viewing with its stuttering pacing and moments of narrative ellipsis, whereby it invites its audience to question their mode of perception in the same manner as its protagonist.

It was the portrayal of sexuality that largely impacted the dissolution of the Hays Code, though, as Blow-Up features many scenes of nudity and sexual activity, which marked a stark departure from the Code’s guidelines. There was a complete prohibition of sexual content according to the Code, but Antonioni’s movie, with its exploration of sexual liberation, helped to pave a new path for filmmakers to examine such themes and topics without fear of censorship.

What’s more, the Hays Code seemed to insist on a clear sense of morality within films released in America, but Blow-Up features an ambiguous ethical stance and an ending left open to interpretation. By refusing to tie his story up, Antonioni asked his audience to provide their own answers and tussle with the movie’s themes of uncertainty, something that the Code’s writers had not been keen on – preferring a resolute championing of ethical conduct at all costs.

At the 1967 Cannes Film Festival, Blow-Up won the highly-coveted Palme d’Or, but its release in the United States the year before was one that would forever change the landscape of the cinematic medium itself. Produced by MGM, the company did not gain approval for the film under the Motion Picture Association’s Production Code, knowing that its release was likely to be blocked.

After the film was reprimanded by the National Legion of Decency, MGM followed up by releasing Blow-Up through Premier Productions, a subsidiary distributor. It was shown in several cinemas throughout North America without adhering to the Hays Code guidelines, liberating Hollywood from its archaic and puritanical ethical outlook.

Minimal enforcement of the Code suddenly followed, and in 1968, it was replaced by the MPAA film rating system, through which each movie was assessed for its content and suitability for certain audiences. However, it might not have been so were it not for Antonioni’s fearless exploration of sexuality in his film and MGM’s brave decision to go ahead and release it in North America without the approval of the MPAA.

Blow-Up is a classic work of 1960s cinema, where British and Italian cinema collided in a flash of sexy, swinging brilliance. Perhaps its most important facet, though, lay outside the movie itself – bringing an end to the oppressive Hays Code that had made filmmakers self-censor their works for several decades.

Check out the trailer for Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up below.

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