Most movie critics can only carp at films they find objectionable. Not Maryland’s Mary Avara. For 21 years she has had the power to keep cinematic trash in the can. The feisty 70-year-old grandmother is the senior member of the nation’s last state movie censorship board, a three-person group that screens some 500 films annually in a cramped Baltimore office to determine if they are fit for Maryland’s 260 theaters. In this crusade, declares Avara, she wears “the armor of the Lord.”
Alas, Avara’s days battling porn are about over, for on June 30 her board is going out of business. The Maryland Senate has refused to renew its $90,000 annual appropriation, which includes the censors’ salaries (Mary’s is $4,500 a year) and the $30-a-day fees paid to the 13 politically appointed inspectors who are supposed to visit theaters to make sure only approved films are being shown. The board was “a ridiculous anachronism,” explains state Senator Howard A. Denis, a longtime Avara foe. “We will no longer pay people to watch dirty movies.”
But Avara will not go gently into retirement. True, she says, her board did not do all that much censoring. Of the 400 or so films it screened since last June, for example, only six were rejected, mostly adult movie house flicks; one of them, Sizzling Seniors, was passed after the hottest scenes were cut. But Avara insists that the board has deterred smut peddlers. “Now Maryland will be open to anything,” she predicts. “I saw a movie where the couple had sex through the slats of chairs. Is that what we want to tell young people about the most beautiful night of their lives, their weddinag night?” Avara would forgo her salary if she could continue her struggle against filth. “I was doing something I was really proud of,” she explains.
One of 18 children of Italian immigrants, Avara left school in the eighth grade to work in the family grocery store. She married a barber, but he died in a 1946 car crash, leaving Mary, then 36, to support herself and her four children. She became a bail bondswoman, with a brisk trade in her hard-knocks Baltimore neighborhood, and in 1960 wangled an appointment to the state board of censors.
“You don’t need a college diploma to tell when something is smut,” says Avara. “Over the years,” she adds, “I thought I’d seen everything, but sometimes I wonder, ‘How did they get into a position like that?’ ” Avara contends she is no prude: “I do not think sex is ugly, and I don’t just like those Disney-type pictures. Absolutely not! I get bored with some of those.”
In fact, like any film critic, Avara has her own esthetic. “Now take Coal Miner’s Daughter. That was adorable,” she says. “And I loved Fatso, but of course that was about an Italian. And that George Burns movie about the three old men robbing a bank—Going in Style—that’s family entertainment.”
What has troubled her over the years is “borderline” films like “10” and American Gigolo that are plainly raunchy but not quite bad enough to ban. Because of its vulgarity, she says, The Exorcist “should not have been shown. But we had to let it through. Our guidelines cover sex and sex only.”
Avara has parlayed a reputation as “the X-rated grandma” into appearances on the Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin and Dick Cavett TV shows. “I always get a laugh,” she brags. “I’m a comedienne.” But her best performances have been her annual budget-time histrionics in the Maryland Senate. She would fling her arms toward the heavens, point her fingers at the lawmakers like some avenging angel, and then unleash a tirade against pornography. “Do you like filth?” she would shout. “Do you like violence? Do you want your children to see this? Is this the way you live at your house? I say, rate it PG—Pure Garbage!”
Avara’s performances have been classics of their kind. Even Senator Denis concedes: “I shall miss the Mary Avara Show, the fire and brimstone. It has been a guaranteed annual headline event.” But if that was a rave from her severest critic, it did not win her a reprise.