NEW YORK -- It took more than four months in Paris to shoot "Henry & June," and through all the cinematic lovemaking, semiclad street revelry and lesbian prostitution, "we thought we were shooting an R-rated film," says droopy-eyed Fred Ward, who stars as expatriate novelist Henry Miller.

After all, Ward says in his reasonable mumble, "there's no frontal nudity. What do you see? Close-ups, skin, a breast. A 19th-century Japanese print."

But several of those items alarmed the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board. The film -- which explores the long-secret affair between Miller, avatar of personal liberation, and Anais Nin, the eternal diarist, plus their mutual obsession with Miller's enigmatic wife -- was cruising for the dread X rating. "My rear end seemed to have something to do with it," Ward shrugs.

Personally, Ward wasn't bothered by the prospect of starring in something X-rated; he can reel off several movies, from "Midnight Cowboy" to the latest "brilliant" Almodovar, that he would have been happy to appear in. He muses that "because women were the {sexual} instigators as much as men in this film, that may have been threatening to some people. Or that may be a cockamamie theory of mine." He was just hoping that director Philip Kaufman, who wrote the screenplay with his wife, Rose, wouldn't be forced to hack the movie into acceptability.

The ramifications of an X for "Henry & June" and its distributor were chilling: newspapers and TV stations that wouldn't accept advertising, theater chains that wouldn't screen it -- plenty of notoriety but restricted access to audiences. "There's that sort of taint on it," Ward says. "People think they're going into 'Debbie Does Dallas.' "

But there has been an 11th-hour happy ending: Maybe it doesn't rank with German reunification, but "Henry & June" is making history of a kind. It's the first movie to carry the new NC-17 rating, a triumph for filmmakers who'd been pushing for some adult category that didn't represent pornography. Whether the new rating becomes subject to the kind of economic constraints imposed on the old X remains to be seen, but in the meantime "Henry & June" will open today in 31 cities, including Washington.

"I'm kind of curious to see if people go in looking for a hot night at the movies," says Ward. "Henry & June" probably does qualify as a hot night (and yes, Ward's rear end and several others' may have something to do with that), "but there are some great ideas in there that are just as hot."

At least they're ideas that glowed for a certain generation, of which both Ward (who's 47) and Kaufman (who smuggled in Miller's banned-in-the-U.S.A. "Tropic of Cancer" from France in the late '50s) are members in good standing. "I'd lived in the Village; it was one of The Books, y'know," Ward remembers. "Along with Sartre's 'Nausea' and everything Kerouac wrote."

Ward was living a Kerouacean existence at the time. The concept was to earn enough money at some blue-collar job, generally while living someplace grubby, to move on to another such job in a different city. The moving on was central to the ideal. "I was very restless then," is the way Ward likes to put it. He lasted only six months as an acting student in New York in 1964 before the odyssey resumed. He relates his wanderings in half-sentences, like listings from a romantic re'sume'. "Thought I'd go to Florida and catch a ship. Didn't work out. Wound up in New Orleans." Also wound up, eventually, in California (working construction on San Francisco's rapid transit system) and Alaska (being a logger) and Europe (dubbing films in Rome and eventually making two TV movies with Roberto Rossellini).

At one point in this extended trek -- "I was stranded in Houston, bumming around, hoping to get on some ship. Hit a dock strike" -- he read "Tropic of Cancer." "The bawdy humor of the book really grabbed me," Ward says. "The urgency of life that Miller represented, his appetite for living."

Though Ward reread much of Miller's work in preparation for his role, there were aspects of "Tropic of Cancer" (banned as obscene for almost 30 years until landmark court cases in the early '60s) that have stayed with him since that first encounter in Houston. "He described an erection as like lead with wings. I thought that was apt."

Unlike Kaufman, who years ago made the pilgrimage to Big Sur to see Miller (and who also talked with Nin in Chicago in 1962), Ward never met the icon he was to play. He is nonetheless a convincing blend of poet and Brooklyn tough in "Henry & June," taking certain physical details from videotapes of Miller as an older man. "His body was all at angles," Ward discovered. "He talked out of the corner of his mouth. He had a squint. A kind of asymmetry." The character's vocal repertoire of mmhmm's and hey's came from taped interviews. "He kind of droned on." The palooka nose onscreen is Ward's own and may be related to a longtime love of boxing. "I hit the bag daily," he says; between interviews today, he headed out to Gleason's famous gym in Brooklyn. But the bald pate is movie fakery; Ward shaved his head to play Miller and apparently doesn't consider that much of a sacrifice. "It was a dream part for me."

It may provide the visibility much of his previous acting has failed to deliver. Ward has done praised work in financially unsuccessful movies (he was astronaut Gus Grissom in Kaufman's "The Right Stuff," for instance, and a union activist in "Silkwood"). His first venture into producing, last spring's "Miami Blues," in which he costarred with Alec Baldwin, also foundered. "Henry & June" will garner more attention, partly because of the ratings flap, and no one who sees it is likely to forget what part Ward plays.

But that's not why he thinks Henry Miller is a dream part. Ward acknowledges Miller's brutality (it rendered him anathema to feminists in the '70s) but insists on his importance. "He was a dangerous person to the establishment," Ward says. "He was antisocial. When I first read him, it was a wonderful thing to be introduced to that. Someone talking to you saying, 'It's fine.' "

What's fine?

"To follow your heart. Not to jump to some prepared future. Not that I had one."

Thirty years and several social revolutions later (but maybe one or two fewer than previously reckoned), do audiences who don't remember the repression still find Miller's antiestablishmentarianism compelling?

Ward thinks so. "People are burdened down by their futures, their jobs, their accumulating. ... Everyone says, 'I wish I could do that, just take off, experiment with life over and over again.'

"He was 40 when he took that big leap. Most people are digging themselves deeper into their structures. He was a man who knew he had to follow that inner urge, the creativity and the passion. Or he would die bitter."