Hollywood film industry lobbyist Jack Valenti, who developed the modern US movie
and TV ratings system, died on April 26th at age 85 from
complications of a stroke.
Valenti led the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) for 38 years.
Best known as the architect of the movie ratings system (G, PG, R), he was the
man who represented the Hollywood industry in Washington. Valenti was a fierce
defender of the ratings system and an equally fierce opponent of film piracy,
which robs about $8.5 billion dollars a year from industry coffers.
The movie ratings system has generally remained intact, although some changes
have been added over the decades. In 1984, the rating PG-13 was added at the
insistence of Steven Spielberg who felt that “Indiana Jones: Temple of Doom” was
too soft to be R-rated.
Valenti retired in 2004. Earlier in his career, he had been an aide to
Presidents John F Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, and in fact was in the motorcade
when President Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963.
In 1967, the Catholic Legion of Decency and Protestant Film Review Board
closed their offices and abandoned their ratings codes, which had for years
prohibited explicit violence, sex and profanity on the screen. Congress,
concerned that the movie industry was left without a moral imperative, felt that
film makers needed government oversight. In a defensive move, Valenti was
enlisted by the major studios to head up the MPAA, where he drafted the movie
Dan Glickman, Valenti's successor at the MPAA, said, "Jack was a showman, a
gentleman, an orator, and a passionate champion of this country, its movies, and
the enduring freedoms that made both so important to this world.”
I met with Valenti twice over the years and found him to be quite congenial
and approachable. During one meeting, I posed the question of whether a movie
that is rated PG-13 today might have received an R-rating a few years earlier.
“Of course!” he said. “The MPAA ratings reflect the changing mores of society.”
I was struck by his candor and admission that the ratings change from time to
time. That’s like saying a pound weighs 16 ounces today, but may weigh 15 ounces
tomorrow. Most people believe that the MPAA standards are unwavering.
He always presented himself as an advocate for family values, but was at the
same time the highest paid lobbyist in America, protecting the industry that
directed and financially supported his agenda.
To his credit, Valenti had to walk a very fine line between both public and
corporate interests. I told him once that I didn’t envy him his position and
that he was like “the meat in an angry sandwich.” On one hand, many filmmakers
criticized his organization for being too tough, especially on sex and violence.
At the same time, Dove’s survey of over 7 million people discovered that 76%
felt the ratings are too lenient.
The best advice he gave was during a "Decency in Media" Senate hearing in
December, 2005 when the MPAA ratings were under attack, Valenti wisely said, "I
urge parents to use all the other ratings systems. The more information you
have, the more qualified you are to make judgments for your children."
Now, that’s advice worth taking.
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