What Jack Valenti Did for Hollywood

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Former Hollywood lobbyist and Presidential adviser Jack Valenti, photographed in Washington, D.C., in 2003

In 1966, when Jack Valenti was named the head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the studio system was largely intact. Industry pioneers like Jack Warner and Darryl Zanuck were still running the companies they had founded. Old lions like Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford and Charlie Chaplin continued to make pictures. Jerry Lewis, Doris Day and Elvis were starring in their two anodyne movies a year. Virtually all income came from box office receipts and showings on broadcast TV stations. There were no home computers, cable networks, videocassettes or DVDs. No four-letter word had been spoken, no adult body fully exposed, in a Hollywood film. Many films were still shot in black-and-white.

Valenti, who died Thursday at 85 from complications of a stroke, seemed a good fit for that antique era. A hardscrabble Texas kid who at 14 had worked as "an usher in a second-run theater in Houston called the Iris," he flew 51 combat missions for the Air Force in World War II, got a Harvard M.B.A. on the GI Bill and hooked up with a back-home politician named Lyndon Johnson. Valenti was the Vice President's press rep on a trip to Dallas in November 1963 and stood next to him on the flight back to Washington when Johnson was sworn in as President. As devoted as one of the big man's beagles, Valenti famously said, "I sleep each night a little better, a little more confidently, because Lyndon Johnson is my President." In May 1966 he transferred his loyalty from LBJ to the MPAA. He looked to be a fellow to help Hollywood sit on the status quo.

Just about everything changed in movies, in their content and their conduits to the audience. Yet Valenti, as the industry's chief lobbyist (his employers were the six major studios), made sure that business proceeded as usual, without federal interference or oversight. He politicked hard and heartily with his old Washington friends for favorable tariff rulings, and in the process maintained Hollywood's status as one of the few national cinemas not subject to government censorship. (It's also one of the few to receive no direct government subsidies for film production, so I guess that's a fair swap.)

Today it is common, and commonly deplored, for administrations to hire champions of industry for jobs as watchdogs of those industries — the fox guarding the foxhole, essentially. But in 1968, Valenti went an audacious step further. Since his arrival in Hollywood, the liberalization of the screen had begun; American movies, long stuck in a bland adolescence, were suddenly and controversially open to "adult themes": nudity, four-letter words, explicit violence. Valenti headed off the puritan backlash. He persuaded Congress to eliminate the regulatory middle man and let Hollywood monitor its own content.

Back then, state and municipal censor boards still could demand the cutting or banning of films. Valenti in effect said, Don't trust them; trust me. Such was his clout with national lawmakers that they agreed to his scheme of a "voluntary" ratings system: G indicating films suitable for all ages, PG for those requiring parental guidance, R for films off limits to unaccompanied youngsters, and X for anything goes. The MPAA would rate the films; the theaters would theoretically enforce the ratings.

"You know, I invented a ratings system," he told the Hollywood Reporter just before he retired in 2004, "which understood two things: One, the First Amendment reigns. Freedom of speech. Freedom of content. The director is free to make any movie he wants to make and not have to cut a millimeter of it. But freedom without responsibility is anarchy. The director will know he can do that, but some of his films may be restricted from viewing by children. Now I thought that was a balancing of the moral compact. It'll be 36 years old in November. Very few things last 36 years."

Even Valenti's critics would acknowledge the ratings system worked well for a while. X, belying its suggestion of toxicity, simply meant films for adults only. Most, like Medium Cool, were serious, intense, mature social studies; and one, Midnight Cowboy, won the Oscar for the best picture of 1969. But two things changed. The MPAA had copyrighted its other classification, but not the X, which was soon appropriated by the early-'70s wave of porno features. Studios quickly became reluctant to release X-rated films, and an important avenue for frank artistic initiative was closed off. The director was still "free to make any movie he wants to make"; but now his studio contract obliged him to trim an X down to an R. Freedom of expression was now the right to make any movie that, in the eyes of the ratings board, a parent could take his kids to see.

A few years later, Jaws and Star Wars became successively the all-time top-grossing movies, and the teen market announced itself as the dominant one. Why make movies for adults, the moguls asked rhetorically, when the kids are our most reliable customers? The best American movies were no longer a conversation with grownups; they were fairy tales told by a gifted babysitter. That is the industry Valenti presided over for the next quarter-century.


Action films and fantasy franchises weren't Valenti's personal faves. To him "the greatest movie ever made" was A Man for All Seasons, that tug of wills and ethics between Thomas More and Henry VIII, which was released the year Valenti came to Hollywood. "It's about a man who has a conflict between his conscience and his king," he told the Reporter, "between what he believes and what his government wants him to do. Because he had such strong convictions, he was willing to die rather than stain his convictions." Valenti insisted the film "has relevance today," but apparently saw no contradiction between the role of a 16th century martyr and that of a 20th century lobbyist.

But then figures, not pictures, were what mattered to this Conquistador of Hollywood's global domination. Testifying (at astounding length) before the House Judiciary Committee in 1982, Valenti boasted that the U.S. movie industry "returned to this country almost $1 billion in surplus balance of trade." A decade later that number had tripled.

He had made that trip to Congress in a campaign to slap a tax on blank video tapes, arguing that a home viewer's ability to tape movies shown on TV would bankrupt the studios. "We are going to bleed and bleed and hemorrhage unless this Congress at least protects one industry ... whose total future depends on its protection from the savagery and the ravages of this machine... I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public," he fulminated, "as the Boston Strangler is to the woman alone."

Of course, just the reverse happened. Hollywood found a gigantic new market in videos and, 15 years later, in DVDs; digital sales and rentals now account for more than half of the industry's income. But like any lobbyist who sees change as a threat to be forestalled by protective legislation, bombs to be fought with bombast, Valenti often couldn't see past his and his employers' fears. In 1974 he warned that the infant cable industry would become "a huge parasite in the marketplace, feeding and fattening itself off of local television stations and copyright owners of copyrighted material. We do not like it because we think it wrong and unfair." Today, cable earns billions for the studios, as both a second home for feature films and gold-mine subsidiaries in studio-owned channels like MTV, HBO and Comedy Central.

In later years, Valenti and the MPAA fought movie piracy, using some bizarre strategies, like denying DVD screeners of year-end Oscar hopefuls to movie critics. Piracy saps plenty from the producers' coffers, but they're still making zillions: from a sturdy domestic box office, from an increasing domination of worldwide exhibition and from somehow persuading consumers to pay for what they once saw for free (in the burgeoning market of old TV shows on DVD). With Valenti as their spokesman — and with his successor, Dan Glickman — they've been doing fine.

I know people who hated Jack Valenti, or rather hated the ratings system he created and sustained. Kirby Dick's documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated makes a good case for the prejudice the MPAA showed in favor of major-studio product and against the more adventurous indies. Francis Coppola once said that all of modern cinema, from art films to blockbusters, uses only about 5% of the medium's potential artistic vocabulary. We may need another revolution — not of content but of the means of distribution — to allow filmmakers to explore the other 95%.

I too would quarrel with the substance of some Valenti decisions, but I enjoyed the man's style; I was amused by his presumption. With the build of a miniature bulldog and his fondness for a wildly ornate, orotund oratory, he was a throwback character out of Preston Sturges or Allen's Alley. He may have raised winces on the faces of the new-breed, laid-back moguls. But I'm guessing Valenti didn't mind being smiled at. If he was a figure of fun, he had fun being that figure.

In 1983, defending the studios' ownership of intellectual content, he took another flight into verbal fancy. "Nothing of value is free," he declared. "It is very easy... to convince people that it is in their best interest to give away somebody else's property for nothing, but even the most guileless among us know that this is a cave of illusion where common sense is lured and then quietly strangled."

Jack surely loved those "strangler" metaphors. But he retired, three years ago, with his own neck untouched. He came to Hollywood an unknown quantity and left this world its most legendary hypester. Veni, vidi, Valenti.