Jack Valenti: 1921-2007
by Phil Boatwright

Nearly as famous as any motion picture star, Jack Valenti died last Thursday at age 85 from complications suffered after a stroke in March. A World War II pilot and one-time aide to President Lyndon Johnson (he helped pen Johnson’s first public speech as Chief Executive), Valenti is best known as the man who changed the look and content of movies.

Retired in 2004, Valenti headed the MPAA for 38 years, having faced both defenders and detractors caused by the rating system’s problematic nature. (Dan Glickman has succeeded Mr. Valenti as president and chief executive of the MPAA.)

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) was founded in 1922 as the trade association of the American film industry. Its initial task was to stem the waves of criticism for the bawdy and sometimes raunchy nature of the early cinema and restore a more favorable public image. Soon the MPAA and the studios were confronted by the Legion of Decency, a group made up of, among others, church leaders who presented Hollywood with a mandate, the Motion Picture Code. Under the Code’s edict, the amounts of sexuality and violence would be regulated, and profane and obscene language in movies was to be forbidden. Also, a respect had to be shown for any religious faith and ministers could never be ridiculed.

Established in the 1930s, this code was considered by many as a protector of the social mores of America. Others saw it as restrictive. To them it prevented filmmakers from exploring adult subject matter in more graphic visual and verbal detail.

By 1966 Jack Valenti became president of the MPAA and replaced the Code with what was to become the present-day rating system (G, PG, PG-13, R, NC17). In reference to the Motion Picture Code, Valenti said, "There was about this stern, forbidding catalogue of 'Dos and Don'ts' the odious smell of censorship. I determined to junk it at the first opportune moment." Under his leadership, the movie industry would no longer approve or disapprove the content of a film. This would now be the soul responsibility of parents.

Considered an intelligent, patriotic man, Valenti was influential in both the Hollywood and political communities. But his rating system fell under sharp criticism almost immediately by both liberal filmmakers and conservative family guardians.

An editorial in the Kansas City Star on July 20, 2004 pointed out the following: “The Association has refused to come up with clearly defined rules for its ratings. There are too many gray areas, and filmmakers know how to manipulate the review board. An independent review board would have more credibility than the lobbying arm of the movie studios.”

Those concerned with the rating system often refer to it as confusing and deleterious. For them, the demise of the Code was the opening of a gate for injudicious filmmakers and those believing freedom of speech demands no accountability by its practitioners.

Contrary to prevailing beliefs, nearly every subject was addressed on film during the era of the Code. Filmmakers, governed by regulated codes of decency and their own instinctive ethic, were creative, yet conscientious, when exploring mature subject matter.

A Hollywood insider recently said, “The old story goes that if you place a frog in boiling water, he’ll jump out. But if you place him in room-temperature liquid, slowly raising the heat level, he’ll remain until he, you should excuse the expression, croaks. Over the past several decades, the media has simmered society in a stew of moral ambiguity, excusing their offenses with ‘Hey, it’s only a movie.’ Today, content (the reason for the film’s rating) has become as much a defining factor in moviemaking as the technical and artistic merits. And all too often the negative content overrides positive messages in today’s films.”

Before his stroke, Valenti had completed work on an autobiography, This Time, This Place: My Life in War, the White House, and Hollywood, tentatively scheduled for release in June. He also left us the Rating System