I doubt many of you have heard of Jack Valenti. Valenti was the long time head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) who supervised the creation of the modern day movie ratings system which replaced the outdated and overly prohibitive Hays Code. He died yesterday at age 85 after having had a stroke in March.
Valenti was born on September 5, 1921 in Houston, Texas. He served as a pilot in the Army Air Corps during World War II and flew 51 missions as the commander of a B-25 attack bomber. He received a Bachelor of Arts from Houston University and a Masters degree from Harvard. In 1952 he co-founded Weekley & Valenti, a political consulting and advertising agency.
In charge of the press during John F. Kennedy's ill fated trip to Dallas in 1963, Valenti befriended Lyndon B. Johnson and became the new president's "special assistant." It was in 1966 that MCA head Lew Wasserman (MCA then owned Universal) and entertainment lawyer and United Artists head Arthur B. Krim tapped Valenti as president of the MPAA. A movie buff his entire life (his favourite film was A Man for All Seasons, Valenti found himself facing a movie industry where the outdated Hays Code was clashing with a new permissiveness in movies in which violence, sex, and four letter words were becoming more and more common. While Valenti believed that directors had the right to make movies with the content they wanted, viewers had the right to be warned about content in films that they might find objectionable. To this end, Valenti oversaw the creation of the current motion picture ratings system.
As head of the MPAA, Valenti had his share of battles. In the Seventies and Eighties he would sometimes launch attacks on VCRs, which he feared would hurt the movie industry. Fortunately, Valenti was proven wrong. More recently, Valenti favoured the the creation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which prohibits the creation and distributions of devices to circumvent the copyright protection on DVDs and other new technologies. In this way it protects the owners of properties from copyright infringement.
Jack Valenti was a well known face in Hollywood. He appeared regularly at the Academy Awards (his speeches were a bit of a running joke with Johnny Carson), and it was not unusual for him to appear at various film festivals. He had a large circle of friends, who ranged from Kirk Douglas (well known as a liberal) to the late conservative Senator Jesse Helms. Valenti had a sense of humour about himself and over the years appeared in unexpected places. He appeared on Laugh In and an episode of Freakazoid (where he explained the ratings system in a semi-serious tone).
Arguably, Jack Valenti had more impact on Hollywood than many directors and producers. The creation of the ratings system would change movies forever. Granted, the system has always had its share of critics. There are those who think the system can be arbitrary, those who think the MPAA is stricter on independent films than they are major studio releases, and those who think the ratings are stricter on profanity and violence than they are sexual content. That having been said, the ratings do provide a means of advising viewers with regards to the content of movies without being overly restrictive in a way that the Hays code was. While it has its shortcomings, I think there can be little doubt that the ratings system was a vast improvement over the old Hays Code.
Valenti was also a powerful force in Hollywood. Besides railing against VCRs and favouring passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (which, while it has its shortcomings, does serve as protection against copyright infringement), Valenti was also tireless in trying to stop movie piracy in such places as China. I think it is safe to say that Jack Valenti earned his place in Hollywood history. He won't soon be forgotten.
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