Film industry loses its voice

first_imgJack Valenti was not a film star or movie mogul. Yet at any Hollywood soiree, he turned heads like the biggest A-lister and commanded attention like a top studio honcho. Valenti, the wily voice of Hollywood for nearly four decades as head of the industry’s top trade group, died at his Washington, D.C., home Thursday, a month after he was hospitalized for a stroke. He was 85. A former aide to President Lyndon B. Johnson who was in the motorcade the day President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Valenti went from Beltway insider to Hollywood baron when he took over the Motion Picture Association of America in 1966. His impact on American culture was almost immediate. Recognizing that the industry had outgrown the morality code regulating movie content since the 1930s, Valenti replaced it with a ratings system that survives today with its G, PG and R designations. “In a sometimes unreasonable business, Jack Valenti was a giant voice of reason,” Steven Spielberg said in a statement. “He was the greatest ambassador Hollywood has ever known, and I will value his wisdom and friendship for all time.” The ratings system has its critics, but Valenti always defended it as an example of democracy in action. Without it, films might have been subject to government censorship, so it ensured freedom of expression for moviemakers, Valenti said. And, he said, the ratings designations gave fair warning to audiences about content they might prefer to skip. “While I believe that every director, studio has the right to make the movies they want to make, everybody else has a right not to watch it,” Valenti told The Associated Press shortly before his retirement in 2004. “All we do is give advance cautionary warnings and say this is what we think is in this movie.” A short man with thick, snow-white hair and a speaking style both eloquent and homey, Valenti was a colorful fixture at the Academy Awards, major film festivals such as Cannes and other industry gatherings. “Perhaps a fitting way to describe Jack is to say this man is rated ‘G’ — for greatness,” Sony Chairman Michael Lynton and Co-Chairwoman Amy Pascal said in a statement. Valenti had been hospitalized at Johns Hopkins University Medical Center in Baltimore until this week, when his family took him home. He died of complications from the stroke, said MPAA spokesman Seth Oster. Kirk Douglas said Valenti, his friend for more than 45 years, visited him in New York City in March for a talk the actor gave to a Young Men’s Hebrew Association group. “Two days later, I got a call about his stroke. My wife and I flew to Johns Hopkins Hospital immediately,” Douglas said. “He was in a coma. I held his hand and talked to him. Maybe he heard me. My only consolation is that he did not suffer.” Right-hand man Valenti was a special assistant and confidant to Johnson when he was lured to Hollywood by movie moguls Lew Wasserman and Arthur Krim. A lifelong film lover, he once cited 1966’s “A Man for All Seasons” as his all-time favorite. Along with Douglas, his friends ranged from actor Sidney Poitier to, more improbably, Sen. Jesse Helms, a conservative often at odds with Hollywood. In Valenti’s later years, he handled new challenges such as the Internet and technologies that allow movies to be illegally reproduced and distributed in an instant. Valenti also traveled worldwide seeking to thwart movie piracy and boost film exports to reluctant countries such as China. Valenti’s Washington career was born of tragedy. As a Texas-based political consultant working for then-Vice President Johnson, Valenti was riding in the presidential motorcade Nov. 22, 1963, when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. Valenti, six cars behind the president, initially didn’t know what happened. “Without a trace of warning, the car in front of us accelerated from 8 miles an hour to 80,” he wrote in his memoir, “This Time, This Place,” to be published in June. “The whole spectacle turned bizarre, like an arcade game run amok, as we drove madly toward or away from some unnamed terror.” In an Associated Press interview, he said in 2003 that the assassination “is so seared in my memory I literally, sometimes at night — not often, but once or twice a year — I relive that day.” Oliver Stone’s 1991 film “JFK” angered Valenti. Stressing that he wasn’t speaking for the MPAA, he said the film’s implication that Johnson was involved in the assassination was “quackery” plucked from a “slag heap of loony theories.” Hurried aboard Air Force One for Johnson’s historic flight back to Washington, Valenti was instantly drafted as a special assistant to the new president. His duties grew to include congressional relations, diplomacy and speech editing, and he attended Cabinet and National Security Council meetings. Valenti became known for his loyalty, likening Johnson to Lincoln for his civil-rights efforts and declaring, to widespread ridicule, “I sleep each night a little better” knowing Johnson was in charge. “There is a hole in our hearts with his passing. Jack was a giant of a man. He was our most sage counselor, eloquent spokesman, and ardent defender,” said Johnson’s daughter, Luci Baines Johnson. “He made each of us feel he loved us best, and, oh, how our family adored him.” Coming to Hollywood Yet Valenti resigned in 1966, over Johnson’s objections, to accept the movie post. He became one of the highest-paid and best-known trade association executives, with a salary topping $1 million and his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The ratings program that featured labels such as “G” for general audiences remained his greatest legacy, even as social mores evolved even further, creating new criticism over Hollywood’s attempts to protect its audience. The ratings system has met with recent disapproval from many film critics, cinema fans and moviemakers, especially directors of independent films who say the system is stacked in favor of big studio productions and against edgier, low-budget fare. Critics also say the system is overly prudish on sex while allowing excessive violence. Recently, tobacco opponents have even sought to add smoking to the list of activities deemed too sensitive for younger viewers. The system did undergo changes over the decades. A PG-13 rating (parental guidance strongly recommended) was added in the 1980s. The X rating for adult films was transformed into the NC-17 rating in the 1990s. Born in Houston, Valenti swept floors and made popcorn in a theater as a boy. After earning the Distinguished Flying Cross for piloting bombing missions over Italy in World War II, he worked his way through night school at the University of Houston, then earned a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard. In 1952, he co-founded an advertising and political consulting agency. He was introduced to Senate Majority Leader Johnson three years later. He met his future wife, Mary Margaret Wiley, through his budding friendship with the senator — she was Johnson’s longtime secretary. They had three children. Valenti wrote a handful of books, including one on Johnson, “A Very Human President,” and a novel, “Protect and Defend,” published in 1992 by Doubleday with the help of one of its senior editors, Jacqueline Kennedy. By the time he retired, the movie business had been on a growth spurt for more than a decade, with admissions climbing to their highest level since the late 1950s. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world, because I spent my entire public working career in two of life’s classic fascinations, politics and Hollywood,” he said in 2004. “You can’t beat that.” 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!last_img read more