The man behind the movie ratings system died at age 85

By Joshua Rich
Updated May 04, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

As the head of the Motion Picture Association of America for 38 years, Jack Valenti was the architect of the movie ratings system, the film industry’s chief lobbyist, and its primary unifying force. But the dapper Texan — who died on April 26, at age 85, of complications from a stroke — had one calling above all else: that of diplomat. While regular folks recognized him from his frequent appearances at the Oscars, power players on both coasts (from Presidents Johnson and Clinton to moguls Lew Wasserman and Steven Spielberg) knew him as the ultimate negotiator, a colorful orator who put everyone at ease with a wink, or, when necessary, a kiss on the head. Recalls Academy president Sid Ganis, ”He just had that ability to gather us and have us all pay attention.”

For a magnetic man whose life played like a movie itself — he piloted B-25s during WWII; as an adviser to LBJ, he rode in the fateful Kennedy motorcade in Dallas — Valenti’s move to the MPAA in 1966 seemed only fitting. Serving as the industry’s ambassador to D.C. and abroad, his testimonies on everything from free trade to digital piracy were marked by theatricality. In 1982, he famously decried the initially threatening advent of home video: ”I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston Strangler is to the woman home alone.” Still, Ganis notes, ”You never even questioned that what he was saying was true.”

That trust was key to the durability of the movie ratings system, which Valenti devised in 1968 as a way to update the guidelines detailed in the draconian Hays Code of the 1930s. While many filmmakers have complained that Rs and NC-17s curb artistic expression (see last year’s documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated), just as many others view the industry-regulated system as a favorable alternative to government censorship. Even after Valenti resigned his MPAA post in 2004, he was the program’s staunchest defender and continued to lobby on its behalf. In his forthcoming autobiography, This Time, This Place (due in June), Valenti reflects on his retirement with the contentment of a man who truly loved his work: ”I had the warm satisfaction that comes to anyone who has lashed his whole person to a belief in something that has heft and substance…. I feel good knowing I gave it all I had for a long, long time.”