Published at: April 26, 2007, 11:44 p.m. CST by Moriarty
This is a strange one.
Harry and I have both spent our fair share of column inches hectoring Jack Valenti about one decision or another for as long as there’s been an AICN. It’s impossible to be passionate about filmmaking without having an opinion about Valenti. I would argue that he casts as big a shadow across the modern era of filmmaking as any studio head... and probably more than most studio heads. He was a man whose job put him at odds with politicians as often as film fans. He was a gifted lobbyist, for all that implies. He worked Washington with genuine aplomb, and that made him an incredible ally to the studios and to filmmaking in general. But he was the only game in town, and that gave him the power to change films, to use his so-called parental guidance system to censor and even reshape movies.
News of his death earlier today at the age of 85 wasn’t a complete shock. He had a stroke in March, presumably when he realized they were giving GRINDHOUSE an “R” complete with Quentin’s melting penis. He was hospitalized for a while, and I’d heard he was not recovering. There’s no doubt that his death marks the end of an era, though. Valenti helped make sense of a post-Hayes code motion picture landscape, and even though I disagree with much of his methodology, I respect him for much of what he did on behalf of the industry. The ratings side of things is just one small part of the work Valenti did, something that is frequently forgotten when his name is invoked.
He was a political animal long before he became involved with the film industry. His path to the White House was one of circumstance and bloodshed. He was a consultant in Texas whose work for the Democratic Party managed to get him a seat in a parade with the President. Specifically, he was in one of the cars in the motorcade in Dallas the day that JFK was shot. And because he had dealt with Vice-President LBJ before, Valenti was one of the people invited onto Air Force One out of Dallas. He became one of LBJ’s most trusted aides during that flight. That job led to his appointment in the mid-60s as the president of the MPAA. He was approached by the heads of the studios directly. They were feeling political pressure, social pressure, and they knew that if they were going to keep up with the public in terms of cultural revolution, they would need to have Washington on their side. Valenti was brought in to smooth the way, to be the permanent advocate, the guy who would argue Hollywood’s case. The creation of the CARA and the current letter-based ratings system was a direct reaction to the kinds of pressure that Valenti believed were being brought to bear on Hollywood. It’s hard to believe it’s been less than 40 years that we’ve had that system in place. It’s so much a part of the way we think about films now.
I’m not going to pretend tonight that we always said the best things about Valenti, or the kindest things. But even so, our thoughts and prayers go out to Valenti’s friends and families tonight. There will never be anyone like him again, and whatever changes we do or don’t see in the ratings system in the future, Valenti defined a particular time in the history of film.