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Valenti, Jack

Valenti, Jack

Born Jack Joseph Valenti, September 5, 1921, in Houston, TX; died of complications after a stroke, April 26, 2007, in Washington, DC. Motion-picture industry executive. Jack Valenti is credited with devising the motion-picture ratings system that determines whether a film is released in American theaters as G, PG, PG-13, R, or NC-17. As the longtime president of the Motion Picture Association of America, Valenti convinced the film studios to adopt a system of ratings that would be acceptable to government authorities and sidestep a possible government regulation of content.

Of Sicilian heritage, Valenti was born in 1921 and grew up in Houston, Texas. In his late teens, he worked as an usher at a movie theater but eventually went to work in the marketing department of the Humble Oil Company, the forerunner of Exxon-Mobil, while taking night-school classes at the University of Houston. During World War II, he piloted a B-25 bomber for the U.S. Army Air Corps, and, upon returning to civilian life, earned a graduate business degree from Harvard University in 1948. In the early 1950s, he became a co-founder of a Texas advertising agency, and one of his firm’s clients was the Texas Democratic Party. Through this, he came to know Lyndon B. Johnson, a Texan who was also the Senate majority leader. Johnson would soon become the running-mate for Democratic White House hopeful John F. Kennedy in 1960.

Valenti and Johnson became close friends, and, when Kennedy was elected to the White House, Valenti served as a special liaison for the vice president. He was in charge of the Texas press schedule, for example, when Kennedy and Johnson visited Dallas in November of 1963. Valenti was in the same motorcade—albeit several cars back— when Kennedy was killed by sniper fire, and is seen in photographs taken aboard Air Force One near an ashen-faced Johnson as the vice president is sworn into office as Kennedy’s successor. Johnson made Valenti his special assistant, a capacity in which he served for the next three years. In 1966, Valenti became president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), a powerful consortium of studio owners in Hollywood. An influx of racy European films were prompting calls for some form of a ratings system and possibly even supervision of film content by a government agency.

Valenti hammered out a plan that was acceptable to all sides: moviegoers, the government, cinema owners, and the studios. This would become known as the MPAA’s voluntary ratings code, with G denoting a general admission film—with no objectionable language nor scenes of violence or sex; followed by PG, R and X; the X rating was replaced by NC-17 some years later, for “no one under 17 admitted,” and a PG-13 category was introduced in 1984. Val-enti and the MPAA established a ratings board made up of a cross-section of Americans that remained, even after his death, one of the most secretive groups in American society; neither the names of its members nor their guidelines for rating films are known to anyone outside of the MPAA committee that pays them. Studios are often forced to comply with suggested edits or risk losing thousands of dollars at the box office with an NC-17 rating.

Valenti remained head of the MPAA until 2004, and was a familiar public face representing the axis of Hollywood and Washington. Known for his impeccable silver coif, custom-made suits, and eloquent turns of phrase, Valenti was a powerful figure and delivered an annual address at the Academy Awards. In addition to his ratings system, his long tenure at the MPAA was marked by several little-known lobbying coups that protected the rights of the studios. After suffering a stroke, Valenti died on April 26, 2007, at his Washington, D.C. home. Survivors include his daughters, Courtenay Lynda and Alexandra Alice, and his son, John Lyndon; all three were from his 1962 marriage to Mary Margaret Wiley, whom he had met when she worked as Johnson’s secretary. Known for his admiration of the president that sometimes bordered on the extreme, Valenti was teased for a speech he gave in 1965 before the Advertising Federation of America in which he asserted, “I sleep each night a little better, a little more confidently because Lyndon Johnson is my president,” according to New York Times David M. Halbfinger. Complaining to Johnson later about the derision he earned from that remark, the president remarked, “I don’t know what you’re fretting about, Jack,” Los Angeles Times journalist James Bates quoted Johnson as telling Valenti. “Do you know how few presidential assistants say anything memorable?” Sources: Chicago Tribune, April 27, 2007, sec. 1, p. 15; CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2007/SHOWBIZ/Movies/04/26/valenti.obit/index.html (April 27, 2007); Entertainment Weekly, May 11, 2007, p. 12; Los Angeles Times, April 27, 2007, p. A1, p. A16; New York Times, April 27, 2007, p. C10.

—Carol Brennan

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