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Man Behind the X’s and R’s Getting a Star

Times Arts Editor

From today forward the world will have Jack Valenti to walk over. The president and chief executive officer of the Motion Picture Assn. of America is receiving his star on the sidewalk on Hollywood Boulevard.

The timing is purposeful. Nov. 1 is the 20th anniversary of what have come to be called the Valenti ratings for movies--G, PG, R and X. The PG was first M and then GP before it settled on PG, for Pretty Gamy or Pretty Gory, as one cynic has observed. PG-13 was added in July, 1984.

Valenti, a Harvard Business School-trained ad agency executive who served in the Lyndon Johnson White House, is only the third man to hold the MPAA job, in succession to the legendary Will H. Hays and Eric Johnston. Whoever has the job is a czar, but one whose powers are largely limited to persuasion and who answers to a board of major studio executives.

A few days ago Valenti was remembering his first board meeting, with the likes of Jack Warner, Spyros Skouras, Barney Balaban, Darryl F. Zanuck and the other chieftains. “Jack Warner said, ‘Pal, the biggest problem you’re going to have is with the guys around this table.’ ”

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By now all the faces around the table have changed, except Valenti’s. “The lions have departed,” he says.

Valenti’s toughest problem--and it constituted an amazing piece of political legerdemain--was to sell the chieftains and the exhibitors on a rating system which in essence could keep customers from buying tickets. The X rating bars anyone under 17; the R rating (theoretically and in intermittent practice) bars anyone under 17 without an accompanying parent or adult guardian).

“I’m not sure I could bring it off today,” Valenti says; “the industry is so different, so fragmented.” But in 1966 it was clear that the old Hays Code system was no longer working and indeed no longer relevant. Its enforcement powers had died when the studios sold off their theaters under anti-trust consent decrees.

Under the competitive impact of television, the movies and their audiences had changed, well-symbolized in Valenti’s first year in office in 1966 by two films--"Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” with its then-unprecedented language, and Antonioni’s “Blow Up,” with its all-points nudity and its provocative despair.

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After some hard discussions, Jack Warner agreed to excise a couple of the offending words and apply the first “Suggested for Mature Audiences” label on the ads for “Virginia Woolf.” MGM got around its adherence to the Hays Code by releasing “Blow Up” through a shell company.

But the end was in sight and a Supreme Court decision in April, 1968, effectively empowering cities and states to set up their own censoring bodies created a frightening prospect for the industry. “We could see 200-300 regulating bodies across the country, each with its own ideas of what was obscene and what wasn’t,” Valenti says.

He held 100 meetings in six months, soliciting ideas, formulating and then selling the new system of voluntary self-regulation, says Valenti. His main sales targets were the chieftains of the MPAA themselves, the National Assn. of Theater Owners and the foreign film distributors.

Twenty years later, as of mid-October, 1988, nearly 8,500 films had been rated under the new dispensation. Given that total, there have been surprisingly few conspicuous fights, but they have tended to be very conspicuous: “Ryan’s Daughter,” “Cruising” and “Angel Heart” most recently.

On average, a half-dozen ratings are appealed each year, Valenti says. Two-thirds of the ratings are sustained, one-third overturned.

The ratings continue to have thoughtful detractors, who argue that the system still constitutes a form of censorship because a studio can force a film maker to tamper with his work to get from an X to an R or from an R to a PG-13. The further argument is that the ratings are no longer necessary.

“Are the ratings perfect? No!” Valenti says generously. “Are they flawed? Absolutely!” But he points to an annual survey of 2,600 parents with children under 17. Three-quarters of those surveyed said they found the ratings useful or fairly useful.

Whether the voluntary system continues to forestall the creation of local censoring bodies is not certain, although the violent responses to “The Last Temptation of Christ” and the frequent pressures on public libraries do not suggest that an era of perfect tolerance is at hand.

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The ratings evolve, slowly and slightly. The f-word, used once, is no longer an automatic R rating. There has been talk of making the R category age-line 16 instead of 17, and Valenti thinks such a change is not impossible. But he continues to oppose giving more information on why a given rating has been applied. “Like any more categories, it would overburden the system,” he says.

As it is, he adds, “The system is like the Constitution; it has enough ambiguity built in so that it can exist in a changing world without crashing.”

The film world indeed keeps changing. The best news Valenti finds comes from another MPAA survey which shows that there has been a 27% increase in movie-going by those over 40 this year over 1987.

There is, Valenti finds, a growing audience for what he calls “truly mature films” (as distinguished from films with exploitative adult contents). The explanation, he thinks, is that VCRs are functioning as lures for movies to be seen on the big screen.

As the baby-boomers age, the tyranny of the youth-oriented movie screen appears to be yielding to maturity. And not, some might well say, a moment too soon.


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