One of the most important figures in the film industry for nearly 40 years, Jack Valenti served as the president of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) for 38 years. Among his accomplishments during his tenure there, was the creation of the modern film rating system, which earned him an equal amount of supporters and detractors. Valenti was also a passionate supporter of entertainment copyrights, and with his sharp sartorial style and erudite language, cut a colorful figure at his many appearances before Washington committees and Hollywood gatherings.
The grandson of Sicilian immigrants, Valenti was born in Houston, TX on Sept. 5, 1921. An excellent student, his family lacked the financial means to send him to college, so he worked as an usher at a local movie theater until the outbreak of World War II. Valenti enlisted in the Air Force and flew numerous missions as the commander of a B-25, for which he was decorated four times. After the war, Valenti went to the University of Houston and then Harvard on the G.I. Bill, before forming his own advertising company in 1952. In 1962, he married his wife Mary, with whom he had three children, including daughter Courtenay Valenti, who later became an executive at Warner Bros.
In the late '50s into the early '60s, Valenti struck up a friendship with Texas politician Lyndon B. Johnson, who was then Senate Majority Leader. When Johnson was invited to join John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign as Vice President, Valenti worked for him. He was also in charge of the press coverage during Kennedy's fateful trip to Dallas, Texas on Nov. 21, 1963 - in fact, riding only several cars back from JFK's open-topped limo in the motorcade. In the famous photograph of Johnson being sworn into office following the assassination of Kennedy, a shell-shocked Valenti can be seen in the corner of the image.
Valenti was named as "special assistant" to Johnson during his presidency, residing at the White House for the first two months of Johnson's term. Though a loyal friend and advisor to the President, Valenti sought greener pastures, and found them in the form of MCA chairman Lew Wasserman and Arthur Krim, head of United Artists. The pair - two of the most formidable figures in the Hollywood studio system - reached out to Valenti to head the Motion Picture Association of America. The position's considerable salary helped Valenti with his decision, so in 1966, he resigned from the Johnson White House to oversee the MPAA.
In 1968, Valenti revamped the outdated rating system - a holdover from the draconian days of former Postmaster General Will Hayes - and created a new one inspired by the new permissive levels of sexual content, violence and language in films. Valenti's initial system - G (for general audiences), M (for mature audiences), R (restricted for persons under 16 unless accompanied by an adult), and X (persons under 17 not admitted) - was overhauled several times in the ensuing years, with M being replaced by GP (and later PG), and the age limits for R and X being upped by a year. The system was met with approval by studios and the public, though it was not without its flaws. The X rating, which typically indicated pornographic content, was given to critically acclaimed films such as "Midnight Cowboy" (1969), "A Clockwork Orange" (1971) and "Last Tango in Paris" (1973), which led to debates over the system's validity and the debilitating effect the X rating had on films (in fact, many major newspapers would not run print advertising for any films with said rating). Further outcry was heard over what appeared to be a bias towards labeling films with strong sexual content with R and X ratings, while violent movies received R or even PG ratings.
Valenti, whose flash of perfectly coiffured white hair and elegant suits often attracted as much attention as his meticulously chosen words, stood firmly behind his system in the face of such criticism, but was also a staunch advocate of the rights of filmmakers to produce content as they saw fit. Eventually, more moderate ratings came into being in later years, including PG-13 (which cautioned parents of children ages 13 and younger about possible adult content) and NC-17, which effectively replaced the X in 1990. Unfortunately, little could be done to convince certain publications and video rental chains to carry advertising and product that bore this new label.
As Valenti's tenure at the helm of the MPAA entered its third and fourth decades, he frequently found himself at the center of unpopular debates. He was a steadfast opponent of the VCR, which he felt would destroy the motion picture industry - in one famous quote before Congress, Valenti compared the Sony Betamax to the Boston Strangler. And in 1998, he lent his weight to the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which was intended to prevent copyright infringement on the Internet, but proved legally questionable in numerous circumstances. Valenti also supported a 2003 ban on sending screening copies of films to critics and award show voters, but industry pressure and a lawsuit forced him to reverse his position in 2004.
Valenti retired from the MPAA that same year at the age of 82. His departure was mourned by the old guard of Hollywood, as well as by the press, who viewed his career as an essential link to the days of the studio moguls. His gentlemanly business demeanor and passion for the rights of artists and moviegoers alike had earned him respect from the public, many of whom remembered him as the man Robin Williams introduced at an Oscar telecast as "Jack 'Boom-Boom' Valenti." The beloved figurehead later moved into media-related venture capital work, where he served as an advisor to various companies. Following a stroke in 2007, Valenti died on April 26, 2007.