Jack Valenti, The Movie Industry's Washington Blockbuster

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 27, 2007

Hollywood would never have cast Jack Valenti in the role he played in real life, which was as the film industry's man in Washington. Valenti was too florid in speech, too grandiose in manner, too much of a wit to fit the cinematic archetype of the conniving Washington fixer and shadowy string-puller.

For 41 years, however, starting as a close adviser to his beloved president, Lyndon Johnson, and mainly as the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, Valenti flourished in the role while adding color and dash to a town often lacking in both.

Valenti was probably known to most Americans as the short, white-maned guy who presented an award on the Academy Awards telecast each year (Robin Williams once introduced him as "the man you never heard of, but you have to listen to anyway"). Many people assumed Valenti ran the Academy and not the MPAA, a trade group that has nothing to do with film production.

Valenti, who died yesterday at 85, was as important to Hollywood as any star or filmmaker. Because of his craft, cunning and connections as the studios' top lobbyist -- Valenti always disliked such a common term -- his constituents reaped countless billions of dollars.

Hollywood will sorely miss Valenti's battlefield smarts and insider skills. His most famous creation was the industry's movie-rating system -- a marketing masterstroke that substituted "self-regulation" for the threatened legislative kind. In 1998, he also helped create a similar, if now widely ignored, system to rate TV shows to head off yet another official crackdown on TV sex and violence.

But Valenti's single greatest professional coup was an obscure one. For years, like a man spinning plates on narrow sticks, he almost single-handedly kept alive an arcane regulatory regime known as the financial interest and syndication rules ("fin-syn"). The rules prevented the major television networks from profiting from the syndication of TV reruns; fin-syn instead granted this right, and hence enormous profit, to Valenti's people: Disney, Universal, Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox, among others.

In 1983, under relentless lobbying by the TV networks, the whole protectionist scheme was about to fall, with the Federal Communications Commission poised to strike down the rules. Enter Valenti, with a Hail Mary. Valenti enlisted the dean of studio moguls, Universal's Lew Wasserman, to lean on President Ronald Reagan, whom Wasserman had represented as an agent when Reagan was an actor. Result: The FCC abruptly backed off on repeal, and ordered the networks and studios to work out a compromise.

The "compromise" never quite came. A federal court threw out the rules a decade later.

There's another tale that illustrates how Valenti had Washington wired. In 1984, Democratic candidate Gary Hart was considering reviving his presidential campaign, which had been tattered by the revelations of his relationship with Donna Rice. As Hart regrouped, reporters checked into rumors of a second Hart affair -- this time with a woman with professional connections to Valenti. With a few phone calls, the tale goes, Valenti was able to suppress the story and protect the woman's anonymity.

It's possible the story is untrue or overstated or distorted in some way, but its mere existence bespeaks something of the Valenti legend. As Valenti's old friend, former Post editor Benjamin C. Bradlee, noted yesterday: "If he didn't know something, he knew who did. If he didn't have the answer, he knew who could give it. Jack was the quintessential can-do guy."

Despite his ties to LBJ and an industry perceived as deeply liberal, Valenti was generally well-received on both sides of the aisle. He thrived through seven White House occupants, and countless comings and goings on the subcommittees and regulatory agencies that he sought to influence. His diplomatic skill was no less evident managing his demanding and often fractious bosses: a long line of moguls that included Wasserman, Rupert Murdoch, Ted Turner, Barry Diller, Michael Eisner, Sumner Redstone of Viacom and Bob Daly of Warner Bros. Valenti's secret might have been that he communicated with each man individually -- and rarely brought the titans together.

Some of Valenti's influence had to do with his agility at directing the studios' millions of dollars in political contributions here, there and everywhere. But his signature largess was more mundane and yet more grand: dinner and a movie.

Valenti hosted countless dinner-and-movie receptions at the MPAA's headquarters (a building Valenti eventually bought), next door to the Hay-Adams Hotel. Invitations to these events -- given to senators, committee staffers and selected members of the media -- were a golden ticket, giving guests a chance to see a blockbuster that the public couldn't view for weeks. Valenti invited glamorous names and key bit players alike. A reporter from a trade publication that covered import-export tariffs -- a critical factor to the MPAA -- might end up sitting next to William Safire at dinner and then Alan Greenspan during the screening in the MPAA's plush private theater. And Valenti would add to the evening's glow by sharing a few insider anecdotes about a film's stars or director.

Of course, Valenti never just talked. In his many public utterances, he orated and declaimed, grandly and voluminously, as if addressing the Roman Senate about the urgency of conquering Gaul. A fan of Shakespeare and Yeats and Greek mythology, Valenti spoke in baroque phrases, filigreed and curlicued -- all inflected with a slight Texas accent. From his tongue, an opponent's proposal wasn't merely unacceptable; it was "an arrow dipped in curare." And as spun by him, America wasn't just a great and fine nation; it was "a free and loving land."

Some people found such verbiage pompous and smarmy, particularly since Valenti, who wrote all his own speeches, was usually talking about something relatively mundane, such as DVD piracy or runaway movie-production costs. Such lofty language would have been ridiculous -- if it weren't such a pleasure to hear a man so out of step with ordinary speechifying.

One had to marvel at the self-confidence it took to gather oneself before an illustrious audience and utter such preposterous phrases as "springing full-blown from the head of Zeus." And the thing was, you never remembered what a rival had to say.

Jack Valenti, on the other hand, was never less than unforgettable.

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