Jack Valenti, 1921-2007
A Hollywood Promoter on Both Coasts
Friday, April 27, 2007
Jack Valenti, 85, a onetime confidant of President Lyndon B. Johnson who spent nearly four decades as Hollywood's chief Washington lobbyist and helped devise the "G" to "X" movie-rating system, died yesterday at his home in Washington of complications from a stroke in March.
As president of the Motion Picture Association of America from 1966 to 2004, Valenti represented such powerful studios as Disney, Sony, Warner Bros., Paramount, MGM, 20th Century Fox and Universal as well as several leading independent producers. Earlier, he established political connections as a Texas advertising and public relations executive that led to his strong ties to Johnson.
With an instinctive showman's flair -- notably his grandiloquent speaking style and access to movie stars -- Valenti became the dominant power broker connecting Capitol Hill and the film colony. Besides his work on the ratings system in the late 1960s, he helped open up world markets for American-made films and secured passage of copyright legislation to protect movies into the digital age, which led to the proliferation of DVDs.
He also was a major gateway to Hollywood's financial largesse during the campaign season. On any given week, Valenti met with actors, world leaders and newspaper editors and was regarded as a brilliant and aggressive wielder of his glamorous pulpit.
Harry C. McPherson Jr., also a Johnson intimate who became a Washington lobbyist, called Valenti "an extremely successful advocate of the movie industry. You'd be hard-pressed to find any lobbyist for any industry who did a more successful job than Valenti. I can't think of many times when Jack Valenti lost."
"He had a lot to work with," added McPherson, an occasional lobbying adversary of Valenti's. "When senator X would want to go to Hollywood and would want some people to attend his fundraiser at the home of [former Walt Disney chief executive] Michael Eisner or some producer or studio chief, he'd talk to Jack. Jack would set it up and very often go out there."
Lawrence Levinson, a former Washington representative for Paramount, told the New Yorker magazine in 2001: "Jack was able to use the power and glamour and mystique of Hollywood. A new president came in, and [Valenti would] put himself in the center of the process of getting movies to the president. He'd get so excited. He'd call Sid Sheinberg" -- the president of MCA/Universal -- "and say, 'Sid! The president is going to Camp David! We've got to get him "Jaws"!' "
Valenti became known to a wider audience through his appearances on Academy Award telecasts. A diminutive, sprightly man, he was easily identifiable by a well-tanned and protruding forehead covered by snow-white hair. There was also his immaculate executive attire and what one reporter long ago called a "riverboat gambler's drawl."
The Texas-born, Harvard-educated lobbyist had a strikingly baroque writing and speaking style heavily influenced by 19th-century British historian Lord Macaulay and British prime minister Winston Churchill. For instance, a movie audience was not composed of ticket buyers but "unknown but enthusiastic companions of a single night."
He was widely considered an effective promoter for Hollywood on matters including censorship, videotape technology, copyright infringement and, in recent years, video and online piracy of trademarked films.
When Hollywood filmmakers attracted controversy, he routinely defended the studios by citing the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment as well as the cause of artistic liberty.
This was the case when Valenti, along with MPAA general counsel Louis Nizer, helped create a voluntary rating system in 1968 that changed the way the studios classified a film's suitability for general audiences. This new arrangement was important, because it kept government intrusion and citizen censors at bay while allowing the artists maximum freedom and the consumer to influence the marketplace by voting with his wallet.