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A Hollywood Promoter on Both Coasts
By implementing this voluntary system, the MPAA eliminated a movie code dating from the early 1930s with a long list of onscreen taboos ranging from "excessive and lustful kissing" to showing mixed-race sexual relations. The films had further been subject to city and state censorship boards trying to rid offending material.
The 1968 system -- with its long-familiar ratings ranging from "G" for admittance of general audiences to "X" prohibiting those under 17 -- was credited with helping keep the U.S. film market competitive with Europe's. European filmmakers had long ventured into fare laden with adult language, nudity and other forms of explicitness that proved increasingly popular with audiences.
What helped smooth the way for Valenti's changes was that many of these bolder U.S. films were quality productions with top stars, including "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966), starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. By 1969, "Midnight Cowboy," starring Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight, became the only X-rated picture ever to win an Academy Award for best picture.
Valenti had a role in later changes and additions to the voluntary system, including PG-13 and NC-17 ratings. Nevertheless, the ratings system continued to be criticized for how it was applied toward films that accented sex or violence.
One of the strongest critics of the MPAA's system was Nell Minow, a corporate governance expert who wrote family-oriented movie reviews for Common Sense Media. Citing examples, she told one congressional hearing a few years ago that the MPAA's system did a poor job of providing families with helpful information.
Minow said recently: "He waited for me to finish, he stood up, learned over, kissed me on the top of my head and said, 'Nell, that's why we all need your Web site, because you can give parents what we can't.' There was really no way to respond to that. I thought that's why he's the most effective lobbyist in Washington."
The grandson of Sicilian immigrants, Jack Joseph Valenti was born Sept. 5, 1921, in Houston. His father was a clerk in the Harris County Courthouse, where young Valenti often saw office-seekers shaking the hands of well-connected bureaucrats. He began political campaigning at 10 and excelled in high school debate.
At 15, he became an office boy for Houston's Humble Oil and Refining Co., which later became Exxon Mobil. He returned from World War II a decorated Army Air Forces bomber pilot and a veteran of 51 missions over Europe.
He finished an undergraduate degree in business at the University of Houston in 1946 and received a master's degree in business administration from Harvard University in 1948.
He returned to Humble and described his most notable work as the "clean bathroom" publicity campaign for the company.
In 1952 he and an old friend, Weldon Weekley, formed an advertising agency. While Weekley oversaw the office work, Valenti lured a series of oil and business executives as clients. He also began handling advertising work for congressional and gubernatorial campaigns and met Johnson, the Senate majority leader, in 1956.
At the time, Valenti had a weekly column in the Houston Post and wrote a deeply flattering account of the future president that described him as "unbending as a mountain crag, tough as a jungle fighter" and called him the "Great Persuader."