MCN Columnists
Leonard Klady

By Leonard Klady

Jack Be Nimble

Late Thursday afternoon I was on the phone with Seth Oster of the Motion Picture Association of America. Toward the end of our conversation he made reference to Jack Valenti and indicated he wasn’t in the best of shape since his stroke in March. I asked him if he was at home and receiving a lot of attention and Oster said that was about right.

I scribbled a note to myself to call Jack over the weekend. Since his departure from the MPAA two years ago I hadn’t had much contact with him; a brief encounter at some event and a couple of telephone calls. My mantra had been: write the memoirs and be bold. No one knew more about skeletons in the closet but it wasn’t the Hollywood Babylon aspect I was encouraging; it was the process. There was a great book that only he could write about the manifest destiny of the American film industry, playing hardball with D.C. and sealing favorable trade deals on six continents.

Two minutes later the ticker tape running under MSNBC pre-debate coverage of Democratic presidential hopefuls announced that Jack Valenti had died at age 85. My initial response was pure selfishness … but, but, but I didn’t get to make that call and I’m not going to see his book.

Only later was I able to confront the tremendous sadness of his passing and the fondness I felt toward him even when we were on opposite sides of some issue. For years we would spar at the press conference prior to his opening day speech at ShoWest. One year I found some factual error in the MPAA report that some time afterward I learned set off a series of frantic calls to the organization’s D.C. headquarters and some last minute revisions in the opening address.

Jack Valenti was brilliant at what he did. He was the right man in the right job at the right time. And I suspect he was just as good running his marketing firm in Texas, serving asLyndon Johnson‘s press secretary and flying planes during the Second World War.

He had a genius personality and was a true believer. There was something genuine in his fractured way of fondly quoting the Greeks and misusing the word “good” in the same sentence. He was real and he was shrewd but never, never calculating in the derisive way the term has come to be perceived.

When he took the MPAA job in 1966, the vestiges of old Hollywood were still hanging on though it was clear a new era would wipe that slate clean. And Valenti was ready to usher in that new era at a time when the film industry was at its lowest ebb.

Some news report referred to his creation of the Ratings Administration as his lasting legacy. In a curious way the statement is both apropos and ironic. The ratings board was established for pragmatic reasons. There were more than 100 State and Municipal movie censorship entities in the U.S. in 1968 and the industry was confronting an increasing number of legal tussles in getting films to the screen because of some or several boards insistence that a scene had to be cut.

Valenti must have known that a self-regulating industry body would only carry so much weight. The idea of a rating system designed to tell parents about film content and its appropriateness for their children distinguished it from the rest.

The greatness of the Classification and Rating Administration is that it gave the MPAA a profile and from time to time there would be controversy over a rating. As far as the public was concerned the prime purpose of the organization was to rate movies for theaters when in reality that part of its work maybe amounted to 5% of its energy. Film theft aka piracy similarly is not the primary focus of the organization. It is now and forever about hammering out favorable trade agreements. Entertainment is, after all, America’s biggest export industry.

Without being overly analytical, I saw many parallels between Valenti and my father. They were roughly the same age, both served in the Air Force, were self-made men and identified themselves by their work.

About 20 years ago when I was a contributing writer at Entertainment Weekly I received a call from my editor asking me to look over and comment on a feature they were preparing. It turned out to be its first Hollywood Power List and there were a couple of names on that initial roster that seemed questionable. However, I told her that there was one conspicuous omission. I described him as the man responsible for bringing in more money to the industry than anyone else in history.

She couldn’t imagine who they could possibly have overlooked. When I said Jack Valenti, a long interval of silence followed. Finally, she said, “but he’s not sexy.”

Valenti didn’t make the list that year and I’m almost certain was never in their 100 or in similar power players polls by Premiere and other entertainment publications. The media perception was that he was that funny little guy with the twangy voice who handed out the foreign-language Oscar with Sophia Loren at the Oscars. There wasn’t much of a sense of what he did and I suspect he rather liked being viewed as not much of a threat. It was to his advantage.

There are a lot of other words that come to mind when I think of Jack Valenti – gracious, erudite, passionate. He had a great smile and had an indescribable yet unique way of saying “hi.” We will not see his like again; the vintage has been drunk. To paraphraseMarlene Dietrich‘s closing words in Touch of Evil: “He was a man, what more is there to say.”

April 27, 2007

– by Leonard Klady

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~ Hampton Fancher

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~ David Simon