Voice of movie association executive hushed in controversy

Monday, October 2nd 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HOLLYWOOD – Jack Valenti, the 79-year-old president of the Motion Picture Association of America, is firmly rooted in another age.

Stately in his custom-made French cuffs, he bolsters his staunch defense of the movie industry by quoting the Greek philosopher Heraclitus and the 19th century British statesman Benjamin Disraeli.

Mr. Valenti uses language you don't hear much anymore. Ask him about the struggles of recent weeks, when the movie industry has been under attack for marketing R-rated movies to young people, and he says, "You gird your loins. You get out on the battlefield, your broadsword flashing."

Ask him about parental responsibility, and he says kids need a moral shield to help them "resist the blandishments of their peers and walk among the mean streets without being caught up in its rancor."

His voice, which has represented Hollywood in Washington for 34 years, was notably silent during last week's Senate Commerce Committee hearing on the marketing of violent entertainment to youth. As Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., grilled eight movie executives, Mr. Valenti – who had lobbied unsuccessfully to appear with the executives on the panel – watched from the audience.

Mr. Valenti had spent 10 days on a round-the-clock campaign to hammer out a 12-point industry response to the Federal Trade Commission's report that showed the studios marketed R-rated violent fare to children as young as 9. It had been a tough road.

Gone are the days when Mr. Valenti and former MCA chief Lew Wasserman could rally the movie moguls behind them in one bloc. Today, each studio has a corporate parent with its own priorities.

But Mr. Valenti's seat on the sidelines, as well as his unbending resistance to changing the language in the movie ratings system he devised 32 years ago, have combined to make some people wonder: Does Jack Valenti still matter? Does his trademark blend of personal diplomacy and behind-the-scenes negotiation still work in a climate of increasing public scrutiny of entertainment? And will the movie ratings system Mr. Valenti built – the rock upon which he feels his legacy rests – survive unchanged?

The very seniority that enables Mr. Valenti to set that table also prompts concerns about his effectiveness. And that's why some question Mr. Valenti's continued credibility as a cultural spokesman. "This dude is old," said filmmaker Trey Parker, who has tangled with Mr. Valenti about the ratings of his movies, including South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut. "He's not the hippest guy in the world."

After Hollywood took a beating for not sending anyone but Mr. Valenti to Mr. McCain's first hearing last month, there was talk of hiring another strategist to help defend the industry. One executive confirmed that former White House press secretary Mike McCurry was among the candidates under consideration. But the move eventually was abandoned – at least for now.

With two-thirds of movies receiving R ratings, some top directors have called for a new adults-only rating that would help parents distinguish among different types of explicit material.

Even some of Mr. Valenti's fans say his determination not to consider such changes may speak to his inability to grapple with the modern cultural landscape. "When he designed the ratings system, it worked, because there was an adult rating: X. Unfortunately, that rating became tarnished," said film critic Roger Ebert, who long has called for a ratings change. "Previously the studio heads were all behind Mr. Valenti 100 percent. Now, the ranks are breaking."