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Advertise on the Tentacle

July 31, 2009

Those Movie Rating

Roy Meachum

Various groups have protested to the media how Hollywood advertises its product to the public; the G, PG, PG13, R and NC-17 appraisals have been found lacking. It seems today that before allowing a child to go off to a moving picture, parents should see the picture first.

In a real sense I can be numbered among the midwives to the Motion Pictures Association of America’s system; I was also probably its first journalistic critic on the national scene.

The man given credit for “inventing” the alphabet formula was Jack Valenti; when we met he was a special advisor to President Lyndon B. Johnson, a fellow Texan. Before coming to Washington Jack ran a Houston advertising agency. His most famous quote allowed as how he could sleep much better at night with LBJ in the White House. His close links with the Oval Office made him very attractive to the private sector, especially the movies.

During the 60s, television came on strong creating a real crisis in LaLaLand. Families sitting home night-after-night to watch Lucy and the other primetime programs were unwilling to step out to theatres. In response, producers, writers and directors ratcheted up violence and sex to levels the Federal Communications Commission would not permit TV to match.

Hollywood had the Hayes Office that insisted if someone were in bed; a “visitor” would have to keep one foot on the floor: no hanky-panky. The self-censorship caused by a public scandal did not suit the studio’s money men who were being slammed by the new medium. Individuals and studios feared bankruptcy. Every time their films “cheated” on morals a politician’s toe was yanked. The atmosphere in Washington was for governmental censorship.

Jack Valenti was hired to climb on the MPAA horse to prevent that nightmare. In fact, with a few wrinkles added, his alphabetizing film ratings came straight from England. He tinkered with the Brits’ rules and claimed the whole match as his own. To clinch the high-paying position as Hollywood’s ambassador to Washington, the former ad man needed to sell Congress on the concept. He approached me.

In those years, I was a TV-9 critic and reporter. Every Sunday, right after the talking heads panels, I did a half-hour interview program: Jack pitched me candidly to present his rating concept on the show, displaying his killer teeth in a glowing smile. We were by no means friends, but that’s how he came on to me. It turned out to be a very curious experience.

Not satisfied with his pitch during the recording session, the movies’ tsar asked to do the program again and right away! He offered to pay any and all expenses for the re-do. He called the station executives and received a green light. He liked the second version better. I had never heard of re-taping because a guest didn’t like his own words. It happened that Thursday night. Before President Johnson left the White House, Jack Valenti’s flag waved proudly over the impressive MPAA building, nearby.

Meanwhile, I returned to Italy to report on a synod (council) of bishops that Pope Paul VI called to handle the international uproar over the church’s position on birth control, newly publicized in the encyclical Humanae Vitae. I was on assignment in Rome for Metromedia TV news. Returned to Washington, I started doing political commentaries for my new employer’s TV5, but they kicked up such a ruckus that I went back to the role of critic for the performing arts, including films.

Mindful of my part in launching Jack Valenti’s system, I not only considered such things as content and performances but also how the rating system worked. It was going okay until a lovely Italian film, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, which won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

Unfortunately, the prize came at a price. In order to be shown in this country, Vittorio de Seca’s production had to be rated by the MPAA. Before the alphabet was changed around – in response to criticism, of course – there were different letters, including X—for hard core porn. The Garden received the next step down, an R, which made it no-no for anyone under 18, unless accompanied by a grownup. It was considered only for adults because of a single scene, showing a bare breast through a curtain with nothing going on. Nothing.

The Exorcist came along a couple years later and it was awarded the same rating. Sex was not the main ingredient in the movie about diabolical possession, but violence that created such fear that moviegoers took it home. The first day standing before a theatre across from the TV station – I saw the movie at a critics’ preview – I watched bunches of children going in. There were no adults with some; they had found someone of age to buy them tickets. The weekend after the Wednesday opening the TV newsroom received calls from adults so frightened by the movie they went to sleep with all their lights on. Other stories were worse.

My review did not please Jack Valenti; it called into question his rating system and insinuated it snagged an R because Warmer Brothers had the clout to escape an X rating that would ban all children under any circumstances. The New York Times editor Max Frankel had been the Washington bureau chief; he knew me from television. He accepted a piece blasting the rating system, because of The Exorcist. The Wall Street Journal’s weekly National Journal also signed on, although the editor thought I had exceeded my position as critic. And there were radio talk shows all over the country.

Jack Valenti replied, of course, in the N.Y. Times; his tone suggested that I was a traitor to the circle gathered by President Johnson. The more vigorous his verbal dismissal the more I thought I had made a point: ratings did not reflect reality for parents concerned about kids’ movie fare.

My former White House “colleague” died two years ago. But knowing Jack, I’m dead certain he’s twirling in the grave, looking for a way to get back to earth to defend the system that formed the basis for his fame and wealth. At retirement, the MPAA czar was making over $1.5 million.

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