Sex and Mr. Valenti

April 27, 2007 at 10:35 pm (celebrities, movies, politics)

Jack Valenti, the man who will forever be remembered as the man who started the Motion Picture Association of America’s film ratings system, died yesterday at the age of 85. Valenti took over as president of the MPAA in 1966, and two years later the original ratings system, G, PG, R and X came to be, as a reaction to the rapidly increasing violence in films—Bonnie and Clyde (1967), with its striking and extremely graphic closing death scene, is said to have been the straw that broke the camel’s back. The Hollywood ratings system has always been fascinating to me—from the beginning, when it emerged as the Production Code of 1930 (at that time produced by the MPAA’s precursor, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America) the code and ratings system has been a form of self-censorship, a way to prevent the government from interfering with Hollywood’s cash flow

The Production Code, created by the first president of the MPPDA William H. Hays, had three guiding principles:

  1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
  2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
  3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation. (Production Code, wikipedia)

Hence, even in the darkest of films in the Classical Hollywood era, the bad guy is always either redeemed or killed, making some otherwise excellent films just a bit forced—take The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), for example. Because Lana Turner’s daughter had recently been on trial for murdering Johnny Stompanato, Lana’s abusive mobster boyfriend, the filmmakers dressed her in gleaming white, to enhance her virginal image in the film. Before Lana’s character Cora can announce her pregnancy (notice, without ever using the word “pregnant”) she has to awkwardly marry her lover Frank (John Garfield)—no children out of wedlock in Classical Hollywood! And, of course, in the end both Cora and Frank are punished for murdering Cora’s first husband: Cora dies in a car wreck, and Frank is put on death row.

The production code and the ratings system have been praised as protecting our morality and our children, and criticized for crushing the creativity of film. Independent filmmakers notoriously lock horns with the MPAA to avoid the so-called ‘kiss of death’ for films, the NC-17 rating (which replaced the X rating—because the ratings were not originally copyrighted, the pornographic industry latched onto the X as free advertising—leading to its replacement). The NC-17 rating is a cliff for films—covering everything from Showgirls (1995) to Debbie Does Dallas (1978), keeping audiences away, and keeping theaters from exhibiting them. The ratings system is uniquely rooted in puritanical American values—where else can you see someone’s brain explode at an R rating, but never, ever, a man’s penis? Sex is dirty, violence is profitable.

So, let’s tip a hat to the legacy of Jack Valenti—he may be a polarizing figure, but his affect on the film industry has been powerful and long lasting. Where we go from here will follow what has come before.

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