Ratings born of conflict

Valenti traces the film system from the Hays Code to the modern era

In November, the movie industry’s voluntary movie rating system celebrated its 38th birthday — and still counting. How and why was it born?

I became chairman-CEO of the MPAA in mid-1966. A year later, while I was exploring the world cinema landscape that I was to know so well over the next almost-four decades, I found myself face to face with a challenge to my fixed convictions about my country and its title deeds of freedom inscribed in the First Amendment.

American mores and customs were in turmoil. The Vietnam War turned ugly. The campuses were in rebellion. There were stirrings of insurrection at all levels of the society. It was folly to think that movies could remain immune to these earth-quaking emotional disturbances. Film directors were straining to throw off the shackles of the Hays Code even as public officials were hell-bent on accusing movies of soiling the nation’s culture. I was personally offended by the Hays Code, which I judged to be blatant censorship, but first I had to confront what was tearing down my door.

Along came Mike Nichols’ brilliant “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Audiences heard language never before spoken onscreen. By today’s standards, the movie could be a training film for a nunnery, but in the ’60s it was furiously controversial.

I flew to Los Angeles to meet with an actual living Warner brother, Jack Warner. For some three hours in Warner’s baronial office at the Warner Bros. studio, we talked about how to handle the Nichols film. At the end of the meeting I felt thoroughly uncomfortable. It seemed silly, even absurd, that grown men could be spending their time on such a puerile discussion.

But my depression only deepened when, on the heels of “Virginia Woolf,” I was hit with another firestorm. This time it was MGM’s “Blow-Up,” starring Vanessa Redgrave and David Hemming, from the creative palette of Michaelangelo Antonioni, the famous Italian cinema titan. On screen was nudity never before seen in a major studio film — two female teenyboppers romped around for about 15 seconds wearing only their earrings.

At the same time cities, counties, and states (Birmingham, Detroit, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, the state of Maryland and a dozen more) set up boards populated by local citizens to classify films and deem a good many of them, by local law, unfit to be seen by children.

I knew I had to move swiftly, and I did.

First, I junked the Hays Code — and good riddance — replacing it with the warning line “For Mature Audiences.” I soon found out that wasn’t going to cut it. It was too little and very late.

So it was that I devised a revolutionary plan. I immediately began talks with the top brass of the theater owners, including a fellow named Sumner Redstone, who was the head of the Theater Owners of America.

When I presented my plan to Sumner, his quick, lawyerly mind got it fast. He agreed with me that unless we took preemptive action, we would be overrun by a babel of voices, all of them unsuitable to our future. The plan was to set up a voluntary movie rating system, giving advance cautionary information to parents so they could make their own decisions about the movies they wanted their children to see — or not to see.

At the same time I wanted to free the screen so that filmmakers could tell any story they chose to tell without a government or an industry ordering them to make revisions.

In separate meetings with the Directors, Writers and Screen Actors Guilds, I also emphasized the fact that freedom without responsibility is anarchy. I told them that under my plan they would be free to tell their story as they chose, but some of their films might be restricted from viewing by children. I saw no contradiction in that. But adults would be at liberty to make their own moviewatching choices. Finally, Hollywood’s creative guilds, led by the DGA, signed on.

But the key decision fell to the theater owners, for they would be the ones enforcing the ratings. They became full partners in the new system. Now, I had to literally campaign for acceptance from the major studios, independent producers, the craft unions, religious organizations and advocacy groups. It wasn’t easy. The major studios were particularly edgy. What the studios feared (like most of us) was the mischief that you don’t know. I understood that.

The essence of my pitch to the studio heads was this: First, we had to fill the vacuum created by the demise of the Hays Code. Second, if we didn’t act to self-regulate ourselves others would do it for us. Third, if we wanted to keep the screen free, and at the same time fulfill what I considered an obligation to American parents, we had to devise a simple plan that would achieve both those objectives.

On Nov. 1, 1968, after nearly a year of constant meetings, the movie rating system was born. At this writing it has lived a long, useful and controversial life — 38 years. Nothing lasts that long in this brutal, unpredictable marketplace unless it is conferring a benefit on the people it aims to serve, in this instance the parents of America.

The rating system annually (since 1969) conducts a national poll through the Opinion Research Corp. of Princeton, N.J., interviewing some 2,100 people under strict market research protocols. In the latest poll (August/September ) 80% of parents with children under 13 found the rating system “very useful” to “fairly useful” in helping them guide their children’s moviegoing.

That’s an astonishingly high approval level. Moreover, local censorship boards have vanished. The industry can be proud that it produced and has kept in place an asset that parents admire, trust and use.