(Harmony, 480 pages, $25.95)
By Jack Valenti
Jack Valenti, the dapper, bantamweight, beetle-browed, ferociously charming and articulate kingpin of Hollywood sadly shuffled off this mortal coil only weeks before the publication of his fascinating autobiography. In its pages he reminds us that he’d already had quite the eventful life long before he assumed the reins of the Motion Picture Association of America in 1966, for an eventful tenure of almost 39 years. (He received the DGA Life Membership Award in 2001.)
Born poor in Texas to the children of Sicilian immigrants, Valenti had a classic up-by-the-bootstraps upbringing, using his brains and drive to put himself through college and Harvard Business School, but not before World War II intervened and sent him on three dozen hair-raising missions over Nazi-occupied Italy as the skipper of a B-25 bomber. After the war, he built up a Houston ad agency until 1963, when Lyndon Johnson picked him to join his staff of advisors. Valenti’s admiring portrait of the complex Johnson is a high point of his memoir, vividly evoking the man’s charm and political acuity alongside his domineering Texas swagger and frequent barnyard crudity. The book climaxes with a celeb-strewn account of Valenti’s MPAA stewardship, from the twilight years of aging legends like Jack Warner, Lew Wasserman and Darryl F. Zanuck; to his difficult but successful reordering of the Association’s ratings system in 1968; to more recent battles over DVD piracy and the kerfuffle over Academy screeners, which Valenti admits he could have handled better. Although the ratings system has come in for plenty of criticism—the unsatisfactory NC-17 rating in particular—over the years, Valenti does mount a serious defense of it, reminding us that if the studios didn’t police themselves, then sooner or later the government would. Written vividly in an aperçu-filled, raconteur’s style, flavored with an adman’s brio and a presidential speechwriter’s elegance, Valenti’s memoir may be posthumous, but it fairly fizzes and pops with life.
Review written by John Patterson.