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The new face of Hollywood

LAST WEEK Dan Glickman, former secretary of agriculture in the Clinton administration, was appointed to replace Jack Valenti as president of the Motion Picture Association of America. Not exactly a high-profile player in either Washington or Hollywood, Glickman was an unexpected choice. More interesting, though, the selection broke with an unspoken Hollywood tradition. Glickman is Jewish, and for more than 80 years the job description for the Motion Picture Association presidency has read: Only politically connected Christians of unassailable moral character need apply.

Ever since its formation in 1922, when a series of made-for-tabloid overdoses, orgies, and murders seemed to confirm suspicions that the main business of Hollywood was to corrupt the fiber of Anglo-Protestant America, the association has chosen men of a certain type to catch the flak and take the heat.

Besieged studio moguls first turned to Will H. Hays, former postmaster general in the administration of Warren G. Harding. Hays was the perfect front man for a disreputable industry dominated by foreign-born Jews: a nondrinking, non-smoking Presbyterian church elder from Indiana who uttered platitudes with a straight face.

Making good on a promise to bring virtue to the Sodom on the Pacific, he gave his name to the Hays Office (formally the Production Code Administration), the censorship agency that kept the American screen free of cleavage and controversy. Under Hays, Hollywood enjoyed a golden age that glittered throughout the Great Depression and World War II.

In 1945 the Motion Picture Association opted for an organization man more in tune with the postwar ethos. The urbane and energetic Eric Johnston, former president of the Chamber of Commerce, had the advantage of being both cosmopolitan and Episcopalian. Unfortunately, he was fated to confront a trio of threats more ominous than bluenose censorship: the House Committee on Un-American Activities, the Department of Justice, and, worst of all, television.

In the wake of the 1947 House hearings on alleged Soviet subversion in the motion picture industry, Johnston inaugurated the blacklist era by pledging, on behalf of the major studios, never to "knowingly employ a communist."

The next year another branch of the government delivered a more crippling blow by demanding that the studios divest their theater chains, thereby destroying the vertically integrated monopoly that had sustained the classic studio system.

As for television -- you know that story. In 1963 Johnston died and the association scrambled to find a permanent successor. After a prolonged search, the organization settled on Valenti, a former adviser to Lyndon Johnson and a Roman Catholic. He took the reins at a pivotal moment. Television was ascendent, the studios were moribund, and the baby boom generation was deserting the movies in droves.

Valenti's first major initiative was to eliminate the last vestiges of in-house censorship. In 1968, the Motion Picture Association abolished the Production Code and adopted the present alphabet ratings systems. Under Hays and Johnston, Hollywood had said "Be assured." Under Valenti, it said "Be forewarned."

Over the years, in any list of the highest-paid lobbyists in Washington, Valenti came in at or near the top. By any reckoning, he was worth every penny. With his tanned good looks and serene demeanor, he presented a smooth motion picture image for the television age. When clerics or politicians railed against the moral decadence and excessive violence projected from the Hollywood screen, he spoke reverently about the First Amendment and reminded critics that his industry voluntarily restricted its audience -- while neglecting to mention that any kid who couldn't sneak into an R-rated film was an underachiever.

Of course, for the media conglomerates that are today's entertainment providers, the First Amendment is less meaningful than laws dealing with interstate commerce and copyrights. During Valenti's tenure, neither Republican nor Democratic justice departments probed too closely into the ways newfangled synergy resembles old-fashioned monopoly.

Yet in terms or feathering the Hollywood nest egg, Valenti's greatest achievement was surely the Copyright Term Extension Act of 1998 (derided by foes as "the Mickey Mouse Protection Act"), which extended corporate and author copyrights for an additional 20 years. Indeed, copyright protection and piracy prevention now make up the biggest part of the job.

Facing such daunting challenges, the Motion Picture Association decided to take some affirmative action and reached out beyond the usual talent pool to tap Glickman for this glamorous gig with such enviable job security. In the future, perhaps, a Christian or Jewish woman might someday assume the post -- assuming she's politically connected and morally unassailable.

Thomas Doherty is chairman of the film studies program at Brandeis University. 

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