With Malice Toward None The long-playing Jack Valenti on where Hollywood stops and D.C. begins.
This year marks Jack Valenti’s 35th as president and CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). A schmoozer and storyteller extraordinaire, the 80-year-old Valenti is still dapper and the ultimate politician. This Texas-born trade-association exec has charmed Washington since the day he stepped off Air Force One with Lyndon Johnson after John F. Kennedy was assassinated. He resigned his White House post in 1966 to lead the MPAA, and invitations to his private screenings are coveted by Washington power brokers.
THE SHUTTLE SHEET: Do you think movie theaters as we know them will survive in this era of new technology?
JACK VALENTI: Internet, videocassettes, DVD, cable and satellites are delivery systems. They don’t create anything. Creative people create. You can get a movie in the theater, on the Internet, satellite, cable or at Blockbuster. But in spite of all this lacerating competition today, movie attendance is going up. That’s because people want to go to a movie theater; it becomes a social experience – the centerpiece for an evening of socializing with friends.
SS: Although you live in Washington, you spend half your time in Los Angeles. How would you compare the two cities?
JV: Washington is a smaller town, but they have one thing in common: They both feed off a huge beast. In Hollywood, it’s the movie industry, and in Washington, government. I think there’s a great similarity between the movie actor and the politician. Both are hooked on applause and enticed by publicity. Both are onstage and usually reading from scripts written by someone else. When a politician gets up to read a speech, he is performing. He’s an actor trying to win over the audience. There is an amazing mystical rapport between politicians and movie actors; they come from the same DNA. They’re so much alike that I’m hard pressed to know which is the entertainment capital of the world: Hollywood or Washington, D.C.
SS: What are your favorite screens in Washington?
JV: The Uptown theater, because it’s a huge 65-foot screen [3426 Connecticut Avenue NW; 202-966-5400], and the Mazza Gallerie theaters [5300 Wisconsin Avenue NW; 202-537-9553].
SS: How do you feel about rumors that former President Clinton may be your successor at the MPAA?
JV: I don’t see retirement. On a slow news day someone has to fill space.
SS: What do you think is the key to your survival in D.C. and Hollywood?
JV: You never play it cute around the turns – that is, you don’t dissemble. Someday you’ll be found out, and when you lose your integrity, you’ve lost a great deal of your assets. When I get into controversies, I never get personal.
SS: I’ve heard you say that Lyndon Johnson was your mentor. What are some of the important lessons you learned from him?
JV: He was the greatest teacher I ever had. LBJ taught me your antagonist may have to be your ally tomorrow, so you never rupture a personal relationship. I answer my phone calls quickly – I learned that from LBJ. And I work hard. I believe that somebody may be smarter, but I’ll work harder; I’ll be up an hour earlier and stay an hour later.
SS: So what do you do to relax?
JV: I’m a voracious reader. My favorite authors are [Winston] Churchill, Edward Gibbon, William Prescott, Will Durant and Abraham Lincoln. From a fiction standpoint, John Steinbeck, Theodore Dreiser and Saul Bellow. I think great writing is like being a great composer. If you read prose, it has a great melody to it. It has rhythm and cadence. It’s music.
SS: What are some of your favorite films?
JV: My favorite film is A Man for All Seasons, written by Robert Bolt. Also The Godfather – I and II, Gone With the Wind, Casablanca and George Stevens Sr.’s Shane. My favorite current movie is Saving Private Ryan. I urge parents to take their 13-, 14-, and 15-year-old sons to see it – even though it’s rated R – so these young kids can understand how the gift of freedom was purchased at a terrible price by young kids no more than three or four years older than them.
SS: Who is your favorite filmmaker today?
JV: Steven Spielberg.
SS: And your favorite actor?
JV: Paul Scofield, who starred in A Man For All Seasons, is the greatest living English-speaking actor today.
SS: You’ve tried your hand at writing. Have any of your books been made into movies?
JV: I love to write. I’ve written four books, three nonfiction and one novel, and I’m writing two novels. My last novel, Protect and Defend, which is a Washington novel, is under option by RKO Pictures.
SS: Who would you like to see play the lead?
JV: I’d love to see Michael Douglas – he’s played a president before. He and his dad, Kirk, are my closest friends in Hollywood.
SS: Of all the many evenings you’ve spent as a guest at the White House, is there one that stands out?
JV: Yes, 1n 1965, when I was working for Lyndon Johnson. Princess Margaret was the guest of honor. Christina Ford, Henry Ford’s very glamorous wife, was whirling around the dance floor with [Defense Secretary] Bob McNamara and the top of her dress fell off. It was a gloriously fun evening that went on very late.