LOS ANGELES — Jack Valenti etched the letters G, PG and R into American cinema.
That cultural legacy came early in his stewardship of Hollywood's top trade group, when he established the movie-rating system still in place nearly 40 years later.
When Valenti, who died yesterday at age 85 of complications from a stroke, became head of the Motion Picture Association of America in 1966, he inherited an old-fashioned code of conduct for on-screen sex, violence and morality, a system Hollywood — and a radically changing society — had outgrown.
The Hays Production Code, formulated under Valenti predecessor Will Hays, had regulated movie content since the 1930s. It stated that "no picture should lower the moral standards of those who see it," barring explicit or humorous depictions of sex and crime and requiring that the plot make it clear that a character who sins is in the wrong.
But it already had begun breaking down in the 1950s as the old studio system crumbled, Hollywood filmmakers pushed the limits and more explicit foreign films crept into the market.
"By summer of 1966, the national scene was marked by insurrection on the campus, riots in the streets, rise in women's liberation, protest of the young, doubts about the institution of marriage, abandonment of old guiding slogans, and the crumbling of social traditions," Valenti wrote in a history of the rating system on the MPAA Web site.
"The result of all this was the emergence of a 'new kind' of American movie — frank and open, and made by filmmakers subject to very few self-imposed restraints."
Two 1966 films — Mike Nichols' "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni's "Blow-Up" — helped to quickly convince Valenti that a new system was needed.
Valenti spent three hours meeting with Warner Bros. studio boss Jack Warner over "Virginia Woolf," debating two sexually loaded terms, both of which would be considered mild even under today's PG-13 standards. One phrase ("hump the hostess") was left in, the other term ("screw") was deleted, Valenti wrote.
"Blow-Up" marked the first time a major distributor (MGM) was marketing a film that contained nudity. The movie had been denied the Hays Code seal of approval, "whereupon MGM distributed the film through a subsidiary company, thereby flouting the voluntary agreement of MPAA member companies that none would distribute a film without a Code seal," Valenti recalled.
Determining that the Hays Code bordered on censorship, Valenti replaced it in 1968 with a system that initially used four ratings: G for general audiences, M for mature audiences, R for restricted and X for adult-only.
The M rating later became today's PG (parental-guidance-suggested). In the 1980s, a PG-13 rating (parental guidance strongly suggested) was added, partly because of the intensity of scenes in Steven Spielberg's "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom."
The X rating, which had become synonymous with pornography, was changed to NC-17 in the 1990s.
The rating system has been hammered by critics and many filmmakers, who say it is overly permissive on violence and prudish on sex. Valenti's successor at MPAA, Dan Glickman, announced in January changes that he said would open up the process and make the rating standards clearer.
Valenti always insisted the system served its dual purpose well, providing freedom of expression for artists and advanced warning to audiences about potentially objectionable material.
In 2004, as he prepared to leave the job after 38 years, Valenti told the Associated Press: "While I believe that every director, studio has the right to make the movies they want to make, everybody else has a right not to watch it."
Valenti's rating system "enabled the industry to give parents the information they need to make appropriate decisions for their children while at the same time eliminating the possibility of government censorship from the content of the movies," said John Fithian, who heads the National Association of Theatre Owners.
"In a sometimes unreasonable business, Jack Valenti was a giant voice of reason," Spielberg said in a statement. "He was the greatest ambassador Hollywood has ever known, and I will value his wisdom and friendship for all time."