Book Smart

Jan. 31, 2006

by Barbara Wolff

In all likelihood, you view the world and its controversies as you do by watching how people in movies or on television handled things.

For two decades, “the least-known, most powerful man in Hollywood” — also known as Richard Heffner — was responsible for how movies presented those controversies, rating cinematic depictions of subjects ranging from violence, gender relationships, pornography, substance abuse, religion, history and much more.

Heffner headed the movie rating system from 1974-94. “Until his papers became available for historians, we have known very little about how the rating system actually worked. My book is the first to go behind the scenes using primary sources to examine how movies were rated,” Vaughn says.

He adds that although Heffner wielded serious clout, he kept his influence largely out of sight.

“Heffner tried to stay out of the limelight. Jack Valenti, the former president of the Motion Picture Association of America, insisted that Heffner keep a low profile. Heffner also wanted to keep the identities of the ratings board members secret because he believed that movie studios would attempt to influence them in some way if they were known. Heffner, though, is an interesting person and hardly a shadowy figure. He was a communications professor at Rutgers with a background in American history and public television. During the 1950s he started a TV program in New York called ‘The Open Mind.’ Over the years he interviewed many well-known political leaders and intellectuals. Amazingly, the show still airs in New York each week,” Vaughn says.

Before 1968, a seminal year for movie ratings, the American film industry censored itself through a production code that required studios to submit scripts for review before filming began. Vaughn says that the code’s goal was to avoid overt government interference.

“In 1968 Hollywood abandoned the production code and prior censorship and adopted a rating system which said, at least in theory, that filmmakers could show virtually anything they wished as long as the content was rated: G through X, later changed to NC-17. That movie rating system served as a model for the rating system that television adopted in 1997,” Vaughn says.

The ratings board, known as the Classification and Rating Administration, is made up of parents and selected to represent a cross section of America. Board members watch films and then vote on how they believe other parents would want the movies rated. Filmmakers can challenge the ratings before an appeals board of movie industry representatives.

However, new and emerging media such as cable TV, video cassettes, DVDs and the Internet have challenged the ratings system, Vaughn says.

“In 1968, you had to go to a theater to see an X-rated film, and the box office served as a buffer to keep the underaged from seeing restricted films,” he says. “With modern media, much of the restricted material comes into the home unregulated,” leaving parents to find ways to shield the impressionable young.

Vaughn says that his interest in cinema and censorship is the direct result of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.

“I soon discovered that the state historical society houses one of the world’s great film libraries — their collection contains most of Ronald Reagan’s Warner Brothers movies, for example. That collection led to my book ‘Ronald Reagan in Hollywood,’ which came out from Cambridge University Press in 1994. I quickly realized that the old Reagan films are interesting historical documents, full of social and political commentary. The Reagan book hardly exhausted the topic. It only whetted my appetite to learn more about motion pictures and their place in America,” Vaughn says.

“From the outset of moviemaking, people have assumed that the cinema can have a profound effect on public opinion. Motion pictures have been at the center of the past century’s so-called culture wars. Over the past half century, the average person probably watches more drama and entertainment in one week than people who lived a century ago would have had access to in a lifetime. The next time you pick up a newspaper or watch the nightly news, count the references to entertainment and entertainment figures. Entertainment permeates our culture.”

Vaughn, currently on sabbatical, is putting the finishing touches on a companion volume to “Freedom and Entertainment.” The new book, “Morality and Entertainment: Cinema and Censorship, 1907-1968,” will be out in 2007.