Dr. Aaron Stern, Who Enforced the Film Scores Code, Dies at 96

Dr. Aaron Stern, Who Enforced the Movie Ratings Code, Dies at 96

Dr. Aaron Stern, a psychiatrist who established himself as the head of the Hollywood Film Ratings Board in the early 1970s and established himself as a viewer guard against carnal imagery and violence, died in Manhattan on April 13th. He was 96 years old.

His death in a hospital was confirmed by his step daughter Jennifer Klein.

As an author, professor and management consultant who has always been fascinated by climbing the career ladder, he competed against self-centered studio managers, producers, directors and actors – and delivered his book "Me: The Narcissistic American" from 1979.

From 1971 to 1974, Dr. Stern director of self-regulatory classification and scoring administration for the Motion Picture Association of America founded just a few years earlier. It replaced the strictly moralistic production code introduced in the early 1930s and administered censored by Will H. Hays, a Presbyterian deacon and former leader of the National Republican Party.

The new judging panel, which initially struggled to gain credibility, rated films by letter to let moviegoers know in advance how much violence, sexuality and swear words to expect on screen.

The board's decision that a film deserves an R rating or is restricted could attract more adults, but would immediately eliminate the pool of unaccompanied moviegoers under the age of 17. An X rating would exclude anyone under the age of 17.

Dr. Stern has rewritten the PG (Parental Guidance) category to include a warning that "some materials may not be suitable for teenagers". He also tried, but failed, to get rid of the X rating – for the reason, he told the Los Angeles Times in 1972, that it was not the job of the Motion Picture Association to keep people out of theaters. (The X rating was changed to NC-17 in 1990, but its meaning remained unchanged.)

It wasn't until last year, with the release of Three Christs, a film about hospital patients who believed they were Jesus, that Dr. Star a film credit (he was one of the 17 producers on the film). However, the lack of on-screen recognition belied the power he wielded as director of the board of directors who screened films privately and then voted on the letter rating to be imposed.

Even some critics gave the new letter-coded classification the benefit of the doubt in the early 1970s, agreeing that their decisions, unlike those of the old Production Code, were based more on sociology than theology. Still, two young members of the Rating Board, appointed on a one-year scholarship, wrote a scathing criticism of their methodology, published in the New York Times in 1972.

They accused Dr. Stern, for having meddled megalomaniacally, editing scripts before scenes were filmed and then edited, and tolerating gratuitous violence but being puritanical about sex. They alleged, among other things, that he warned Ernest Lehman, the director of Portnoy's Complaint (1972), that the focus on masturbation in the film version of Philip Roth's novel risked an X rating.

"You can have a love scene But as soon as you start unbuttoning or unzipping you have to cut, ”Dr. Star quoted in The Hollywood Reporter about sex in movies.

The Times article led to letters in which Dr. Stern has been commended by several directors, including Mr. Lehman, who said that Dr. Stern's advice actually improved his final cut of "Portnoy's Complaint". Times film critic Vincent Canby sniffed, "If Mr. Lehman was really influenced by Dr. Stern's advice two years ago, he should sue the doctor for wrongdoing."

Dr. Stern argued that the scoring system, while imperfect, served multiple goals. Among other things, he said it had repelled even more restrictive definitions of profanity by Congress, the courts and the local authorities; and it warned people of what they found intrusive as mores developed and society became more acceptable.

"Social growth should make the rating system obsolete," he told the Los Angeles Times.

Aaron Stern was born in Brooklyn on March 26, 1925, to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. His father, Benjamin Israel Stern, was a carpenter and his mother, Anna (Fishader) Stern, was a housewife. He grew up in Bensonhurst and Sheepshead Bay and was the youngest of three children and the only one born in the United States.

After graduating from Brooklyn College in 1947, he earned a master's degree in psychological services and a doctorate in child development from Columbia University and a medical degree from Downstate Health Sciences University, State University of New York.

In addition to his stepdaughter Mrs. Klein, his wife Betty Lee (Baum) Stern survived; two children, Debra Marrone and Scott Stern, from his first marriage, which was divorced; two other stepchildren, Lauren Rosenkranz and Jonathan Otto; and 13 grandchildren.

Dr. Stern was introduced to Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association, by a neighbor in Great Neck, New York, Robert Benjamin, a senior executive at United Artists. He first began to review films for the club and was hired by Mr. Valenti in mid-1971 as head of rating administration.

He left the country in early 1974 to join Columbia Pictures Industries and eventually returned from Los Angeles to New York, where he revived his private practice. He has also taught at Yale, Columbia, New York University, and the University of California, Los Angeles, and was chief operating officer of Tiger Management, a hedge fund and trustee of the Robertson Foundation.

Dr. Stern, a senior educator at Irving Medical Center, New York Presbyterian / Columbia University, and his wife donated $ 5 million in 2019 to award a professorship and fellowship at Weill Cornell Medicine to treat patients with pathological personality disorders. The gift was in gratitude for the care he received during a medical emergency.

Dr. Stern had been interested in narcissism before his trip to Hollywood, but his experience there proved inspiring.

In Me: The Narcissistic American, he wrote that babies are born narcissistic without caring about who they wake up in the middle of the night and that they need to be disciplined as they mature to take others into account.

"When narcissism is about survival, like infancy and country founding," he wrote, "it's not as destructive as when one is established, successful and wealthy."

In 1981, Valenti told The Times that he had "made the mistake of blaming a psychiatrist for the rating system." Dr. Stern replied, "I am unable to answer that."

But he had admitted when he was still on the job: "There is no way to sit in this chair and be loved." He was constantly questioned.

Why should "The Exorcist" (1973) get an R-Rating? ("I think it's a great movie," he told director Richard Friedkin. "I'm not going to ask you to cut a frame.") Why did you originally give Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange" (1971) an X for a ménage à trois filmed at high speed? ("If we did that, any hardcore pornographer could speed up their scenes and rightly ask for an R on the same basis.") He later helped edit Mr. Friedkin's "Cruising" as a private consultant for $ 1,000 a day. (1980), about a gay male serial killer for getting an R instead of an X.

"You can only evaluate the explicit elements on the screen – never the morals or the thought problems behind them," said Dr. Stern 1972. "That is the province of religion, the leaders, the critics and each individual."


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