The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Joan Graves, woman of international mystery

July 8, 2008 |  6:00 am

In the showbiz world, there are some people who are so press shy that you can devote years of your life in vain attempts to track them down, usually without any luck at all. The list would start with Terrence Malick, who's a total recluse; Charlie Kaufman, who seems allergic to doing any kind of interview; and of course Bob Dylan, who (hint, hint) I'd love to talk to about his amazing XM show, "Theme Time Radio Hour," which is surely the best hour of radio ever invented.

As a guy who writes regularly about the movie ratings system, I'd add another name to the list: Joan Graves, the secretive head of the Classification and Ratings Administration (CARA), the ratings board that not only charts our cultural sensitivity to swear words, sex and violence, but essentially defines for millions of parents what movie is appropriate for their kids to see.  Graves is one of the huge behind-the-scenes powerbrokers in Hollywood, since her ratings decisions can cost a studio untold millions of dollars, yet she's spent years ducking my interview requests, along with my fellow reporters. (When I asked our film writer John Horn if he'd ever gotten Graves on the phone, he laughingly said: "I've have an easier time getting Steve Jobs to talk than her.")

Etbp0707graves So imagine my shock when I discovered that Graves had given a rare interview--in the current issue of the Stanford alumni magazine. But what was really embarrassing was who she gave the interview to: my wife!

Although she is a wonderful writer and far more learned than myself about most things--you can read her regular Times young-adult books column here--my wife (real name: Sonja Bolle) pays about much attention to the movie business as I do to Chinese labor-management relations. But she was curious about how the ratings board deals with kid issues, notably the over-sexualization of our culture, so when the magazine asked, she took the assignment. I'm even more chagrined to discover that she got Graves to open up on several topics I would've loved to grill her about. Here are a few highlights:

Graves says different parts of the country, generally speaking, have very different cultural sensitivities: "In the South they care about bad language; in the Midwest about sex, and in urban areas, violence."

Graves acknowledges that over the years there has been a "ratings creep," where some film elements, like sex or violence, become more or less tolerated over time. She adds, humorously: "There are always trends. One year it seemed every film had someone urinating. Another year everybody was throwing up."

Graves also admits that she now has conversations not just with studio reps, but with the filmmakers themselves.

Joan Graves photo by Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press