He wasn’t nearly as well-known as some of his colleagues, and he hadn’t been professionally active for 15 years. But John Kemeny, who passed away last week in Sedona, Ariz., at the age of 87 after a long illness, may well rank as the most successful film producer in Canadian history.
Born in Budapest, Kemeny immigrated to Canada in 1957 after the Hungarian revolution. By 1959, he was working at the National Film Board in Montreal as an editor. In the next 12 years, he produced, wrote and/or edited about 80 films. Leaving the NFB, he went on to work as a commercial film producer, partnering with Quebec’s Denis Héroux. Later, Kemeny co-founded Alliance Entertainment with Robert Lantos, though he left soon after to produce independently for Canadian television and for HBO. He retired to Europe in the early 1990s, but had recently moved to the United States.
At the NFB, his achievements included Donald Brittain’s documentary Bethune (1964); Ladies and Gentlemen... Mr. Leonard Cohen (1965); Peter Pearson’s The Best Damn Fiddler from Calabogie to Kaladar (1968), which won eight Canadian Film Awards (the predecessor of the Genies); and George Kaczender’s Don’t Let the Angels Fall (1969), one of the first English-Canadian films invited to compete at Cannes. Independently, he produced The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974), winner of a Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, and, with Héroux, Louis Malle’s Atlantic City (1980). It was nominated for five Academy Awards, including best picture – the only Canadian drama ever to receive the honour. Kemeny won two prime-time Emmy Awards, one for Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story (1989) and one for The Josephine Baker Story (1991). He earned a special achievement Genie from the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television for his contribution to the Canadian film industry in 1991.
Kemeny’s oddest film
The $12-million Quest for Fire (1981), directed by France’s Jean-Jacques Annaud, told the story of life on Earth 80,000 years ago. To cast it, Arnaud auditioned 3,000 people – in England, Iceland, Paris, New York, Toronto, Kenya and elsewhere – as well as elephants. Calling it “one of the most audacious movies ever made,” Globe and Mail film critic Jay Scott noted that “there is not a word of English or any other immediately recognizable language, and … no subtitles; the leading lady plays all her scenes nude; the leading man might be rejected by the most dedicated of heavy metal freaks as too gross.” The film won an Oscar for makeup.
Robert Lantos on John Kemeny
“John was a producer of extraordinary accomplishments. Because he never promoted himself, preferring to stay in the shadow, few in the Canadian industry today know who he is. By the time he retired 15 years ago, he had accomplished more than any other Canadian producer – ever. Five Oscar nominations for Atlantic City including best picture (still the only Canadian film ever nominated in this, the most pivotal and most coveted category), and the Golden Lion in Venice. An Oscar nomination and the Golden Bear in Berlin for Duddy Kravitz. The César (French Oscar) for best picture and an Oscar nomination for Quest For Fire. No other Canadian film has ever won either the top Berlin or the top Venice prize. He won them both, as well as a multitude of Genie Awards for these and for other films like The Bay Boy. He made some of the most distinguished HBO movies ever, such as Murderers Among Us:The Simon Wiesenthal Story, Gia (which launched Angelina Jolie) and Josephine Baker. He also made major commercial hits for Hollywood Studios, such as Ice Castles and White Line Fever. He was a pioneer and a perfectionist and a founding partner of Alliance. Homage should be paid.”