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George Kaczender, right, talks with Don't Let the Angels Fall star Arthur Hill on location in Vaudreuil, near Montreal. (National Film Board of Canada)
George Kaczender, right, talks with Don't Let the Angels Fall star Arthur Hill on location in Vaudreuil, near Montreal. (National Film Board of Canada)

Canadian filmmaker George Kaczender was ‘an actor’s director’ Add to ...

Sept. 14, 1978: The opening night of Toronto’s third annual Festival of Festivals (later renamed the Toronto International Film Festival, now in full swing). Things were supposed to be festive, but the mood at the 1,600-seat Elgin Theatre was foul. There was a transit strike and a torrential rainstorm, and about 350 soaking, irate ticket-holders were cooling their heels outside the Yonge Street venue.

Festival organizers had reportedly sent out too many invitations to the premiere and had oversold “I Want it All” festival passes. Adding to the nightmare, many single tickets admitted two people, possibly in error.

“Usually, you figure a certain percentage of those you’ve invited won’t show up,” explained festival director Wayne Clarkson in a front-page Globe and Mail story the next day. “Well, it didn’t work that way. Everyone has shown up.”

The 8 p.m. start time was delayed 45 minutes. “A lot of people yelled for their money back,” The Globe reported, “and at one point, the crowd broke past the ushers and started running to get into the screening. ‘Stop!’ yelled a cinema employee holding his hands up and then disappearing into the rush of bodies.”

A weary Mr. Clarkson emerged and announced, “There are no more seats.” The mob hissed and booed. Up went angry cries of “fraud!” and “shame!” But, he assured, there would be another screening later that night at a nearby cinema. He also offered refunds, “whether it’s $40 or $50 – whatever. Just leave – please,” The Globe reported.

Around then, the police arrived and an officer asked what movie was causing the furor. George Anthony, then-entertainment reporter for the Toronto Sun, told a TIFF oral history posted online that when informed, the cop mused, “All these people are rioting to get into a Canadian film?”

But this was no ordinary Canadian film, and that was reason No. 2 for the tumult. In Praise of Older Women had already benefited from a publicity windfall over demands by the Ontario Board of Censors to cut two minutes showing a steamy love scene between actor Tom Berenger and one of his female co-stars.

The film’s director, George Kaczender, and producers, Robert Lantos and Claude Héroux, refused. After much tense and public back-and-forth, the board reduced its demand to just under 40 seconds of cuts. The filmmakers grudgingly agreed, at least publicly.

Meantime, an uncut version of the film was shipped from Montreal, where the movie was shot, and stashed in the projection booth at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre, alongside the censored edition. The censor board’s approval labels were then quietly switched between the two, so the story goes. “We defied them and played an uncut print,” Mr. Lantos recalled with some satisfaction a few days ago. When the film was released in Ontario theatres, it played with the 40 seconds missing, but it went uncut in Quebec and British Columbia, as well as in the United States and Europe, he added.

Inside the Elgin that fateful night, federal Secretary of State John Roberts stoked the controversy, telling the cheering audience that “because of the actions of the Ontario censor, it is time for an active affirmation that censors shouldn’t tell people what they should or should not see.”

The screening went off without a hitch.

In Praise of Older Women “stood out in an era of mostly tax-shelter movies, wherein B-movie American actors and filmmakers starred in faceless, bland movies that weren’t really about anything and set in generic environs,” said Toronto film critic Shlomo Schwartzberg. “This was adult cinema, and a distinct boost to a then-fledgling, forgettable Canadian film industry. It also reminded people that Ontario was a censorious place.”

Mr. Kaczender, who died of cancer on Aug. 24 at his home in Century City, Calif., at the age of 83, took great umbrage at the censor’s demand. He called it “an insult both to the Canadian film industry and to me personally.”

Even the outrage was delivered with a Mittel-European courtliness for which Mr. Kaczender was widely known. “He was distinguished, always elegant,” Mr. Lantos recalled. “I never saw him lose his temper. He was fundamentally calm and poised. He loved smoking his pipe. He was always well-dressed.”

And he was a mentor to Mr. Lantos, who went on to produce some 70 movies and television series and collaborated with Mr. Kaczender on two other films, The Agency, which starred Robert Mitchum, and 1981’s Your Ticket is No Longer Valid.

“I owe a great deal to George Kaczender because In Praise of Older Women was the film that launched my career,” Mr. Lantos told The Globe and Mail. “George not only directed it, but helped me develop it from scratch. He found the screenwriter and made the introduction between me and Stephen Vizinczey,” the author of the novel on which the film was based.

“My early filmmaking lessons were all from him,” Mr. Lantos went on. “I really did not know how a movie was made. I went through that process organically for the first time with him and he was the master, I was the novice.”

Like Mr. Lantos, Mr. Kaszender was part of a wave of artists who made their way to Canada as political refugees of the 1956 Hungarian uprising – a group that included journalist George Jonas, novelist and publisher Anna Porter and fellow filmmaker John Kemeny.

Born in Budapest, on April 19, 1933, George Kaczender studied film in a country that revered the medium as an art form.

Hungary’s 1956 revolution against Soviet oppression broke out while his father, Jeno, a factory owner, was out of the country on business. The senior Mr. Kaczender stayed put and the rest of the family joined him, then they travelled together to Austria, France and finally to Genoa, Italy, where a ship sailed for Halifax.

Because he spoke some French, Mr. Kaczender got an editing job at the National Film Board in Montreal the day after arriving, his wife said. A francophile, “his dream was to live and make films in Paris,” Joan Kaczender said in a phone interview from Los Angeles. “But then he heard about Montreal and the NFB and thought it would be similar.”

Mr. Kaczender directed and edited award-winning documentaries and short dramatic features at the NFB from 1956 until 1969. “They were the happiest days of his life because they left the artists alone and they were able to spend all the time in the world to create art,” his wife said.

In 1968, he wrote and directed the award-winning feature Don’t Let the Angels Fall, starring the Saskatchewan-born Arthur Hill as a married Montreal businessman who has a fling. It became the first English-language Canadian feature invited to the main competition at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival. (It didn’t win.)

There followed five theatrical releases through the 1970s, with In Praise of Older Women snagging four Canadian Film Awards (which became the Genies, then later the Canadian Screen Awards) in 1978. In 1981, he made Chanel Solitaire, a biography of Coco Chanel shot on location in France. But it opened in the United States.

“It’s too risky to open the film in France,” Mr. Kaczender reasoned at the time. “You never know how the French will react to a film that is made about a French personality in English. Also, Chanel wasn’t a darling in France. She wasn’t a patriot.”

Mr. Kaczender was “an actor’s director,” Mr. Lantos said. “He spent considerable time with his actors discussing the back story that wasn’t in the script, helping them form the character, finding the psychological reasons they behaved as written. There are directors who are consumed by the technology of filmmaking. He was not among them.”

Mr. Kaczender’s first marriage ended in divorce. He met his second wife, a dancer, at auditions for Your Ticket is No Longer Valid.

In the early 1980s, he decamped for Hollywood. “He had two reasons,” Mr. Lantos recalled. “He didn’t like the weather in Montreal and he thought he would have greater opportunity in Hollywood.” Asked whether the opportunities were as plentiful as he had hoped, Mr. Lantos said, “I don’t think so. But he never regretted it. He liked his life there.”

In California, Mr. Kaczender focused on made-for-TV movies and miniseries, directing episodes of dozens of shows, including Falcon Crest and Night Heat.

Being schooled in the ways of love seemed a red thread in his artistic life. In Praise of Older Women told of a young Hungarian man who meets a married woman in her 30s, the first of several mature lovers who teach him a thing or two. Mr. Kaczender also wrote two novels: An Unreasonable Notion of Desire, published in 2000, told the story of Gabi Fodor, a Hungarian émigré film director with a jaded view of Hollywood who believes that a romance with an older woman would lead to regaining his lost youth and dreams; and 2013’s Notebooks of an Incurable Romantic, in which Gabi Fodor survives the Nazi occupation of Budapest and communism of Hungary, a tale interwoven with his later relationship with a beautiful film student in Los Angeles.

From 2002 to 2004, Mr. Kaczender taught film direction at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television.

In his last few years, Mr. Kaczender worked with Noel Hynd, a friend and screenwriter with whom he had collaborated as an editor on revised editions of espionage novels by Mr. Hynd and true crime books by Mr. Hynd’s father, Alan. “His eye for language was magnificent and his knowledge of history and, shall we say, human fallibility were wonderful assets,” Mr. Hynd said.

Mr. Kaczender leaves his wife, Joan; son, Justin; and a daughter, Ingrid.

As for those 40 spicy seconds in In Praise of Older Women that caused the censors to clutch their pearls (Mr. Lantos said the scene depicted Tom Berenger and co-star Karen Black. Another co-star, Marilyn Lightstone, told the Globe it was between her and Mr. Berenger), “By today’s standards, [the sequence] would easily play on prime time television,” Mr. Lantos said dryly, “and, in fact, it has, several times.”

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