The Censoring and Selling of Sizzle: In Praise of Older Women

“Banning any film today only arouses controversy and brings it a publicity value it does not deserve.” Omri Silverthorne, Chair of the Ontario Board of Censors (1934-1974), in 1963. (Globe and Mail May 7, quoted in Dean 141).

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In Praise of Older Women (George Kaczender, 1978) is based on Stephen Vizinczey’s 1965 book In Praise of Older Women: The Amorous Recollections of András Vajda. The book is a first person narrative, and the film recreates the recollections perspective by having the central character provide voice over commentary. Tom Berenger plays András, but the recollections of András are confusingly voiced by Barrie Wexler. The book is structured by various topics, which the film transposes into a series of women, using titles for each woman’s name and year.

Starting in Hungary during World War II, fatherless boy András (Ian Tracey) is separated from his mother, but thrives as a black marketer and pimp. A Countess (Monique Lepage), who prostitutes herself to officers of the occupying forces, provides a sexual initiation. Several years later, the teenaged András (henceforth Berenger), reunited with his mother in Budapest, suffers an awkward attempt at sex with his girlfriend (Marianne McIsaac) before finding solace in the arms of a neighbour (Karen Black) with a wayward husband. The relationship ends when András cheats on her with her friend, an envious divorcee (Marilyn Lightstone).

After another failed encounter with a young woman (Alberta Watson), András meets and moves in with a violinist (Susan Strasberg). His activities as a student revolutionary oblige him to flee when Soviet forces enter Hungary in 1956. Once in Canada, he moves in with Paula (Alexandra Stewart), a ‘frigid’ but accommodating separated business woman, and meets Ann (Helen Shaver), a woman with a boorish husband who desires András but stops short of being unfaithful. For no clear reason Paula eventually leaves the country, and after a few years the now liberated Ann seeks out András. After a second unsatisfying sexual encounter, the film ends with them as a couple. The narrator András claims to have learned from his love affairs and reached a level of maturity concerning relationships, undercut by a close up freeze frame of a red rose.

Despite a background of serious political, social and sexual issues, the film attempts to maintain a light tone, largely through some salacious dialogue and inappropriately comic music accompanying most of the sex scenes. There is narratively appropriate nudity of Berenger (but not Tracey) and the eight women, and several scenes of simulated sex. The use of lighting, camera angles, and furniture to obscure genitals or more explicit activity is sometimes obvious.

In Praise of Older Women first played privately at Cannes, and was sold to distributors in fifty countries (Green, “This Party”). The premiere was planned for the opening night of the 1978 Toronto Festival of Festivals (now the Toronto International Film Festival), with wider release to follow after the festival premiere. However, a dispute between the producers and the Ontario Board of Censors put the showing in doubt. Most censor boards passed the film uncut, with age restrictions. Quebec rated it suitable for viewers over 14 (“Praise Big at Box Office”) while the MPPA rated it Restricted. Alberta requested a cut of about 37 seconds, which the distributor agreed to, and New Brunswick requested a shorter cut (Scott, “Censor Threatens”).

The Ontario Board of Censors requested a cut or cuts in order to approve the film, but there is disagreement about the extent of the cuts requested. According to the government ministry responsible for the Board, the Board contacted the producers to discuss possible cuts but the producers refused to negotiate (Green, “No Praise”). The producers held a press conference, with the film’s stars in attendance, and claimed that they had tried to negotiate down from nine cuts totaling two minutes by offering the Alberta cut. However, they claimed the Board had refused to negotiate and as a result they were forced to go public, and announced that the film would play uncut (Scott, “Producers”). The Board later claimed that the producers had exaggerated the requested cuts (Scott, “A Wild”). Most sources repeat the producers’ claim that a two minute cut was requested (for example Johnson 46, On Screen).

After the producers’ press conference, the Board and the producers met, and at a subsequent joint press conference they announced a compromise: one cut, usually reported as 38 seconds. However, Lantos continued to publicly claim the film would be shown uncut, at least for the festival, without saying how. A private showing was one rumoured possibility (“Compromise”).

The controversy spilled over into federal/provincial relations and party politics: In a speech at the premiere, (federal) Secretary of State John Roberts (Liberal) played to the crowd by attacking censorship, a provincial responsibility, stating “We don’t really believe that censors have the right to tell people what they should or should not see” (quoted in Johnson 51). Provincial minister Larry Grossman (Progressive Conservative) later noted this attitude was “totally out of touch with Ontario citizens” (quoted in Dean 150).

After the festival showing, there were rumours that the uncut version had been shown, even though a Board representative had verified the seal on the film at the theatre (Green, “No Praise”). Later books on the festival claim that reels were switched and the uncut version shown (Johnson 51, Marshall 21). The Board never commented regarding which version was shown.

During the 1970s the Board did not have written guidelines and did not provide information on reasons for cuts.[1] The requested cut was to a sex scene with Berenger and Lightstone (Kirkland, “Marilyn”; Johnson 47). This scene has less nudity than other sex scenes, but the woman is on top. Film critic Brian Johnson suggests this was problem with the scene (47). The scene also has an element of aggressive spontaneous raw sexuality missing from most of the other sex scenes, which may have aroused censorship passions.

The Board’s request to cut this scene, considered from a perspective of thirty years later, seems ridiculously quaint. The request for the cut also seems parochial, since a year before the In Praise of Older Women controversy in Ontario, In the Realm of the Senses (Ai no corrida, Nagisa Oshima, 1976) had played at the Montreal World Film Festival without cuts or concerns (Johnson 35). However, the requested cut is justifiable in light of the political and social context of late 1970s Ontario.

Changes in the film industry during the late 1960s and early 1970s had put pressure on Canadian boards to liberalize. Quebec’s Régie du cinéma started phasing out censorship in 1967 (Dean 165), and Manitoba moved to classification only in 1972 (128). In Ontario, long serving Board chair Omri Silverthorne called for the end of censorship within two years, in 1971. However, an Ontario government investigation criticized the Board’s “concern for cultivating a reputation for liberality” and called for more censorship, especially of foreign films (147). A government sponsored poll concluded less censorship would not be accepted by Ontario residents (149).

In 1974 the government appointed a nearly retired broadcaster with no censorship experience to replace the retiring Silverthorne. A year later, amendments to the Theatres Act tightened censorship. Sex shops showing 8mm films and Film Festivals came under the jurisdiction of the Board. The sex shops were relieved to have the government take over the burden of cutting potentially illegal material from their films, while Stratford Film Festival director Gerald Pratley complained that censorship of festival films was not even practiced in Moscow (Dean 148). There is evidence some still found the Board too liberal. In 1975, the Ottawa police morality squad seized a cut version of Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS (Don Edmonds, 1974) that had received Board approval (149).

A high profile crime in 1977 put additional pressure on the Board (Dean 149). A twelve year old boy was sexually assaulted and killed, and his body was found on the roof of a sex shop on Yonge Street in Toronto. The sex trade, including films with sexual content, became guilty by association, and there was a massive campaign to clean up the street (Toronto Star).

With the Board under government direction and public pressure to ensure films were sexually moral, it is understandable that one of the more energetic sex scenes from In Praise of Older Women was considered transgressive. The first sex scene, involving a boy, seems a more likely candidate for cutting in light of the murder, but the scene is brief and very discreet – suggestive rather than implicit. In addition, the murder was sometimes described with the loaded phrase homosexual murder. In the sexual climate of the times, homosexuality was sometimes considered abnornal, while sex between boys and women was and is often considered normal or even beneficial.[2]

External forces justify the Board’s request to cut, and the content of the film does not present any defense for leaving the film intact. Some might argue that a film should never have to defend itself, but government censorship in a democracy must respond to those who believe, rightly or wrongly, that films have to justify transgressive content. Justifications include the political or social message of the film, and artistic merit.

Some films are controversial due to their use of shocking imagery to make a particular point. For example, the close up of penetration during the violent rape sequence in Baise Moi (Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi, 2000) is important because, according to the director, “That’s what rape is. It’s not about the eyes and mouths or looks or anything else. It’s about a d[ick] going in a hole” (“Movie Ban”). While the image of a lusty divorcee straddling a young man may be shocking to some, there was no significant social point in it. Like several other sex scenes, this was not a liberating representation of female sexual desire, but rather a conventional representation of male fantasy of female sexual desire. The existence of the narration reminds viewers that the events are András’ recollections, and the often petulant behaviour of András shows him to be far too self-centered to consider female desire. Lightstone claims the point of her character “jumping” András was “to poke fun at this horny lady” (Kirkland). It could be argued that the Board was trying to protect the dignity of horny ladies by cutting this scene, but not that the Board was trying to suppress a point of any great importance.

Another argument for not cutting a film involves respect for the narrative or artistic achievement of the film. These are qualities noticeably absent from In Praise of Older Women. The first sex scene establishes the shallowness of the narrative. In voice over, the mature András speaks of the Countess’s gift to him and becoming a man, with no hint of irony and no appreciation of the social and personal chaos caused by the war. Nothing in the film suggests this is a case of an unreliable narrator. At the same time, the efforts at serious narrative distract from the film’s value as a soft-core spectacle. Visually the film is competent but uninspired, and too restrained to be an entertaining soft-core. Aurally there are poor choices of intonation and music.

Gerald Pratley’s A Century of Canadian Cinema describes In Praise of Older Women as “a trite soft-core sex film” with a “badly miscast” lead actor (Pratley 106). Producer Lantos lamented in 2004 that In Praise of Older Women is overlooked in the history of Canadian films, not because of any artistic accomplishment or influence, but because of how much money it made (On Screen).

Judging this film by current standards may be unfair, but contemporary reviewers were no kinder. Jay Scott appeared to be looking forward to the film. During the censorship controversy, he called it a “major Canadian film based on a bestselling, highly acclaimed-novel”, and “the possible highlight of the festival” (Scott, “Censor Threatens”). His subsequent review attacked the adaptation, narration, performances, and lack of characterization, often in vicious terms. He acknowledged that the film was at least a sexy sex comedy, but not art (Scott, “The Blueing”). Bruce Kirkland noted that the film did not live up to the “hype,” and that despite a promising cast, “something has gone terribly wrong with this movie.” He concluded “In Praise of nothing” (Kirkland, “Promising”).

The Board had justification to cut the film, and it is hard to defend the film against cuts on the grounds of art or message. Although the scene in question has sexual energy, it is not strong enough or long enough that the film is elevated by the scene’s presence or hurt by its absence. However, the Board exercised poor judgment in requesting the cut.

Board chair Donald Sims noted that “we look at films 52 weeks a year and nobody says anything” (Scott, “Censor Threatens”). He should have realized that requesting cuts to a film making its world premiere as a festival opener would not be received quietly. A year earlier, for the 1977 festival, the Board requested a lengthy cut (1,000 feet) from Je, tu, il, elle (Chantal Akerman, 1974) (Johnson 35). The showing was cancelled, and a press conference held to denounce the censors (Scott, “Censor Threatens”).

Sims accused the producers of creating a censorship controversy over In Praise of Older Women for publicity purposes (Scott, “Censor Threatens”). Especially with this film, he should have seen the publicity machine coming. The writer, Paul Gottlieb, claims that Lantos manufactured numerous scandals to promote the film while it was still in production. In one case, Lantos called police to report a separatist riot during filming of Hungarian student protesters on location in Montreal. The large police response resulted in front page newspaper coverage (On Screen). Other publicity included a three page layout in the October 1978 Playboy magazine, featuring Berenger, Shaver, Black and Stewart.

The press conferences and announcements served to promote both the film and its sexual content. This was widely acknowledged at the time, with one article calling the Board’s actions “a publicist’s dream” (Scott, “A Wild”). Two thousand tickets were sold for the premiere, which took place in a 1600 seat theatre, and as each ticket promised admission for two, the show was significantly oversold, resulting in more media coverage. The controversy faded quickly, due to poor reviews and more controversial Board decisions that were harder to justify, with films that presented stronger defenses against censorship. By 1980, under a new chair, the Board slowly began a series of reforms, and by 1991 the Board was again under attack for being too liberal.

In hindsight, it is easy to say that the Board should have set aside concerns about In Praise of Older Women to avoid promoting the film, but they were civil servants doing their jobs and may not have had this option. Ultimately, the roots of the controversy may lie with a public uncertain about what is acceptable on screen. Resulting controversies over censorship are both the expression and the resolution of the uncertainty. They lead to public discussion about what is acceptable, informing both the politicians who control censors and filmmakers, and for better or worse, promote films that push or claim to push boundaries.

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“What a dreary film. It’s hard to know who’s going to be more disappointed – those of us who got in or those who didn’t.” Overheard after the premiere of In Praise of Older Women. (Green “No Praise”)

Bibliography

“Compromise Reached on Cuts to Gala Film.” Globe and Mail, 9 Sept. 1978, p. 31.

Dean, Malcolm. Censored! Only in Canada: The History of Film Censorship – the Scandal Off the Screen. Toronto: Virgo Press, 1981. A well researched and thorough history of film censorship in Canada (until 1980), however the writer states his purpose is to contribute to the end of censorship, and the bias is sometimes obvious.

Green, Robin. “This Party Would Put a Dream to Shame.” Globe and Mail, 29 June, 1978,
p. 8.

—“No Praise for Older Women Publicists.” Globe and Mail, 18 Sept, 1978, p. 8.

In Praise of Older Women. 1978, George Kaczender. DVD. Thinkfilm, 2004. The DVD appears to be uncut. The Internet Movie Database claims a sex scene featuring Shaver has been reframed to reduce explicitness, but this claim may originate from comparing the film to production stills. A still of the scene, more revealing than the film, is reproduced in Dean (129). The film was remade in Spain as En brazos de la mujer madura (Manuel Lombardero, 1997), set in Spain during and after the civil war. It played at the 1997 Toronto International Film Festival.

Kirkland, Bruce. “Marilyn: In Praise of an ‘Older Woman’.” Toronto Star, 10 Sept. 1978,
p. B1.

—“Promising Cast in Confusing Film.” Toronto Star, 15 Sept. 1978, p. D1.

Johnson, Brian D. Brave Films, Wild Nights. 25 Years of Festival Fever. n.p.: Random House Canada, 2000. A glossy mix of facts, gossip, tales of sexual adventure, drug choices of the stars, dirt on critics, and some information about films and the challenges of a film festival.

Marshall, William. Film Festival Confidential. Toronto: McArthur, 2005. The author, one of the founders of the Toronto International Film Festival, notes this is a personal history of his thirty years involvement with the festival.

“Movie Ban Shocks Less than Baise-moi,” Toronto Star, 1 Dec. 2000.

On Screen: In Praise of Older Women. Soapbox Productions, 2004. A made for cable documentary included as an extra on the DVD used for this paper. Johnson repeats comments from his book, and Lantos waxes nostalgic about this early point in his career. The censorship controversy is extensively discussed, but no-one speaks for the government or defends the censorship request. It is not clear if the entire documentary is included on the DVD. The item is undated but the date was obtained by personal communication ([redacted]).

“Praise Big at Box Office.” Globe and Mail, 30 Sept 1978. p. 17

Pratley, Gerald. A Century of Canadian Cinema: Gerald Pratley’s Feature Film Guide, 1900 to the Present. Toronto: Lynx, 2003. Capsule reviews, with some comments on how specific films fit into Canadian film history.

Scott, Jay. “A ‘Wild’ Film Festival Reaches Puberty in its Third Year.” Globe and Mail, 25 Sept 1978. p. 13

—“Censor Threatens In Praise of Older Women: The Festival of Festivals’ Gala Premiere may not be Shown at All.” Globe and Mail, 7 Sept 1978. p. 18

—“Producers Say No Cuts, but Older Women ‘Will be Shown'” Globe and Mail, 8 Sept 1978. p. 15

—“The Blueing of Stephen Vizinczey.” Globe and Mail, 15 Sept 1978. p. 14

Toronto Star “Metro’s Sex Scourge Keeps Plans a Secret,” “All Out Fight Promised to Clean Up Yonge St,” “8 More Charged in Sex Crackdown,” “The Yonge Street Strip’s War Zone: ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ battle for Dominance”). 12 August 1977, p. B1.

Vizinczey, Stephen. In Praise of Older Women: The Amorous Recollections of András Vajda. Toronto: Contemporary, 1965. Revised edition Collins/Totem, 1978. The revised edition includes a postscript in which the author provides “a commentary on his own work.”

[1]. Information may be in the Board files at the Government of Ontario Archives, however much of the material is protected by privacy laws and requires application through the Freedom of Information Act. This is a slow process and thus the files could not be reviewed for this paper.

[2]. According to a developmental psychologist and expert in children’s rights, sex between boys and women can be at least as mentally damaging to children as sex between girls and men, but our society often considers the former positively and the latter negatively. (redacted)

Copyright © by Tim Covell, 2007, All Rights Reserved.

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