Earlier this month, I had the urge to rewatch Wong Kar-wai’s masterpiece In the Mood for Love. With its rain-soaked Hong Kong alleys, cheongsam dresses sculpted on Maggie Cheung’s body and Tony Leung’s angst-fueled cigarette smoking, the 2000 movie now struck me almost as affected as it had once seemed romantic. But one thing stayed the same. I remembered where I first watched it, scratching out notes to review it for the daily paper: Lefont Garden Hills Cinema.
A few days later, George Lefont passed away at age 85. For decades of my life, the theaters he operated in Atlanta clung to me like a second skin as tight as Cheung’s dresses. Long before I was paid to write about movies — as soon as I was able to drive myself — I made what seemed like very adult sojourns from Northwest Georgia to the big city of Atlanta. I drove just to catch movies at theaters Lefont owned because his theaters were the ones with the movies worth watching.
A high schooler, I caught Volker Schlöndorff’s phantasmagoric World War II epic The Tin Drum at The Screening Room in the old Lindbergh Plaza. Cautiously edging toward the closet door, I traveled with friends for that midnight station-of-the-cross — The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Later, yes, I was one of the drunken college kids who bought a ticket for Caligula at the Tara. But it was at Lefont’s Screening Room at Peachtree Battle that I began an informal education that put me on track to write with some knowledge about films — the newest titles but also the treasury of classics made in the first seven decades of film history.
As a shy nerd growing up in the woods, I’d tried to connect to the wider cultural world any way I could. As alien as it seemed, I subscribed to The New Yorker. Pauline Kael’s film reviews — passionate, belligerent, often wrongheaded but persuasive – taught me about a long-ago film world ruled by directors I’d never heard of: Lubitsch, Renoir, Varda, Kurosawa, Clouzot, Fellini, Sturges. At the Silver Screen, I was first able to see the movies that made those names famous.
Believe it or not, Gen Z’ers and young millennials, there was once a time — before streaming, DVDs, VHS tapes, Turner Classic Movies and the brief but powerful reign of Blockbuster — when the only way to see movies was to rely on the programming at repertory cinemas. That was the Silver Screen. Its flimsy monthly calendar papered many a college kid’s dorm wall, with double bills of perfectly (or playfully) matched films.
Though I don’t remember some of the more interesting pairings, the Silver Screen covered soup to nuts, film noir to the Marx Brothers. Lefont kept that model going when he added to his holdings the one-time porn venue on Ponce, the Plaza Theatre, vowing to restore it to its 1939 glory . . . or at least give it a deep cleaning and transform its old balcony into a second tiny screening room.
He loved movies, but, over the years, I heard gripes from some of his theater employees that he didn’t share their granular obsession with cinema that they did. Truth is, he didn’t have to. In 1976, he parlayed funds from a computer software company he’d started into a new money-making business: owning theaters and programming films, because he knew people would come.
He was a businessman, for better and worse. Sure, he could claim that choosing to screen The Story of O and Caligula, in the face of public scandal, was a matter of freedom of expression (an argument he won in court). Bottom line, though, he understood both movies would get titillation-seeking kids like me and my college classmates (and probably some of the films’ loudest protesters) to go see them . . . and deposit our cash at his box office.
Atlanta today is nothing like the city it once was before the 1996 Olympic Games helped turn it into the international city fervent boosters had claimed it to be for decades. Before then, when Lefont moved to Atlanta from his native San Francisco, the city was something of a cinematic offshoot of H.L. Mencken’s Sahara of the Bozart: lacking in the cultural bounty of other parts of the nation. Hungry film lovers like me and so many others were endlessly grateful for Lefont and his theaters.
When Blockbuster and home viewing challenged the rep house model, Lefont adapted. The double bills of classics disappeared, and so did the Silver Screen. (And, eventually, the Screening Room and the Garden Hills followed, and I still miss them.) He persevered, screening the best of foreign-language and independent films through the ’80s, ’90s and into a new century. If his programming was not as adventurous as in the early days, at the High Museum of Art, Linda Dubler was busy introducing the best of world cinema, filling in the gaps for movie lovers.
Dubler left us far too early 12 years ago at age 60. Now, we say goodbye to George Lefont. Through the course of their lives and work, they saw the transformation of Atlanta from a city where you had to track down good movies to a place where much of the nation’s movies (and series) are actually being made. We owe them. And we’ll miss them.
Steve Murray is an award-winning journalist and playwright who has covered the arts as a reporter and critic for many years. Catch up to Steve’s previous streaming columns here.