By Eleanor Ringel Cater
When I heard that George Lefont, the man who made Atlanta a movie town for over 40 years, wasn’t doing well, I went looking for some of my old articles on him. After all, I’d been writing about him since the late 1970s.
What I found wasn’t a few articles but a file folder almost two inches thick. That’s the kind of difference Lefont made to Atlanta movie lovers. I shiver to think what movie-going would’ve been here without him.
Sadly, Lefont died this week at the age of 85 from complications related to Parkinson’s disease.
Lefont was the Reel Thing…. and then some. An enterprising and successful businessman who just happened to love film. And, luckily for us, shared that love with our city. He was, quite literally, the Man Who Kept Cool Movies Alive in Atlanta.
If it weren’t for George, there would’ve been no one to introduce Atlanta’s sometime recalcitrant, always unpredictable movie audiences to pictures that played Cannes, Toronto, Telluride, Venice, Berlin, Sundance and other world-class festivals.
If it weren’t for George, events like the Atlanta Film Festival, the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, the French Film Festival…well, the list goes on and on…may not have happened.
If it weren’t for George, Atlanta would’ve never seen movies by Truffaut, Fellini, Tarantino, Kurosawa, Bergman, Merchant/Ivory, the brothers Coen, the brothers Taviani, Jon Waters.
If it weren’t for George, Atlanta would’ve been a pretty pathetic and cinematically bereft landscape.
In 1976, George moved here from his hometown of San Francisco, switching from software, where he made a small fortune, to celluloid. He bought a tiny theater (formerly part of a doomed chain of theaters named after Jerry Lewis) in the Peachtree Battle Shopping Center. He named it the Silver Screen and programmed a revolving calendar of art movies, indies, alternative movies and revival-house classics. One week he showed nothing but train movies.
In 1982, the building was razed, replaced by a Talbot’s and a nail salon. But that didn’t stop Lefont. His empire kept growing. Over the next several decades, he would own dozens of screens. The Ansley Mall, the Screening Room, the Garden Hills (where he showed “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” for eons). There was a theater in Toco Hills. Another in Marietta. In Athens. The Tara (rescued by Chris Escobar). The Plaza (ditto). The Midtown. The Lefont Sandy Springs.
Only George would show “Caligula” and “The Story of O” (it ignited a court battle, which he won), then turn around and screen “Howard’s End” and “Room with a View.” His French Film Week earned him a Legion d’Honore from the French government. He once devoted a month – a month! – to celebrating Stanley Kubrick, showing everything from “Paths of Glory” to “The Shining.”
When he played the sublime “Babette’s Feast,” he treated a handful of lucky movie folks to a re-creation of the picture’s glorious title meal at the Ritz Carleton.
George was too good of a businessman to put purity over profit. His philosophy from the very beginning was “Everything takes care of each other. A movie like ‘Amadeus’ helps cover the more marginal films like ‘Barfly’ and ‘Colonel Redl.’ (Great pictures! Stream ‘em!) He even showed “Jaws 3” at the Plaza, something he swore he’d never do again. Pragmatism can only take you so low.
Lefont dabbled in restaurants, too. The sexy, sorely missed jazz club, Zazus, across Peachtree from Piedmont Hospital, and later, a few blocks down the road, the elegant Coach and Six.
Perhaps not surprisingly, his favorite movie was “Casablanca,” in which Humphrey Bogart runs a joint not unlike Zazus. When asked why he moved to Atlanta, George used to jokingly quote Bogart: “I came here for the waters. (Pause) I was misinformed.”
Whatever the reason, we were so lucky he did.
Yet Lefont always thought he was the lucky one. He once said as much: “I’m lucky. It’s not everybody who can do what they love doing, make a pretty good living at it, and have people thank them for it.”
Thanks, George. Thanks a billion, zillion times.