Thinking about Carrie Fisher and her early exit in that horrible year of 2016, we have to consider her mental illness and how she was able to mine brave comic energy from her life. Here is another story: One of my favorite people of the 20th century, Oscar Levant (1906 – 1972). Alexander Woollcott, a member of the Algonquin Round Table, once said of him:
“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with Oscar Levant that a miracle can’t fix.”
Open about his neuroses and hypochondria, Levant, was addicted to prescription pills and was frequently committed to mental hospitals. Despite his afflictions, Levant is considered a genius in many disciplines.
“There’s a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.”
Levant was sad, ironic, self-deprecating and wildly talented. I have every reason to think that he was a bisexual. I have a smart friend that insists that he certainly was not, and an equally savvy friend that claims that he knows for certain that he had liaisons with guys on occasion. Levant’s life proved to be more interesting than that of his good friend George Gershwin, whom he possibly was involved romantically. Perhaps this is because he lived for so much longer, and because of Levant’s numerous talents other than music.
Levant was a notorious wit; he was so funny that he could afford to be obnoxious and insulting, yet still count on being a welcome guest in the homes of his many famous friends.
A perceptive musical theorist, Levant knew the art of composing music for films. It was he who coined the phrase “Mickey Mousing,” in reference to film scores that slavishly commented upon the action. But, the longer he stayed in Hollywood, the more he became famous as a “character” rather than a musician.
The public first became aware of Levant’s acidic wit when he was a frequent guest on the Information Please radio program. After 1940, he spent more time as an actor than as a musician, appearing in the films: Humoresque (1945), O. Henry’s Full House (1952), and The Barkleys Of Broadway (1949). He was at his best in two classic MGM musicals: An American In Paris (1951), where he appears in a dream sequence playing every member of the orchestra in a performance of Gershwin’s Concerto In F; and The Band Wagon (1953), in which he and the late Nanette Fabray play characters that were thinly disguised versions of famed lyricists Adolph Green and Betty Comden, profound wits themselves.
Levant’s personality can be summed up by a pair of his most oft-repeated witticisms:
“In some moments, I was difficult, in odd moments, impossible, in rare moments, loathsome, but at my best, unapproachably great.”
“I am the world’s oldest child prodigy.”
Levant moved to New York City at 16 years old to study music under such piano masters as Leopold Stokowski, Arnold Schoenberg and Joseph Schillinger. Before reaching his 20th birthday, he had gained renown as a concert pianist, teacher, band leader and composer. In 1927, he played a songwriter in the Broadway play Burlesque opposite Cher.
During his time in Hollywood, Levant became best buddies with Gershwin and by the mid-1930s Levant was perhaps the greatest interpreter on the planet of Gershwin’s works.
From 1947 to 1949, Levant regularly appeared on the NBC radio show Kraft Music Hall, starring Al Jolson. He not only accompanied singer Jolson on the piano, he also joked and ad-libbed with Jolson and his guests. The pairing of the two entertainers was inspired. Their individual ties to George Gershwin (Jolson introduced Gershwin’s song Swanee), undoubtedly had much to do with their special rapport. Both Levant and Jolson appeared as themselves in the Gershwin biopic Rhapsody In Blue (1945).
In the early 1950s, Levant was a panelist on the NBC game show Who Said That?, where celebrities would try to determine the speaker of quotations taken from recent news reports.
Between 1958 and 1960, Levant hosted a local television talk show in Los Angeles, The Oscar Levant Show, which later became syndicated. It featured his piano playing, plus monologues and interviews with top-name guests from Fred Astaire to Linus Pauling.
While he continued with his popularity well into the 1960s, Levant’s mood swings and increasingly erratic behavior began having professional repercussions. He was nearly banned from television when he quipped about Marilyn Monroe‘s conversion to Judaism:
“Now that Marilyn Monroe is kosher, Arthur Miller can eat her.”
When asked by television host Jack Paar what he does for exercise, he replied:
“I stumble, then fall into a coma.”
When urged by Paar to describe his reaction to Milton Berle‘s conversion to Christian Scientist, he quipped:
“Our loss is their loss.”
As time went on, only late-night host Paar would risk having Levant as a guest, and when Paar left television in 1965, so did Levant. Paar, in later years, would sign off by saying:
“Good night, Oscar Levant, wherever you are.”
In and out of mental institutions during his last two decades; his final film, Cobweb (1955), directed by Vincente Minnelli, starring Richard Widmark, Lauren Bacall, and Gloria Grahame, is ironically set in a sanitarium.
Despite his deteriorating physical and mental condition, he was able to turn out three terrific, very funny memoirs: A Smattering Of Innocence (1940), The Unimportance Of Being Oscar (1968) , and The Memories Of An Amnesiac (1965).
Rarely without a cigarette his adult life, Levant was taken by a heart attack in 1972. He was just 66 years old.
He was the inspiration for the neurotic pianist in the fabulous film The World Of Henry Orient (1964).
He composed one of my favorite songs of all time, Blame It On My Youth, a song in my own repertoire.
Here are just some of his quips:
“So little time and so little to do.”
“What the world needs is more geniuses with humility, there are so few of us left.”
“I’m a concert pianist, that’s a pretentious way of saying I’m unemployed at the moment.”
“I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.”
Levant was in the cast of Day’s first film, Romance On The High Seas (1948), in which she played a bad-ass showgirl very different from the virginal ingenue characters that later brought her stardom.
“I have one thing to say about psychoanalysis: fuck Dr. Freud.”
“The only difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is that the Democrats allow the poor to be corrupt, too.”
“It’s not a pretty face, I grant you but underneath its flabby exterior is an enormous lack of character.”
“The best kind of guests are the ones that know when to leave!”
“Happiness isn’t something you experience; it’s something you remember.”
“I don’t drink. I don’t like it. It makes me feel good.”
“I envy people who drink, at least they know what to blame everything on.”
“I have given up reading books; I find it takes my mind off myself.”
“Strip away the false tinsel from Hollywood, and you find the real tinsel inside.”
“It’s not what you are, it’s what you don’t become that hurts.”
“Every time I look at you, I get a fierce desire to be lonesome.”
“I am no more humble than my talents require.”
I’ve been in four hospitals in the last six years. I’ve had insulin shock therapy, electroshock therapy and psychotherapy. One of these days, I’m going to do this show in white tie and straitjacket.