Saturday, December 27, 2014

Oscar Levant: Walking The Fine Line Between Genius And Insanity

We're approaching sixty years since Oscar Levant (1906-1972) was active as a concert pianist, composer, author, actor, and comedy genius. He's likely unknown to a generation of Americans now, but that doesn't mean he's ready for history's dustbins. Quite the contrary. There must be something important about Oscar Levant if Hollywood director Ben Stiller is developing a film based on the entertainer's life. 

Although Levant's presence on the entertainment spectrum is broad, his greatest impact was as a concert pianist, comedian, and author. He was trained in classical music in Pittsburgh and New York and divided his musical time between Hollywood and Broadway as a young performer and composer. He became a close friend and associate of George Gershwin and his extended family of stars and admirers. With Gershwin's early death in 1937, Levant would become known as the finest interpreter of his work for almost two decades until the end of his own career as a performer.  Levant's Hollywood association not only led to his role as a composer but also as an actor. Although his filmography is short it contains a host of memorable, mostly comedic scenes involving song, dance and wit. Here are two clips of Levant at his best:

From the 1951 film, An American in Paris,

and from the 1953 film, The Band Wagon.

Finally, there is Levant, the writer. He wrote three memoirs, two of them best-sellers. His Memoirs of An Amnesiac (1965) is a recollection of his often weird and tattered life as well as a tour de force of wit and wisdom aimed at Hollywood's famous and infamous personalities beginning in the 1930s.  His The Unimportance of Being Oscar appeared in 1968. Although both books are a bit dated, readers with some knowledge of popular culture and politics from the Golden Age of Hollywood in the 1930's to the entertainment world of the 1960's would certainly find both books entertaining reads.

The one thread moving throughout his career was mental illness, a condition that eventually became the core of his stage persona. It was an odd therapeutic for Levant and it brought laughter to millions...

By the late 1960's Levant's mental and physical condition deteriorated significantly, his drug dependency increased, and he withdrew from public life.

There is a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line.
                                                                                              Oscar Levant, 1959

Indeed there will never be another like him.


ClassicalNet biography, Oscar Levant

This is an extensive revision of a post from 2012.

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