Oscar Levant would probably be better known by people born after the 1950s, if only he'd been a little less talented, or at least able to concentrate on fewer aspects of a life in the public eye. A composer, pianist, actor, author, and "personality," he managed to achieve a fair amount of fame in each of these fields -- though mostly the last from 1945 onward -- but never enough in any of them to last long beyond the time of his death in 1972. Born into a musical family in Pittsburgh, PA, in 1906, he revealed himself to be a piano prodigy at an early age and, after initial lessons from an older brother, was trained by Martin Messler (a graduate of the Leipzig Conservatory) from age seven -- Levant's early recitals (which began at age eight) included works by Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, Schumann, and Liszt. The death of Levant's father when he was 16 led his mother to take him to New York City, where he became a student of Zygmunt Stojowski and played for Ignace Jan Paderewski, the renowned Polish pianist (and later statesman).
But by the time he was 16, Levant's focus on music had been sidetracked in part by the fast-paced glamour that he'd seen on Broadway -- that, rather than the world of concert halls, was where he was most comfortable. And amid the performers, showgirls, bookies, and characters with varying degrees of shadiness, he also found a musical kindred spirit in George Gershwin, the New York-born composer who was starting to make a serious noise as a songwriter and musician. Eventually, Gershwin would meld the worlds of Franz Liszt and Tin Pan Alley together, and Levant would be there with him, already straddling those worlds, bridging Paderewski and Damon Runyon. He toured as a cabaret musician, making a splash in London in the mid-'20s, and later, with the advent of talking pictures, made his way to Hollywood, even as he kept his hand in "serious" music, working with Robert Russell Bennett on the latter's "March for Two Pianos and Orchestra." He also played with Gershwin, joining the composer for a two-piano rendition of his "Second Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra," and embarked on his own composition career with the highly successful "Sonatina for Piano" (1932).
Meanwhile, in Hollywood, he became a serious presence in the world of film music, writing pieces -- including an opera entitled Carnival -- that were woven into the fabric of a wide array of dramatic movies of the 1930s. He was also discovered as a "quotable" personality during this period, good for newspaper copy and the columns, as when he observed, leaving a showing of the 1933 film King Kong, with its bold score by Max Steiner, that it was "a concert accompanied by a movie." Meanwhile, he also studied composition and harmony with Joseph Schilinger, and later with Arnold Schoenberg, and had his "Sinfonietta" premiered in 1934 at New York's Town Hall, under conductor Bernard Herrmann.
By the end of the 1930s, Levant's music was being performed on the same programs with that of Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern, even as he continued to write for movies and concertize -- the most notable of his performances was a memorial concert at the Hollywood Bowl for his friend Gershwin, who had passed away suddenly in the summer of 1937, where he performed the latter's "Concerto in F." He continued writing music for the concert hall and for movies, as well as adding the Broadway shows of George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart to his range of activities. During the early '40s, however, Levant seemed to undergo a transition -- he became more visible as a radio personality, and ceased most of his work as a composer for the concert hall in 1942. He also embarked on a serious recording career for a time with Columbia Records, and appeared as himself in the Warner Bros. filmed biography of Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue, with Robert Alda portraying George Gershwin and Herbert Rudley as Ira Gershwin. Levant began making increasing numbers of film appearances, while his recitals -- including his Carnegie Hall debut in 1949, doing the works of Gershwin, Honegger, and Khachaturian -- became much less frequent.
By the early '50s, Levant had achieved a peculiar type of stardom. He was well known to the public far beyond the ranks of concertgoers, thanks to his appearances on radio and, increasingly, in movies -- he was essentially the co-star, alongside Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, in Vincente Minnelli's An American In Paris (1951), essentially playing a composite of himself and composer David Diamond, and was a serious box-office draw. In Minnelli's The Band Wagon (1953), he did a straight acting role as a fictionalized stand-in for Adolph Green. Yet, for all of those successes onscreen and elsewhere, there was also an unsettled and unsettling side to Levant that came through, mostly in the form of canceled performances and a neurotic edge even to his best work that made it impossible for him ever to be more than a supporting actor in a movie or a featured guest on a television show.
A combination of neuroses, botched therapy and medication, and a host of other personal demons blighted Levant's life just below the surface of what one saw in his best public appearances. He also looked older than his four or five decades, possibly a result of stretching himself too thin professionally. And amid all of this activity, he managed to write a series of brilliant, witty, and piercingly funny autobiographical books that are as fascinating and enlightening in the 21st century as they were in the mid-20th -- A Smattering of Ignorance (1940), The Memoirs of an Amnesiac (1965), and The Unimportance of Being Oscar (1968) are all worth tracking down, even a half-century after their publication. Perhaps his most accidentally revealing role -- though how much anything is an "accident" in a life such as his is questionable -- was in Minnelli's drama The Cobweb, in which Levant played an inmate at a sanitarium.
His recording career ended in the late '50s, not long after the last of his concerts, and Levant faded out from the media in the early '60s, a victim of too much therapy and too many attempts at medicating his various ailments. He was virtually invisible apart from the publication of his last two books during the second half of the decade. He spent his last years in virtual seclusion, and passed away in 1972, remembered best for perhaps what he was best at -- not as a concert pianist, a composer, a raconteur, or an actor, but simply as Oscar Levant, unique persona that he was. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi