“I Didn’t Make the World, I Only Live in It:” Considering Oscar Levant

Oscar Levant in 'An American in Paris'
An American in Paris | MGM

For over two hours, Rhapsody in Blue is a struggle. The lavish George Gershwin biopic substitutes a story with a series of episodes in which Gershwin is successful at everything, filled with clichés, unimaginative musical sequences, campiness-defining death scenes, and, for good measure, blackface.

Then, as Gershwin himself passes away for maximum melodramatic effect and we, in turn, hope to be put out of this film’s misery, there’s a performance of the “Piano Concerto in F.” The soloist is Gershwin’s close friend Oscar Levant, played by Oscar Levant. It is Levant’s playing we’ve heard through the movie every time the blandly handsome lead Robert Alda sits down at the keys. Now we see the actual man as well as hearing the music.

It’s a revelation. Alda at the piano is stiff, carrying himself like a god on high, condescending to give us mortals a tune. But Levant is the opposite of stiff. He’s fluid, his body swaying with the music as he handles difficult passages. When he runs his hand the length of the keyboard, the film finally feels dramatic.

Levant spent his earlier scenes injecting humor into a “story” full of serious people having serious ideas about art and love. Now we see his own artistry as a thing to behold. And when the conductor dramatically announces Gershwin has died, Levant drops his head as if the world has fallen on him, then finishes the concerto in a shaking rapture…and we want to see him again.

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Imagine if Anthony Bourdain acted. If once a year, Bourdain would show up in a major motion picture playing the protagonist’s best friend. In each movie, Bourdain would play a chef, let the air out of the proceedings with his sardonic humor, and help his friend solve their problems and get their romantic partner with a dose of tough but real love.

This was exactly what Oscar Levant did.

By 1945, Levant was nationally known as a pianist, composer, and radio celebrity (on Information Please!, the first panel show). He’d first become famous due to his association with Gershwin and his subsequent establishment as the foremost interpreter of Gershwin’s works. But there was another side to Levant; namely, he was a hilariously caustic man who could toss out one-liners and insults with the skill of a great comedian. He was not an obvious movie star, but for 15 years, those two sides of Oscar Levant led the major studios to tap him for key roles in critical and commercial smashes. Watching these performances seventy years later is uncanny; like watching someone from our time make themselves at home in Hollywood’s Golden Age.

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Levant always played variations on himself; taking notes for this piece, I kept writing “Levant” instead of his characters’ names. For example, Sid Jeffers may be the name of the pianist in Jean Negulesco’s 1946 film Humoresque, but that moniker fools no one.

First, Sid looks real. There’s no way to overstate it. With his unruly hair, large eyes, larger ears, and fishlike mouth, Sid gives the impression he evolved from a pile of dirty clothes, coffee, and cigarettes on a tenement floor (in real life, Levant would drink 30 to 40 cups of coffee and smoke multiple packs of cigarettes per day).

Oscar Levant
Warner Brothers

Second, the similarities between Sid Jeffers and Oscar Levant’s formative years share a core emotional truth; both came of age in worlds of precariousness and bitterness. Levant grew up in Pittsburgh and had a difficult relationship with his father, Max, a jeweler who discouraged his son’s musical ambitions, and was so displeased with young Oscar’s determination to pursue music that he wouldn’t even give the child a bar mitzvah gift. Max eventually died of cancer before he and teenage Oscar could resolve their differences (Levant would have massive phobias about both Pittsburgh and death in general, cancer in particular, for the rest of his life). His mother Annie was constantly disappointed with him, irritated when at the height of his success he performed the same concertos and preludes over and over to audiences who wanted to hear them. On the day before he died, Levant would tell Candice Bergen he still believed his mother never truly wanted him.

In contrast, Sid Jeffers’ insecurity arises from being part of a world on a precipice. There is a hint of Levant’s real-life backstory; the one time Sid interacts with his family, it’s with his shopkeeper father, the embodiment of “ineffectual.” It’s more that the Depression is inescapable in Humoresque, the metronome keeping the movie’s time, as Negulesco fills the frames with imagery of the working poor, angry laments about the need for a job, and pictures of Roosevelt hung like pictures of Christ, all to create an atmosphere where survival is success enough.

Emotional and physical unfulfillment are different beasts, but both can make a man embittered from an early age, and pragmatic in how he views the world and what he would do to live in it. So it was with Levant, so it is with Sid.

Third and last, Sid’s on-screen rise to success, like Levant’s off-screen, is inextricably linked to a best friend who garners far more attention and acclaim.

The bond between Oscar Levant and George Gershwin was real but mostly revolved around their shared devotion to art. There was little sharing of honest emotional confidence or expression. Gershwin was an impersonal, occasionally arrogant man who could deliver wicked putdowns and, when angry, lash out at others, Levant included. Levant, in turn, besides bearing the brunt of Gershwin’s moodiness, was first envious of Gershwin’s string of successes composing popular and “serious” music, then found himself the unwitting caretaker of Gershwin’s legacy through his frequent performances of that same serious music, which far overshadowed Levant’s own gifts.

In Humoresque, John Garfield’s hero violinist Paul Boray is the analogue for Gershwin. Garfield is the definition of “tall, dark, and handsome,” even a little dangerous, and Boray places his desire to be a star at any cost above love, above friendship, above everything. Unsurprisingly, some of Levant’s lines sound like what he wishes he could have said to Gershwin, telling him and us society isn’t made to order for geniuses. “I didn’t make the world, I only live in it.”

Sid knows music is also a job. At one point he lands Paul a steady gig. Paul stands up for artistic integrity and gets fired. The movie treats this as heroic, but in the background Sid is staring at Paul in disbelief. Soon after, Paul visits Sid’s apartment at 3 a.m., wanting reassurance he will be a star. With genuine anger and a striving need to be understood, he calls Paul the “self-indulgent, self-dedicated man who’s the hero of all his dreams.”

“It isn’t what you are, it’s what you don’t become that hurts.”

Sid speaks this line while slouched in a ragged armchair as Paul towers over him. It’s the cynic trying to warn the idealist.

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The fight doesn’t end their friendship. Sid introduces Paul to Helen Wright, the alcoholic millionaire who funds Paul’s rise. And for the second half, Sid keeps deflating the tragic romance between Paul and Helen. This is no small feat since Helen is played by Joan Crawford at her most imperious, and Levant is one of the only actors capable of giving back what Crawford throws.

In one scene, Paul leaves lunch at Rockefeller Center, with Gina, the cute, wholesome cellist the movie insists he should be with, to calm a flaming-mad Helen. Gina is comforted by Sid the way the best friend in a romantic comedy would comfort the heroine; morale-boosting words and plenty of jabs.

 This works, and it speaks to how the Levantian character moves effortlessly between worlds and moods. Caustic one moment, tender the next. At home in both a dingy apartment and the haunts of the 1%, with the concert stage as the middle ground where everyone from every sphere meets…the concert stage being the domain where Levant wields absolute power.

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“I knew Doris Day before she became a virgin.”

So Levant said about his co-star in her breakout movie, Romance on the High Seas. Pop culture has erased that in most of her work, Day is less straight-laced and more spunky and assertive, which makes her Georgia Garrett a perfect foil for Levant’s Oscar Farrar. She keeps turning down his marriage proposals (“I know when I’m not wanted. It happens to me constantly”) but there’s never visible love between them; they’re best friends subconsciously treating his wooing as a running joke. And they make beautiful music together. The opening “I’m In Love,” performed at a swinging New York nightclub, lets us bear witness to Georgia’s melodic, breathless voice mixing perfectly with Oscar’s rapid-fire glissando.

Romance on the High Seas is the kind of musical that makes people laugh at musicals, where every 10 minutes people find reasons to sing in situations that don’t call for singing. But as he did with the biopic and the melodrama, Levant’s presence undercuts the genre he’s in as he injects his sarcastic self into the comedy around him. 

A picture builds up of Oscar Farrar as a brilliant composer who’s slumming it in New York’s late night haunts, working on his own pieces (“Is that your ‘Brooklyn Rhapsody?’” Georgia asks. “Who said anything about Brooklyn? It’s now called the ‘Caribbean Rhapsody.’ I’m very adaptable.”) but using them as a bargaining chip to land a gig leading the orchestra at the classiest hotel in Rio, where his own music takes a backseat to today’s pop. This isn’t too far removed from Levant’s own career as a composer of modern classical music. A student of Schoenberg and associate of Copland, Levant received positive reviews for the short pieces he wrote in the 1930s and ‘40s, but ultimately gave it up, in part for the guaranteed money of a purely performance-based career, in part because he believed he could never equal Gershwin.

Warner Brothers

Similarly, Romance touches on Levant’s romantic side. After a brief first attempt at matrimony, he was married to actress June Gale for 33 years despite his reputation for flirtatious behavior with younger women and his propensity for mood swings. Theirs was a marriage based on both love and Gale’s sense Levant was an exciting man who needed someone to take care of him. Similarly, despite aggressive behavior bordering on emotional abuse with his constant pursuit and self-deprecation alike, Georgia can’t help but stay friends with—and put up with—Oscar Farrar as he pursues her across two continents. To Oscar’s credit, when he realizes Georgia loves someone else, he orchestrates the untangling of the film’s bedroom farce, gives her a pep talk, and accompanies her in the last sequence as she reprises the Oscar-nominated “It’s Magic.” The final shot of Oscar sees him at the piano, benevolently smiling; from his natural perch on stage, he’s saved the day while getting a paycheck in the process.

But if those previous films drew on different touches of the real Oscar Levant, the next one is when it all comes together.

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Oscar Levant’s portrayal of Adam Cook in An American in Paris is the perfect intersection of performer and material. The film is the tribute his friend Gershwin deserved: not plotless hagiography, but imaginative, striking interpretation of his music. And writer Alan Jay Lerner and director Vincente Minnelli know exactly what to do with Levant. The role of Adam allows Levant to speak the truth about himself as never before. That he does so in a story emphasizing his unbreakable tie to Gershwin makes sense. If Gershwin both helped propel Levant to stardom and gave him his psychological scars, then it only makes sense for Levant to be fully himself, take it or leave it, in a film where Gershwin’s music never ceases.

Adam introduces himself with voiceover narration over his effortless switch from one of Gershwin’s preludes to “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” and from there all the bits of his character emerge: His self-loathing (“It’s not a pretty face, I grant you. But underneath the flabby exterior lies an enormous lack of character”). His talent as a composer and his unwillingness to compose (Adam is on his eighth fellowship with nothing to show for it as he says, “I got a job once and had to quit because I discovered I liked working too much”). His unembarrassed hunger for money and plaudits—he spends most of the film asking for cash and talking about his genius—while still being devoted to the art that sustains him.

Then there’s the way Adam Cook is depicted in relation to the idea of George Gershwin. Reflecting Levant’s own complicated bond with Gershwin, Adam has one foot within the story and one just outside it, commenting on it with wry smiles and snide remarks. The plot of An American in Paris fits right in with the lighthearted, romantic, farcical Broadway musicals Gershwin wrote: a love quadrangle Adam sees as ridiculous and makes a point to say so over and over in his dialogue. But at the same time, there’s the music, and Adam loves the music.

Take “Tra-La-La (This Time It’s Really Love).” Gene Kelly’s Jerry Goodman, having gotten a date with Leslie Caron’s Lise Bouvier, returns home in ecstasy and barges in on Adam. The lyrics find Adam shooting down Jerry’s blissful dream. (“Nothing good can happen from it,” he barks, while rhyming the song’s title with “Blah blah blah.”) But the music and dance; Jerry performs a solo bouncing from Adam’s bed to the top of his piano and back, at one point even playing the keys in harmony, which makes an annoyed Adam play a faster tempo and more resounding chords, successfully keeping up. And more happens along the way; despite his protestations of the song’s dribble, Adam cuts loose, comically dances, switches melodies, plays with one hand, and finally breaks into an unwilling grin. With this energy and joy where Adam and Jerry’s philosophies meld, you couldn’t ask for anything more.

Or you think you can’t until the “Concerto in F” sequence.

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For his previous film, The Barkleys of Broadway (best known now as a trivia question answer: what was the final film to pair Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers?), Levant’s Ezra Millar has a showcase moment performing Tchaikovsky’s first concerto, but his dynamism isn’t reflected in the lackadaisical direction.

In contrast, for his second performance of “Concerto in F” on the big screen, Lerner and Minnelli give Levant/Adam a crucial moment to shine.

Adam’s practicing, singing “I Don’t Think I’ll Fall in Love Today,” and sending venomous comments Jerry’s way. This is no accident. Over halfway through the movie, Adam is now so sick of the story, he doesn’t want to be involved anymore.

So he lays down on his bed and leaves the movie.

For five minutes, Adam escapes a world full of lovelorn piffle where nobody listens to him and imagines a world where everything makes sense. Namely, a world full of Adam Cooks. An orchestra with Adam as a disapproving conductor, multiple Adams on violin, Adam bent over a vibraphone, Adam banging a gong, and, of course, Adam truly front and center with his piano.

Oscar Levant
MGM

Minnelli shoots this with golden light, illuminating Adam and throwing all else into dramatic shadow…it looks the way a dream should look. Levant, in turn, astounds. His fingers fused with the piano, his subtly glistening face that of a triumphant, noble statue, he is not a man possessed but a man focused and dedicated. For these five minutes, the audience gets a glimpse into Adam’s inner life none of the other characters seem interested in as much as they are in responding to his jokes and casting him in the stock role of best friend. And Levant, with no other presence on screen to be a mediating factor, seems to be again talking to Gershwin. Even in my egotistical fantasy, he says, I still dream of playing your music. So I’ll play it better than anyone can.

When the “Concerto in F” dream ends and Adam returns to the world of the story, he is, unsurprisingly, not in the extraordinary final ballet, a colorful marvel symbolizing Jerry and Lise coming together.1         

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Soon after finishing An American in Paris, Oscar Levant’s nervous energy gave way to obsessions, phobias (including fears of the number 13 and seeing copies of The New Yorker), an addiction to pills—any pills lying around, including ones for birth control—and multiple stays in institutions. Levant recovered enough to launch a final act as a TV talk show host and guest who played his neuroses for laughs, and a best-selling author, but he stopped both acting and performing. He died a recluse in 1972.

Before that sad end, Levant would make two more films with Vincente Minnelli. The Band Wagon in 1953 is one of the greatest movie musicals, but Levant, recovering from a heart attack brought on by his worsening condition, is barely present and overqualified for his task. Except for a few imaginative lines, Lester Marton’s a standard-issue sitcom character, a moaning hypochondriac jealous of his beautiful wife, and his only moment at the piano is to pick out a simple tune for a sing-along. In his one song-and-dance, “That’s Entertainment!,” he looks weak and ready to collapse, and he spends the duration with a madcap grin as if convincing us everything’s fine. Levant triumphed in An American in Paris by breaking out of the musical world, but in The Band Wagon he’s trapped.

The Cobweb in 1955 is even worse. Minnelli’s melodrama set in a ritzy sanatorium, where the entire plot turns around a set of drapes (seriously), has Levant (who was by now in and out of treatment) play Mr. Capp, a man with an incurable mother fixation and an acid tongue—a true-to-life performance, thankfully only a few minutes long because it’s hard to watch. He insults nurses and fellow patients and cruelly needles the film’s juvenile hero to the point of self-destruction. There is no music, no piano. Mr. Capp is the Levantian character with its genius and anchor taken away, reduced to a vengeful id.

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Oscar Levant did two things as great as a person could do them. He played the piano, and he conveyed a sense of existential frustration. With working, with romance, with the world in general, with himself most of all. After watching him deliver snarky one-liners across multiple films without missing a beat, it’s easy to imagine him on Twitter with @dril-level popularity.

And in showing his bemused disdain for the world of Hollywood musicals, where problems get solved in spectacular fashion and good things happen with a regularity that doesn’t exist in real life, Levant is more than refreshing. He’s perpetually modern. His gifts with classical music and the great standards, combined with a knowing, almost fourth-wall breaking attitude toward the ridiculousness around him, mean he’s never truly outdated, for this or any age. He’s the 21st century, sophisticated, witty, and too cool for nonsense.

But if we are a world full of Oscar Levants, then do we not long for a bit of the music ourselves?

The best of these movies endure, entertain, and enrapture us because as dismissive and fed up as Levant is, he still wants to play his heart out. To give an audience the best show possible. To satisfy the voice within that matters most. To be the true accompanist for those who need one, on the stage or in their personal lives.

In Oscar Levant, we find more than the bridge between a man and his art, more than the bridge between us and a style of filmmaking and music on screen long since gone. We find the bridge between the world as it is and the world we dream can come into being, and like him, at our best, we try to keep one foot in both, and bring forth a little magic from the combination.

  1. There is a scene Minnelli deleted from the end of the film: Milo Roberts (Nina Foch), Jerry’s rich patron, has realized Jerry doesn’t love her and forlornly sits with her champagne, cursing herself, conveying the sense she’s never been truly attached to anyone. Adam joins her at her table, giving her space and a sense of understanding as she crumples confetti into her champagne. The scene implies they will start an artistic relationship and possibly something more. Minnelli cut it so as not to distract from the ballet, but it simultaneously feels like a trade. If Adam is rejecting the joyful and entertaining world of the Gershwin musical, the film implies, then the film will celebrate starry-eyed lovers like Jerry and Lise, and leave cynics like Adam out in the black-and-white cold of the artists’ ball.