Ty Burr
May 20, 1994 AT 04:00 AM EDT

A Talent for Genius: The Life and Times of Oscar Levant

Current Status
In Season
Sam Kashner, Nancy Schoenberger

We gave it an A-

When people under the age of 50 think of Oscar Levant, they mainly recall the rumpled supporting characters he played in films like Humoresque and An American in Paris: the cynic on a piano bench, issuing cascades of notes, billows of cigarette smoke, and wisecracks that wounded everyone in the room before plunging back into his own breast. A Talent For Genius: The Life and Times of Oscar Levant (Villard) reminds us that there was a bit more to the man. To wit, he had successful careers as (in rough order) a vaudeville pianist, pop songwriter, movie scorer, classical composer, radio quiz-show panelist, concert pianist, movie actor, TV talk-show host, and book author.

None of which were a match for his avocations: Broadway boulevardier, mooch to the wealthy, quotable curmudgeon, manic-depressive mental patient, helpless drug addict, and Beverly Hills recluse. Levant embraced so much of pre-rock American culture-its bright yin and ugly yang-that one could fill pages citing ironies and examples.

So here goes. In the 1940s, he was the highest-paid concert artist in the country-making more money than Arthur Rubinstein or Vladimir Horowitz-yet he never felt equal to his great friend and bete noire, George Gershwin. He was the ”working man’s genius,” beloved for his streetwise lip, who lived in thrall to phobias as varied as lemons, luck, Butterfingers candy bar wrappers, and George Jessel. He hosted an L.A. talk show in the 1950s-watched in voyeuristic delight by all of Hollywood-on which he discussed his shock treatments and addiction to Demerol between chatting with guests like Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, and his own psychiatrist, Dr. George Wayne. (Toward the end of the show’s run, Levant would check back into Mount Sinai after each telecast.) He once got bounced off the air for saying, ”Now that Marilyn Monroe is kosher, Arthur Miller can eat her.” He was so insecure that he signed a note to his daughter, ”Daddy (Oscar Levant).” He was the national neurotic who titled a chapter of his memoirs ”My Life: Or the Story of George Gershwin.”

Authors Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger give us this maddening sprawl of a life with clear-eyed sympathy. They paint the worlds Levant traveled-from blue-collar Pittsburgh to the Algonquin Round Table to the expatriate salons of Hollywood-and they give proper credit to June Levant, the wife who stayed him from the self-destruction he craved until his peaceful death in 1972. Maybe they go a little heavy on the Freudian analysis. Then again, Annie Levant did keep saying to her son, ”You’ll never be a Paderewski, but you’ll never be lonely.” She was wrong, at least, on the last count. A-

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