Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Oscar Levant Follies: he sings! He dances! He plays the piano!

SO. Oscar Levant again. I don't know what it is. But I do. He was a famous genius, a famous crazy man, a crazy celebrity whom some say threw away a monumental musical talent because he wanted to be in the movies.

So he became the "Oscar Levant type", except that there was only one of them. I managed to get through his biography, A Talent for Genius, which is the kind of no-holds-barred, detail-packed, interviewing-everyone-who-ever-emptied-his-ashtrays treatment that I love. In fact it bookends nicely with the Marion Meade biography of Dorothy Parker, What Fresh Hell is This? (a Parkerism oft quoted by Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory). 

By the end of it I was slogging along, however, as his life descended into a drug-drenched miasma. He threw away his accomplishments and his happiness with both hands, and seemed to be relentlessly seeking oblivion. By some miracle - by the grace of God, or more likely his doggedly devoted wife June - he made it to age 65, the worst of his addictions and mental aberrations burned down to embers. But at his worst, he would meet with a "doctor" (think Michael Jackson and the propofol) in the middle of the night, literally in a dark alley so his wife wouldn't know, and be shot up with Demerol or phenobarbital. He told June once that all he wanted was to be "unconscious".

But that was nothing. Gasping and staggering out the other side of his biography, which I narrowly survived, I plunged into his Memoirs of an Amnesiac and nearly didn't make it at all. The last quarter of it is devoted to his "Walpurgis night" (I had to look that one up) of flailing hell, in which he speaks of his addictive desperation:

"I would have taken anything I could have laid my hands on. I was going to say that that was as low as I ever got, but I have since discovered that the pit is bottomless. There is no such thing as a lowest point."

Amen, brother - unfortunately, I hear you, because I've dropped through the bottom more times than I care to admit. And it has had little or nothing to do with drugs - it's the Walpurgis night of the mind. It did not quite destroy Oscar, a fragile, vulnerable soul with a mostly-untreated heart condition and paralyzing stage fright. Somehow his wife kept him around  long enough for Candice Bergen to come and interview him for Esquire Magazine. Maybe she was just too beautiful at 25, and it overwhelmed him, but he lay down for a nap and died that day, his soul just floating away painlessly, as sweetly and  effortlessly as he once played the piano.