Saturday, February 7, 2015

Gershwin home movies: who ARE these people?

Oh how I wish I had encountered this little snippet of greatness when I was in my Oscar Levant fever back in 2012-13.  Now, every time I ferret out a snippet of Gershwania (which rhymes with mania), I find Oscar. In this clip he's acting more than outrageous, crouching on the ground beside George and pulling up his pantleg, then lunging at him as if to kiss him, only to be pushed away. One can see the contrast, a Mutt n' Jeff quality at work: the long and lean, rather princely being who knew he was a genius, as opposed to the squatty, bulging-eyed, cigarette-sucking madman, the Mephistophelian jester at Gershwin's royal court.

Even here, though, there's a funny vibe going on. I'm partway through my first Gershwin bio, a short one by Walter Rimler, and it's more of an overview, a way of preparing myself for the big one by Howard Pollack, considered the textbook. I can't wait to read about all the ramifications of his brain tumour and the bizarre symptoms that proceeded it, such as squashing up chocolates and rubbing them all over his body.

(Did he think it was cocoa butter, I wonder?)

But I want to get close, and it doesn't seem as if Gershwin HAD a "close". He may not have. His work could burgeon with emotion, and some of it, particularly Porgy and Bess, can be very dark indeed. But what about the man? Did anything or anyone really stick to him?

I see him as being charming and charismatic, not to mention self-absorbed as a baby, but having a touch-me-not quality about him that must have infuriated his women. Yes, "women": he kind of had them in bulk. In fact, one young woman, one of many disciples who had moved her husband and children to New York just to be near him, finally broke down and asked him, "Do you love me?" He answered, "No."

The upshot of all this was that he attracted a very large flock of fairweather friends.

"Samuel Behrman, the playwright and memoirist, described his reaction when he first heard Gershwin at one such party: "I felt on the ­instant, when he sat down to play, the newness, the humor, above all the great heady surf of vitality. The room became freshly oxygenated; everybody felt it, everybody breathed it."

And while this is the stuff of greatness, it's also the seeds of codependence, the breeding ground of hangers-on. I am sure that everyone sucked on his magnetism, drained it dry. Being quite naive and underdeveloped emotionally, with almost no capacity for real intimacy, he might not  even have noticed that he was being vampirized. But loyalty actually ran perilously thin in his life. When he was terminally ill, Ira's wife Lee banished him to another apartment, not wanting to see him fall down and drool. The multiple girl friends, not quite knowing what to do, drifted away. His personality became more and more bizarre and unpredictable. 

If friends trickled away, Oscar Levant didn't. He stuck by his friend doggedly, even though he had a severe phobia of illness. There was a bit of speculation in the Levant biography that he was sexually attracted to Gershwin. I've also heard people speculate that GG was gay, bisexual or asexual, and that his girlfriend-gathering amounted to a massive coverup.

Levant seems to have loved and even devoured women, until he got married to a gorgeous dame (June Gale) who loved and looked after him for the rest of his life. After that, there's not much about affairs. But what about that undercurrent? All of Levant's close male friends (Copland, Horowitz, Isherwood, and on and on) were known to be gay. In his very strange Memoirs of an Amnesiac, he mentions homosexuals/homosexuality many, many times, as if he's driving around and around and doesn't know where to park.

It doesn't matter, in the long run. But what is interesting is how Levant WASN'T left alone. He could be an awful curmudgeon, caustic, and even dangerous when into the prescription drugs. But people stuck by him. Codependence, yes, but this time it turned out differently.

How we die, I've always thought, says a lot about the way we've lived. Gershwin died in a hospital room after failed brain surgery, his temperature 106.5. No one was with him. Now we know people in comas often hear and know and sense. Did he know he had been abandoned, allowed to die in an empty room, not even a doctor or a nurse at his side?

Levant, now. Another strange death, but different. Candice Bergen, then a young and gorgeous magazine reporter, had interviewed him for an article, and came back the next day to take a few pictures. Oscar was looking forward to another nice chat with this beautiful woman, played the piano for a while, said he felt tired, then went upstairs for a nap.

The next scene was surreal: Candice Bergen standing by Oscar Levant's bed, realizing there would be no interview. He was cold and inert, his wife making frantic"arrangements" on the phone. After all the thrashing around, the mental anguish, drug abuse, and (it seems likely) agonizing conflict about his sexuality, his life ebbed away as gently as the tide.

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