I was watching the Astaire-Rogers opus The Barkleys of Broadway the other night and was once again struck by the wit and musical ability of Oscar Levant (1906-1972). I've known him by his role in Barkleys as well as his most famous film, An American In Paris and the one liner attributed to him about Richard Nixon ("He'll doublecross that bridge when he gets to it.")
Now I'm finding myself needing to read the man's memoirs and I understand he had a TV show in the late 1950s. Whenever I see him on film, I am immediately taken with his scene-stealing, caustic, self-deprecating wit, which, apparently was all too real in his personal life, making himself the butt of his own jokes. He's about as original of a performer/personality as I've ever seen or read about. He's fascinating.
I once started reading "Memoirs of an Amnesiac", but time prevented me from getting far. It was quite a funny experience, though. It's outstanding how Levant describes his family life. An unfortunate example of how close brilliancy and dementia can get...
Sardonic, intellectual wit has been replaced by rank cynicism and I think we're all the worse for it. Levant has to have been one of the most complex personalities of the 20th Century. Imagine a child prodigy who yearns to compose but becomes a close friend of perhaps the greatest American composer of his time (maybe all time). Did the words "why bother" come to mind? And how about that two-year stint with Jolson on THE KRAFT MUSIC HALL? Talk about two head cases butting heads every week!
God, I miss these witty old raconteurs who used to inhabit the TV and radio talk shows!
I'm so happy I've lived long enough to have enjoyed, first-hand, people like Levant, Noel Coward, Robert Benchley, Alexander Woolcott, Monty Woolley and some of the now more obscure ones like Ilka Chase and Alexander King.