New York city in the late 70’s / early 80’s was a hot mess, a city with a hangover, still wearing it’s wilted corsage, clinging to its dignity, and the beautiful bones. This was before Times Square put on her Disney Princess Dress for the tourists, before there was NoMaD, or Nolita, or Dumbo, and The Odeon was the only place to eat in TriBeca. Grabbing a drink at The Bowery involved a brown paper bag, slugged back in the vestibule of an otherwise condemned building. There was actual meat for packing in The Meatpacking District, hanging from giant hooks in loading bays along the Hudson River where The Whitney Museum of Art now stands, and actual artists still lived in SoHo. All the beards in Williamsburg belonged to Hasidic men, and the area below the Brooklyn Bridge was a wasteland where my friends and I used to slink around, sharing a warm beer, waiting for something unknown to bob up to the surface of the East River. It was seedy, and dangerous, but if you were a city kid, you knew the codes. There were certain blocks to avoid walking down, you never made eye contact on the subway, and you always carried mug money in the back pocket of your Wranglers. You could find all sorts of trouble just around the corner, if you were looking for it, but growing up in New York City meant you never had to look too hard for anything, because everything worth having was right outside the door.
I was born in Manhattan, at St. Vincent’s Hospital on 7th Ave and W. 12th St, and grew up across the East River in Brooklyn Heights, but the place where I felt most at home was The Regency Theater on Broadway and 67th St. The Regency is gone now, first shuttered, then demolished in 1999 to make room for a Victoria’s Secret, but when I was a kid, The Regency was one of a handful of great repertory movie houses in New York City. I liked The Quad, and Cinema Village for foreign imports, but The Regency was my regular haunt. It’s where I saw Gone With the Wind for the first time, and Citizen Kane. It’s where I learned about style, and the power of a snappy comeback, about shadows, and key lights, and the sound of joy in a hundred tapping feet. It’s where I took notes on every woman I wanted to be, like Lauren Bacall, Marlene Dietrich, Rosalind Russell, and Barbara Stanwyck. It’s where I decided I didn’t like pretty men, because why settle for pretty, when you could have a face with mileage on it, like Humphrey Bogart’s, or Spencer Tracy’s, or a sly sonorous voice like Orson Welles’, or William Powell’s?
In middle school, my life at home was untethered. My parents had split, and I was looking for a model of sophistication and worldliness to anchor me in the hole where my childhood had been. The movies I saw at The Regency moored me; they clung to my ribs and kept me from floating away. It’s a habit I’ve never broken; I like old movies, old buildings, old books, anything that absorbs the loss of fresh expectation, but still holds up, reconnects me when I’m scared, to what I think of as myself, even if it keeps me from fully engaging in the current culture around me. It’s my escape, and it’s done me wrong, like any escape will do if you take it too far. I’m always a little out of touch. My children are disappointed when I can’t sit through an episode of some show that everyone’s talking about, and I never know the name of the band that’s playing on the radio unless everyone in it is dead. When I was young, I was impatient with other young people, which made me a ridiculous snob. I am no longer young, and I’m still impatient, with myself most of all, but I don’t regret my youthful attachments, they consoled me for the loss of a stable family, and steered me away from a messy adolescence I could no longer afford. By the time my friends at school were getting into the club scene, spending their weekends at CBGB’s, cutting holes in their fishnets with their father’s nail scissors, I had started working, and my concept of cool began and ended with Fred Astaire, and my bad boy crush was on Oscar Levant, in An American in Paris.
It’s a sweltering Sunday afternoon, at the The Regency. The Summer MGM film festival, a double bill; Gigi and An American In Paris. I’m sitting next to my friend Carmela, a little too aware of the indelible odor of vintage BO catalyzed by my own sweat coming from the armpits of the perfect blue rayon dress I’m wearing. The one from the 1940’s with a floral peplum and original metal zipper that I bought at Andy’s Chee Pees on St Marks’ place, and have worn every day since. The seat is lumpy, the rubber soles of my disintegrating white Keds stick to the wooden planks of the floor, and I’m challenging myself not to eat a single piece of popcorn. Double bills are the best. We’ve seen double Marx Brothers, and Rita Hayworth in Gilda and The Lady From Shanghai, and Gene Tierney in Laura and Leave Her To Heaven, a favorite of ours for the scene where she sits, motionless, in a rowboat, wearing a white terry cloth robe with padded shoulders and dark glasses, her lipstick shiny as a waxed red apple, watching, as her husband’s disabled kid brother drowns in the lake. She wants her husband all to herself, an impulse that seems reasonable enough to us because we’re 13 going on 30, and therefore ruthless. But today, when the lights go down, and everyone else around us disappears in the dark, we’re going to France.
An American in Paris stars Gene Kelly as Jerry Mulligan, an ex-G.I. who stayed in Paris after the war to become a struggling painter in very clingy trousers. Jerry lives in a tiny garret above a café on the Left Bank, right across the hall from his buddy, Adam Cook, an out of work composer and concert pianist, played by Oscar Levant, in a slouchy gray suit with coffee stains on the lapels, a half-spent cigarette dangling from his lips. It’s Paris, so there’s Love, in the form of Leslie Caron, as Lise, a wide-eyed uber-gamine with killer legs, a tiny waist, and a benefactor called Henri, played with unscratchable smoothness by George Guetary. It’s Boy meets Girl, Girl pushes Boy away, because:
The plot is almost beside the point. The film was bought and sold by the producer, Arthur Freed, on the title alone. It’s a Technicolor dreamboat, designed to showcase the music of George and Ira Gershwin, and the dancing and choreography of Gene Kelly. It’s bright. It’s jazzy. It’s sexy. The sets are beautiful and the music is so good that it’s still being played, and sung, by musicians the world over. “Embraceable You,” “I Got Rhythm,” “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” “S’Wonderful,” and “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” may not be on Billboard’s Hot 100, but if anyone is still singing Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You’” in a soft spotlight in front of a velvet curtain with fresh flowers in their hair 40 years from today, I’ll be pirouetting in my grave. Hollywood is, and was, Hollywood, so it all works out in the end for Clingy Trousers and Tiny Waist, after Smoothy falls on his sword.
The truth is, I love this stuff. I really do. When I was 13, I could sing the entire Gershwin songbook from start to finish, and I spent a million hours in front of the mirror in ballet class wishing I had the tiny waist and killer legs of Leslie Caron, but, An American In Paris, for all it’s confectionary brilliance, wouldn’t have held me longer than the subway ride back to Brooklyn if I hadn’t fallen so hard for the guy who spends most of the movie throwing witty asides, and playing the piano so everyone else can sing, and dance, and push like hell to get love, or fame, or their ego polished.
Oscar Levant had big, dark, sad, eyes, and was a bona fide piano virtuoso. A child prodigy who segued from playing concerts to Broadway musicals to the movies, and later, much later, became famous for his self-deprecating wit, and his guest appearances on quiz shows and late night talk shows like “Information Please” and “Late Night With Jack Parr.” In a time before it was acceptable to showcase your private misery on TV, he told the truth about his struggles with mental illness and drug addiction, and did it with a ferocious charm that dared you to love him anyway.
He was also a composer. He wrote the music for the song “Blame It On My Youth,” a fact I didn’t realize when I was wearing out a cassette tape of Chet Baker’s rendition from the film Let’s Get Lost on my Walkman, in a room at Blakes Hotel, on location in London for one of those early 90’s TV mini-series with an international cast of old movie stars, and people like me, who didn’t know how lucky we were.
For years at a time I’d forget about him, but the imprint was there, working its way into other fixations, like the one I had on Jon Cryer. I didn’t really relate to the movies he was in, I just thought he was dead sexy. His resemblance to Oscar Levant didn’t occur to me when I met him in a trendy dive bar in Hollywood, the year I moved to Los Angeles. It might have been the effect of too many vodka Gimlets, or the shame I felt afterwards for having gushed all over him, but it was only months later, when he asked me to be in a film he was producing, that it dawned on me. The eyes, the mouth, the gangly limbs. It did nothing to diminish Jon’s particular charm, but I think it had something to do with it.
And just last year, in a fit of nostalgia, I was bingeing on books set in 1960’s New York City, and happened upon Nora Johnson’s The World of Henry Orient. It’s about two teenage girls, growing up in the city, and their mutual obsession with a famous concert pianist called Henry Orient. I read it. Then re-read it. Then tore through Nora Johnson’s memoir, Coast to Coast, which confirmed my hunch that the title character, Henry Orient, was based on her own girlhood passion for Oscar Levant. Now, I keep The World of Henry Orient on my bedside table, for times when I forget who I am in the night, like I used to do in hotel rooms in Africa, India, Budapest, or Yuma, Arizona, making movies, and it restores me to a time and place before I had to choose between what I might have wanted, and what I thought I had to do.
When I first saw An American in Paris at The Regency, I didn’t know how lonely it could be waiting around on a film set, or how auditions don’t get easier the more you do them, or why being an actress made me feel less and less dimensional, like I was stretching the smallest part of myself too thin. I didn’t know that just when you think your leading man might have more going for him than the golden ratio of eyes-to-nose-to-lips, you catch him checking out his hair in the camera lens before the shot, which makes you feel embarrassed for both of you. Back then, I didn’t know much, I was just pretending, but I did know that Oscar Levant’s Adam Cook was my kind of guy. I was taken with his droll delivery, and the way he always seems to be a part of the scene, playing the piano while Gene Kelly flexes his muscles and sings, but also outside of it, as if he has other, more amusing things on his mind. He doesn’t get The Girl, but he isn’t really trying. He seems to be waiting for the girl who can’t be won over with the usual song and dance, and that’s the girl I wanted to be. It is a musical, so he does sing, and dance as well, and he pulls it off, but even when he’s just the accompanist, the guy sitting at the piano in the corner of the frame, I couldn’t take my eyes off him.
Two scenes in the movie best illustrate the Oscar Levant effect. The first is a fantasy scene. It opens with Adam, lying on the bed in his tiny room above the café, smoking, staring at the ceiling, then you hear the sound of a conductor tapping his wand against a podium, and a piano begins to play Gershwin’s “Concerto in F.” The image dissolves into Adam, in a tuxedo, sitting at a piano, in front of an orchestra cast in shadow. His hands are flying, and he’s almost levitating off the bench, his hang-dog profile transformed into a study of controlled mania, and then, the camera shifts up to the conductor, and it’s also Adam, his dark forelock escaping the confines of the brilliantine, and he’s going at it with his wand, looking less than pleased with the Adam at the piano. We hear the sound of violins stampeding over the trilling piano as the camera pans over and yes, it’s Adam, multiplied by five, all of them playing the violin. When the camera pulls wide, revealing the orchestra and we see that Adam is, in fact, playing every instrument. It’s an orchestra of Adams, playing their hearts out. And when the music stops, there is polite applause, but up in the balcony, one lunatic, also Adam, is standing and screaming “Bravo! Magnifico! Encore!” It’s the ultimate revenge scene of the Second Banana, a full five minutes of screen time, playing every role. And he’s a goofball. He’s a genius goofball.
The second scene is set back downstairs, in the café. Adam sits between Jerry and Henri, who are counseling each other about relationships, swaggering on about the perfect girl they’ve fallen in love with. What they don’t know, is that they’re both swooning and crooning about the same girl, Lise, but Adam knows. He knows because he’s been the go-between, the one who introduces Jerry to Henri, and the only one at the table who stops talking long enough to watch what’s going on. While Jerry and Henri congratulate each other, Adam does a slapstick routine with a cup of coffee, a cigarette, and a glass of brandy, first spilling his coffee all over himself while calling the waiter for the brandy, then lighting one cigarette, then another, blowing smoke into his coffee cup, stubbing a cigarette out in his brandy, before knocking it back, his eyes glazing over, as he slips into a trance-like state of anxiety over the disaster that’s waiting to happen. For me, it’s the best choreography in the whole movie, because without it, it’s all too seamless. He makes a complete mess of himself, but he’s the only guy who really knows the score.
That’s what I loved about him, and what draws me still. Oscar Levant in the role of Adam Cook, which was, like all of the roles he played in films, a thinly disguised version of himself, was letting me in on the secret it’s taken me half of my life to understand; everybody’s a fool for something, but it gets more interesting when you know it. I felt like a fool for 25 years, pursuing a career as an actress, wondering why it never felt connected to what I loved. I felt like a fool when I started to write, and still do, but now, finally, I am a willing fool, or at least a knowing one. Wandering backwards, thinking about all of this today, I can see that everything I wanted to be when I was 13, I already was. All the posing, and striving, and yearning for love, or safety, or fame, or whatever it was I thought I was supposed to be, I didn’t need it, not the song, or the dance. Because I’m a city kid. It was all right there. I just had to stop looking so hard to find it.
Mia Sara was born and raised in New York City, and at the age of fifteen began a career as an actress. Her acting credits include Legend, Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, Timecop, Queenie, A Stranger Among Us, Jack and the Beanstalk: The Real Story, and many others. After twenty-five years of night shoots, she remembered that she’d always wanted to be writer.
Mia Sara’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Chapparal, The Cossack Review, Edison Literary Review, Superstition Revie, poemmemoirstory, The Southampton Review, The Write Room, Smartish Pace, PANK, Cultural Weekly, among others. The Dusie Press published her chapbook, Still Life With Gorilla, in 2014. Her column “Wrought and Found” ran for two years on the PANK blog, and is now a regular contributor at Barrelhouse Magazine with he column “Not Your High School Girlfriend.” She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and children but misses New York every single day.