What do the Jewish hairdresser from Jakob the Liar, Lex Luthor's significant other from Superman Returns, the handsome brute from A Streetcar Named Desire and the perky Penguin from Madagascar have in common? The Polish surname Kowalski. They're like the Smiths of America, Germany's Müllers, China's Li and Korea's Kims. Kowalskis have been sprouting up all over American screens for many years, becoming a living symbol of Polishness. But are they anything like the real Poles? Culture.pl presents cinema's most important Kowalskis.
A Streetcar Named Desire – Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski
Blanche: You healthy Polack, without a nerve in your body, of course you don't know what anxiety feels like!
Stanley: I am not a Polack. People from Poland are Poles, not Polacks. But what I am is one-hundred-per-cent American, born and raised in the greatest country on earth and proud as hell of it, so don't ever call me a Polack.
Brutish, commanding and strong, cinema's most famous Kowalski was Stanley Kowalski played by Marlon Brando in the 1951 film A Streetcar named Desire, directed by Elia Kazan. He managed to create a character that was repulsive and seductive at the same time; one who had no control over his emotions and was never too far from being drunk. American post-war cinema's best looking bastard no doubt.
The role of Kowalski was Brando's ticket to Hollywood. The theatrical performance of Tennessee Williams' play brought the actor 550 dollars a week in 1947. Four years later, for the screen adaptation, he earned 80,000 dollars, and forty five years and several roles later he got the round sum of five million dollars for a ten minute long supporting appearance in Christopher Columbus: The Discovery.
Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino – Walt Kowalski
Stanley wasn't the only one who made Poles looks angry and unfriendly. The racist bigot portrayed by Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino was called Walt Kowalski. He made offensive jokes about the blacks and Indians and was annoyed, to put it gently, about an Asian family moving in next door.
But in the end, it turned out that despite his set ways, Walt Kowalski stood up for the less fortunate. The Vietnam veteran was ready to risk his life in the defence of a boy from his neighborhood pursued by local gangsters. Through his film Clint Eastwood showed that the descendants of Polish immigrants in America don't have to be solely associated with dirty Polacks like the infamous family from Andrew Davis' The Fugitive.
Vanishing Point – Kowalski to Poland, Kamiński to Hollywood
Eastwood's number one prop was the Ford Gran Torino which Walt Kowalski gave to his new friend. The on-screen Kowalski's all seem to be fanatics of the Top Gear type and their cars are symbolic of upholding American values. The 1970 Dodge Challenger from Richard C. Sarafian's 1971 Vanishing Point played a similar part. The film's protagonist was another Kowalski, a former race car driver now working for a car delivery service. Kowalski bets his dealer that he will get from Denver to San Francisco within 15 hours. His fast and furious driving attracts the attention of police officers who are forced to chase him across Colorado.
Sarafian's film is one of Hollywood's most famous action road movies and a 70s classic. In the many interviews he gave, the director never explained why he chose for the protagonist to have a Polish surname. But it can be observed that the adrenaline junkie had a lot in common with Poles – he was an anarchist who valued his freedom over his life.
The film has another affinity with Poland. Vanishing Point was watched by the sixteen-year-old cinematographer-to-be Janusz Kamiński and brought him closer to the understanding of and longing for a world in which you have to fight for your freedom and dreams. In a New York Times interview he explained:
The majority of the kids like me growing up in Poland under communism, we thought that America is, you know, the place to be. For me, I saw America not as this country of plenty, this country of wealth, where everyone has a car and everyone has a house, but as a country of freedom, where the individual is free, the ideology is free. That is why I so much wanted to come here.
Blade Runner – a replicant with a moustache
The majority of Kowalskis were tough and dangerous. The same went for Leon Kowalski played by James Brion. He lacked Brando's sex appeal and Barry Newman's rebellious nature, but he had a moustache which made him undeniably Polish.
But Leon wasn't human. He was a replicant – a dangerous bioengineered being that has to be killed – masquerading as a waste disposal engineer. Replicants are identical to people, so in order to distinguish between them, the Blade Runners from Scott's movie have to run an empathy test. Is the treatment of animals is an essential indicator of someone's 'humanity'? Check the video.
The Penguins of Madagascar – Kowalski, a renaissance penguin
Not the last non-human Kowalski, Kowalski the Penguin is one of nine characters who protect their home in the Central Park Zoo. The Polish-surnamed flightless bird is the tall and funny one. He acts as the group's strategist and gadgeteer who invents but cannot read. His knack for over-analysis and lyrical exaltation sets him close to his compatriots from Eastern Europe.
Gravity – Matt Kowalski, mister universe
The Kowalski of Madagascar may turn out to be the most self-confident of the whole family. Brando as Stanley might even envy his ways with the ladies. His only competition is Matt Kowalski. The protagonist of Gravity, played by none other than George Clooney, mesmerizes even through his seduction-proof space suit. Clooney's character isn't, however, the first Kowalski in space. Charles Kawalsky (with the Americanised spelling) was a major in the United States Air Force from Stargate. His character was portrayed by John Diehl and Jay Acovone in the series.
A Canadian Kowalski in Due South
The friendliest on-screen Kowalski was from no other country than Canada. The 90s drama series' Ray Kowalski is a Polish-American detective with the Chicago Police Department. He came to Chicago looking to hunt down gangsters in the city jungle. Ray's full name is Stanley Raymond Kowalski. His father was a fan of Marlon Brando who decided to name his son after A Streetcar Named Desire's Stanley Kowalski. The Canadian Kowalski, however, prefers to go by his middle name, Ray. He gained the affection of viewers and the internet is full of Ray Kowalski remixes and compilations of sorts.
Mrs Kowalska aka Lex Luthor's girlfriend
While the male lineage of characters with Polish roots is evidently more prominent, there's one memorable female Kowalski. It's Kitty Kowalski, Lex Luthor's (Kevin Spacey) significant other in Superman Returns. Portrayed by Parker Posey, she's a bit naive, daft perhaps, making her a perfect weapon in the hands of the supervillain.
Jacob Kowalski – the pączki-loving sidekick
One of the newest Kowalskis to hit the big screen is Jacob Kowalski from the film Fanatastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The film, an extension of the wizarding world of Harry Potter, tells the story of Newt Scamander, British wizard and ‘magizoologist’ who studies magical animals. He carries a magical expanding suitcase full of specimens of these extraordinary species. During his journey to New York City, he accidentally swaps suitcases with the decidedly un-magical… Jacob Kowalski. Kowalski is a genial aspiring baker who dreams of opening his own bakery. His grandmother who passed down her recipe for pączki, instilled in him a love for baking.
Played by Dan Fogler, Kowalski ends up being accidentally exposed to New York’s magical community. Chaos quickly ensues. And the kind and clueless Kowalski has no choice but to go along for the ride.
Looking at the list above, it seems Hollywood prefers male Kowalskis: the Kowalski label is reserved for bad guys of the sort that can be played by Brando, Eastwood and Clooney. And the occasional penguin.
Originally written in Polish, translated by Mai Jones 6 May 2014, updated by NR, 18 Jan 2017