Actress. Born on the 14th of May 1938 in Warsaw, died on the 17th of June 2010 in New York City.
Czyżewska graduated from the Theatre Academy in Warsaw in 1960. Jerzy Markuszewski suggested that she collaborate with STS (Students' Satirical Theatre). There the song Kochankowie z ulicy Kamiennej / Lovers from Kamienna Street was performed for the first time by Czyżewska as part of the Masked Ball programme (1958). The song later became regarded as the theatre's lyrical anthem.
She rose to stardom after appearing in Jerzy Skolimowski's Erotique, making her a sex symbol and putting her face on the cover of magazines. In the years following, she starred in several New Wave films, such as A Bride for the Australian (1963) and Where is the General (1963), breaking the conventions of the female character with her fiercely independent charm and sex appeal.
Czyżewska was romantically linked to Skolimowski, but her life changed dramatically in 1965 when she met her future husband, New York Times correspondent David Halberstam. She was starring in a production of Arthur Miller's After the Fall, at Warsaw's Teatr Dramatyczny. Halberstam interviewed her after the premiere, danced with her at the cast party and married her a short time later. However, a critical article on Poland got him expelled from the country and Czyżewska joined her husband in New York. They divorced a few years later. Halberstam, who went on to write best-selling books, died in a car accident in 2007.
From 1960 to 1966 - the year in which Czyżewska left Poland – she hardly came off the screen. Directors had plenty of offers, as she was not just another pretty blonde, but a film personality and a candidate for stardom.
Already the beginning of her career looked unusually promising. She was barely twenty-two years old when in an interview she said:
I received my Theatre Academy graduation diploma and was hired by Dramatyczny Theatre. There, still in the summer, I played the sculptor Alicja in Wydrzyński’s play ‘Uczta Morderców’ (Murderers’ Feast). Later I was one of the witches in ‘Macbeth’ and Zina in Zorin’s ‘Time of Youth’. I also played in a one-act play written by Zbigniew Herbert, ‘Drugi Pokój’ (The Other Room, as She). My last role was Kuburri in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s play ‘An Angel Comes to Babylon’. Aside from that, I play in a cyclical television show ‘On i Ona’ (He and She), with Bogumił Kobiela as my partner.
Film, 1961, No. 18
Czyżewska collaborated with the Dramatyczny Theatre in Warsaw until 1966; she made her debut playing Ill's daughter in Ludwik René's Wizyta Starszej Pani / The Visit of an Old Lady (1958). Her most memorable roles include Daisy in Wanda Laszkowska's Nosorożec / Rhinoceros (1961) and the title character in Leonce and Lena (1962). She played Miranda in Don Juan (1964) and Maggie in After the Fall (1965) in plays directed by Ludwik René. After her brilliant pastiche of Marilyn Monroe in the latter production Czyżewska was named the Polish MM. Krzysztof Demidowicz wrote:
Czyżewska did not enact the myth of Marilyn Monroe. She brought out what went beyond the individual in the history of the actress: the success, the fall, the loneliness, and the feeling of imprisonment in a reality which became hostile and alien.
Film, 2001, No. 06
Arthur Miller, who was in Poland at the time, personally congratulated Czyżewska on her role of Maggie. The actress returned to the stage of Dramatyczny Theatre in 1994 with the part of Louise in Six Degrees of Separation directed by Piotr Cieślak.
1959 was the year of her film debut, a small part in Café pod Minogą / Octopus Café. Yet it was her second role that people remembered, Renata in Stanisław Bareja's film Mąż Swojej żony / The Husband of His Wife (1960). It was a comedy in which the ubiquitous and unhealthy fascination with professional sports was ironically portrayed. Czyżewska played professor Trębski's daughter, a girl from the country with both humour and a go-getting energy. Together with Wiesław Gołas, who played the part of the boxer Ciupała, she created a memorable supporting duo.
Krzysztof Demidowicz wrote the following about the actress:
Her early days of film defined her as a screen beauty with a comedic instinct, but Czyżewska was able to free herself from the patterns she was assigned. (…) Regardless of epoch and convention, she showed her own personality from behind the mask. She was not a classic beauty, yet she was familiar and warm, and this – combined with her natural spontaneity – became her chief asset. This is our own version of the girl next door, Aleksander Bardini said about Czyżewska. She won the hearts of the audience by merging temperament with sensitivity, a strong character with romantic desires.
Film, 2001, No. 06
The actress was not only a mass-audience darling, but also a generational idol. When she made her film debut in the late 1950s, people began to search for a new type of a modern Polish girl. Iwona Kurz wrote:
Elżbieta Czyżewska encapsulated the girl type; young, pretty independent and free. She was also marked by (…) sex appeal, an elusive quality (like many other in cinema) which makes the object attractive, ideally for both sexes. (…) Acting is obviously linked to the body: It is the tool of work, and it can be its essence. (…) Czyżewska was an expressive and characteristic bodily type. (…) The embodiment of the modern girl appeared, for instance, in a tight-fitting dress and a scarf on her head, but she was holding a tennis racket. A socialist embodiment of Gombrowicz's Młodziakówna: physical fitness without a doubt, but the girly curves were highlighted, too.
Kwartalnik Filmowy, 2002, No. 37/38
The actress herself said the following about her acting:
I always act in the way I would act if I had found myself in this or that situation. It is never cool or calculated. The character played is something like a mask which allows me to do what I normally would not, what I might be ashamed of, or what I might not always be able to afford. This is why I like to play the most diverse roles, characteristic ones in particular. I do not enjoy playing just one part, that of the pretty blonde, the beautiful lady in full colour. I want to be responsible for the roles I play, and not for how I look like.
Kino, 1966, No. 01
Thanks to the roles in very well-liked and popular films she was considered the uncrowned queen of comedy. She played Hanka, a girl singing in the Polish folk group Mazowsze in Stanisław Bareja's film Żona dla Australijczyka / Wife for an Australian (1963). Wiesław Gołas was once again her partner, and this time he played the part of an Australian émigré. That same year she starred in Tadeusz Chmielewski's film Gdzie Jest Generał? / Where Is the General?. Marusia, played by Czyżewska, was a funny Soviet stickler; she was partnered with an unlucky Polish soldier, played by Jerzy Turek. Her third, possibly most successful comedy was Stanisław Lenartowicz's Giuseppe w Warszawie / Giuseppe in Warsaw (1964). This time the actress played the part of Marysia, a Polish underground army activist. The brilliant actor Zbyszek Cybulski played her brother. They both created an unforgettable comedy couple. The actress enjoyed playing in comedies. She confessed:
You have to act in an extremely serious way in comedies; the only things which are supposed to be funny are the situations in which the character finds herself. Comedy roles are one of the more delightful acting tasks - if the plan proves a success it is easier to establish contact with the audience. I prefer to watch comedies too.
Film, 1997, No. 13
What's more, Czyżewska had outstanding dramatic roles under her belt. In 1961 she played lieutenant Listek in Tadeusz Konwicki's nostalgic film Zaduszki / All Souls' Day, Dorota in Złoto / Gold Dream directed by Wojciech J. Has, and Monika in Zuzanna i Chłopcy / Susanne and the Boys. The year 1962 was marked above all by her roles of the acrobat Teresa Kwaśniakówna in Stanisław Jędryka's film about the life of circus performers, titled Dom Bez Okien / The Impossible Goodbye, and of Krystyna in Antoni Bohdziewicz's Dziewczyna z Dobrego Domu / Preppy Girl. In Godzina Pąsowej Róży / The Hour of the Crimson Rose directed by Halina Bielińska (1963), Czyżewska starred as Ania, a young and modern girl who in a mysterious way is transported to the 19th century.In 1963 the actress played the part of nurse Kazia in Kazimierz Kutz's film Milczenie / Silence. Her character was the single just person in a small-town society able to oppose the pressure from the public.
Czyżewska starred in Janusz Weyhert's film Obok Prawdy / By the Truth in 1964; she played Magda, Bartoszek's daughter. She was Urszula, a girl who hides a wounded Soviet pilot during the war, in Leonard Buczkowski's Przerwany Lot / The Interrupted Flight. In Wojciech J. Has's Rękopis Znaleziony w Saragossie / The Saragossa Manuscript she played the flirtatious Frasquetta Salero; and in Aleksander Ford's Pierwszy Dzień Wolności / The First Day of Freedom she acted as Luzzi, a young German woman.
In Rysopis / Identification Marks: None directed by Jerzy Skolimowski, Czyżewska played the parts of three different people: Teresa, Barbara and Leszczyc's wife. She said the following about her role:
‘Rysopis’ was created in unusual circumstances. It was filmed for two years. As a matter of fact, the film was made without a script, and I only knew its ‘spoken’ version which the director recounted to me.
Kino, 1966, No. 01
In Walkower / Walkover, the second part of a filmic diptych about Andrzej Leszczyc, Czyżewska played only in one episode, as a girl at the station. In Niekochana / Unloved, a film directed by Janusz Nasfeter, the actress gave an unforgettable performance. Konrad Eberhardt wrote:
Czyżewska, who plays the part of Noemi, creates an outstanding performance, possibly the best in her career so far. She plays an unassuming character, who is nonetheless heartbreaking; monotonous, yet filled with genuine sensitivity; lyrical, but at the same time ruthless in how stubbornly she pursues her aim.
Film, 1966, No. 21
Krzysztof Demidowicz chimed in:
This character is the very opposite of the vigour and energy her previous heroes had. Czyżewska's well-thought-out and rich expression made it possible to tell the story of a great love and of a tragedy of rejection with great insight. Noemi is the victim of deep affection, and she knows that either happiness or life's failure awaits her.
Film, 2001, No. 06
The actress played two more comedy roles, Gabrysia in Julian Dziedzina's Święta Wojna / The Holy War and Joanna, a daughter of Warsaw second-hand clothes merchants, in Stanisław Bareja's Małżeństwo z Rozsądku / The Marriage of Convenience. She also starred in his series Kapitan Sowa Na Tropie / Kapitan Sowa is Onto Something as Józefina Czerska in the episode Trzecia Ręka / The Third Hand (5). In addition, she played the girl from the Alps in Andrzej Kondratiuk's Klub Profesora Tutki / Professor Tutka's Club (1966), the episode titled Wykład Profesora Tutki w Wyższej Szkole Handlowej / Professor Tutka's Lecture at the College of Commerce (5).
In 1964 Czyżewska and Lucjan Kydryński starred as the hosts of the 4th International Song Festival in Sopot.
Collaboration with Andrzej Wajda
In 1966 the actress left Poland for the United States together with her husband, who was expelled from the country by the Communist government. She returned in 1968 at the invitation of Andrzej Wajda, to star in his non-famous film Wszystko na Sprzedaż / Everything for Sale. Her arrival was undesirable for the authorities, and they inspired protesting ‘open letters’ to Andrzej Wajda, including one published in the weekly Walka Młodych on April 14, 1968. Fortunately, the director did not give in and Czyżewska starred as Ela, the actor's wife (you could guess the husband was Zbyszek Cybulski, who had died tragically in 1967). The actress commented on the production:
The scenes were thought up from one day to the next. (…) During one of the nightly discussions, sometime at dawn a scene was born; I felt as if it belonged to me. It is the moment when Elka returns from the search for her husband and sees lights in the windows of her flat. She comes inside and hears water running in the bathroom; thinking the husband is inside, she yells at him through the door. This way (…) not only Elżbieta but also the audience can be under the illusion that for a second Zbyszek is alive.
Film, 2004, No. 02
Both Czyżewska and Wajda were denounced in the Polish press and Czyżewska departed for New York once again. She didn't return to Poland until the 1980s.
Career in the United States
After leaving Poland, Czyżewska played in Putney Swope, an American film directed by Robert Downey Sr. (1969). She then played one of the main parts in Aleksander Ford's The First Circle (1971), a German, US and Danish co-production. In the film based on Alexandr Solzhenitsyn's prose, she starred as Simoczka, alongside Christopher Plummer.
In the United States, Czyżewska played Juilliard Woman in Sidney Lumet's Running on Empty (1988), a Russian's wife (with Robin Williams) in Roger Donaldson's Cadillac Man (1990), Halina in Luis Yansen's Misplaced (1990), Melinda, a witness in the trial of Laszlo in Costa Gavras's Music Box (1990), Landlady in James Dearden's Kiss Before Dying (1991), as well as Dr Luft in Coming Soon directed by Colette Burson (1999). She also starred alongside Jeanne Moreau in I Love You, I Love You Not directed by Billy Hopkins (1996), a British, French, US and German co-production.In addition, Czyżewska performed as a therapist on the hit television series Sex and the City, episode Was It Good for You? (1990) she played Dr G. Shapiro. For the TV show Third Watch in the episode Jimmy's Mountain (2000) she played the part of Katrina. She scored roles in episodes of Law & Order: Criminal Intent and Damages. She won an Obie Award in 1990 for her role in Mac Wellman's play Crowbar and continued to grace the stage in performances of such plays as Janusz Głowacki's Hunting Cockroaches and Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken on Broadway and other theatres on the East Coast.
In Poland she performed the roles of Maria, Jerzy's assistant and lover, in Debiutantka / The Debutante directed by Barbara Sass; Franciszka Felińska, Maks's wife in Limuzyna Daimler-Benz / Daimler-Benz Limousine directed by Filip Bajon; and Andzia Świdrycka in Odwet / Revenge directed by Tomasz Zygadło - all in 1981.
She appeared in Piotr Łazarkiewicz's Kocham kino / I Love Cinema (1987) as Maria Borkowska, the mother of Paweł, and as Małpka, an underground resident, in Jan Łomnicki's Szczur / The Rat (1994).
Czyżewska performed in Andrzej Wajda's The Possessed at Yale Repertory Theatre. She often performed in off-Broadway theatres. At the beginning of the 1990s she played in Roger Durling's play Canal Zone. The actress said:
It is a play about Panama in the last days of Noriega's dictatorship. (…) I play the part of a woman whose son left to study painting in the United States and discovered he was gay. For the mother living in a Latin culture it is particularly hard to accept.
In Nowy Dziennik (1992), a daily newspaper for the Polish community in the US, Maria Kornatowska wrote about Czyżewska's part:
It is a performance in a spirit of Witkacy. It is fascinating and unpredictable, on the border of reality and imagination.
In her article Kornatowska quoted a review of Czyżewska's performance published in El Diario, a Spanish New York daily:
While Jessica Lange works up a sweat each night on Broadway playing in ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ and trying to convince us of her vision of Blanche Dubois, Czyżewska – who stars in Durling’s play – could inspire the late Tennessee Williams himself to create a new heroine.
Kino, 1992, No. 09
A retrospective of the actress's films from the 1960s was held in New York in 2005, it accompanied the review of current Polish cinema, The New York Polish Festival.
Czyżewska is purported to be the inspiration for the title character in Yurek Bogayevicz 1987 film Anna. The film tells the story of a once-famous actress who emigrates from her home in Eastern Europe to New York, only to meet with struggles and disappointments. Sally Kirkland was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance in the role. In May 2005, Czyżewska was awarded the prestigious Cultural Award of Merit by the Consul General of the New York Polish Consulate, which was accompanied by a retrospective of her work at the first New York Polish Film Festival. Krzysztof Demidowicz wrote:
Up to a certain point there was something charmingly fairy-tale about her film career. Then came a dramatic shift which destroyed the previous fairy-tale order.
Film, 2001, No. 06
the saragossa manuscript
Elżbieta Czyżewska nonetheless continued to be an outstanding actress who collaborated with off-Broadway theatres in New York; the prestigious award she received in the US only proved the point. The OBIE Award (Off-Broadway Theatre Award) has been given by the New York weekly Village Voice since 1956; the awards go to off-Broadway plays, their authors, directors and actors. Poles who have received the award include Tadeusz Kantor (1980) and Jan A.P. Kaczmarek (1992). During the 8th Międzyzdroje Stars Festival in 2003, Czyżewska left her handprint on the Promenade of the Stars. Twarze w Tłumie: Wizerunki Bohaterów Wyobraźni Zbiorowej w Kulturze Polskiej Lat 1955-1969 / Faces in the Crowd: Views of the Heroes of Collective Imagination in Polish Culture 1955–1969, a book written by Iwona Kurz and published in 2005 (Świat Literacki, Warsaw 2005) was a collection of essays on popular culture's emblematic characters of the time. The book included articles on Elżbieta Czyżewska, Marek Hłasko, Jerzy Skolimowski, Zbigniew Cybulski, Kalina Jędrusik and many others.
One of Czyżewska's last performances took place at Aleksander Fredro Theatre in Gniezno, Poland; she played in Darkling, a multimedia show based on a poem written by Anna Rabinowitz. The performance was produced by American Opera Projects (opening: The 13th Street Theater, New York, 2006).
She died on June 17, 2010 at the New York Presbyterian Hospital after battling oesophagal cancer.
- 1962 - Second Prize for the part of Sonia in Dramatyczny Theatre's Płatonowie / Platonov, Festival of Russian and Soviet Art in Katowice;
- 1963 - Express Wieczorny daily's Silver Mask for most popular television actors;
- 1964 - Express Wieczorny daily's Silver Mask for most popular television actors;
- 1965 - Express Wieczorny daily's Gold Mask for most popular television actors;
- 1988 - Polish Filmmakers Association award for the part in Kocham kino / I Love the Cinema, 5th Young Polish Cinema Festival in Gdańsk;
- 1990 - OBIE Award for the part in Mac Wellman's Crowbar, New York.
Source: press materials, www.nytimes.com
Author: Halina Olczak-Moraczewska, April 2006.
Revision: Monika Mokrzycka-Pokora, September 2009.
Update: June 2010