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Elżbieta Czyżewska

Elżbieta Czyżewska
Born Elżbieta Justyna Czyżewska
(1938-05-14)May 14, 1938
Warsaw, Poland
Died June 17, 2010(2010-06-17) (aged 72)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Occupation Actress
Years active 1958–2010
Spouse(s) Jerzy Skolimowski (1959–1965; divorced)
David Halberstam (1965–1977; divorced)

Elżbieta Justyna Czyżewska (May 14, 1938[1] – June 17, 2010) was a Polish actress active in both Poland and the United States.


  • Early life 1
  • Career in Poland 2
  • Career in the United States 3
  • Death 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6

Early life

Czyżewska was born in Warsaw in 1938. She attended the State Academy of Theatre in Warsaw and was advised by the Dean that in order to play leading roles in Romantic repertory she should undergo plastic surgery: to reduce the size of her breasts. Her answer, after she consulted her colleagues in the anti-establishment Student Satirical Theatre, was "No way".[2]

Her first marriage was to the film director Jerzy Skolimowski.[3] In 1965, she married the New York Times Warsaw correspondent, David Halberstam. She left Poland for the United States with him, but they divorced in 1977.

Career in Poland

At the peak of her film and theater career, and in trouble with the communist regime on account of her marriage to Halberstam - she was cast by the Polish director Andrzej Wajda in his film, Everything for Sale. The young directors of the Polish new wave in cinema recognized their peer in breaking the conventions of superficial romantic comedy. In A Bride for the Australian (1963), Where is the General (1963) and Giuseppe in Warsaw (1964), Czyżewska created a character who was almost the reverse of the Cinderella versus Prince Charming formula, as it was her charm and wit that turned her suitors into her equals. Not a "method" actor, she would never disappear into a character, nor would she, on the other hand, allow her striking persona to wholly define her succession of screen and theatre parts. Wojciech Has directed her performance in The Saragossa Manuscript (1964).

Besides the theater role that won her the major Golden Mask Award, Czyżewska had her most significant stage success in the Teatr Dramatyczny's 1965 production of Arthur Miller's After the Fall. By now internationally recognized (from Moscow to San Salvador) as one of Poland's top young actors, she expanded her artistic range in two film dramas: Unloved (1965) by Janusz Nasfeter and Wajda's Everything for Sale (1968). The dark mood of both these movies marked the country's disillusionment after a brief period of cultural "thaw". Unloved, set shortly before the outbreak of World War II, tells the story of a young Jewish woman's love affair whose ending coincides with the ominous atmosphere of the period, including the Holocaust.

She became an outcast and exile due to her marriage to Halberstam, who was expelled from Poland for his sharp criticisms of the regime at the time. Czyżewska's career was disrupted, and when she returned in 1968 at Wajda's invitation to play in his film, Everything for Sale, production was complicated by the March outbreak of student protests and the start of that year's Communist government's antisemitic expulsions. Ironically, Czyżewska herself was expelled, and partly because she promptly accepted a role in exiled director Aleksander Ford's adaptation of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle, she was unable to work in Poland until 1980 with the rise of Poland's Solidarność (Solidarity) movement, led by Lech Wałęsa.

Career in the United States

The 1987 Hollywood film Anna is loosely based on Czyżewska's life. In the film, an exiled European movie star played by Sally Kirkland, struggles to find work in New York City following her divorce from a well-connected intellectual, presumably based on David Halberstam. Kirkland was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Actress category for this role and she won a Golden Globe(1988).[4]

Czyżewska continued doing theater work in the U.S., winning an Obie Award in 1990 for her role in Crowbar by Mac Wellman. Her American premieres also include other Wellman plays as well as Janusz Glowacki's Hunting Cockroaches. She performed in Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken at the American Repertory Theater, and in several productions at Yale Repertory Theater. She also played in Big Potato (by Arthur Laurents) at the Doris Duke Theater.

Czyżewska played the role of Greek socialite Maria Mitsotáki in a 1990 stage adaptation of The Changing Light at Sandover by James Merrill, sharing the stage with the poet. The performance was filmed and released as "Voices From Sandover" (Films for the Humanities, Inc., FFH 4182, distributed by Films Media Group, Princeton, New Jersey).[5]

Her American films include Music Box, Running on Empty, Eduardo Machado's Exiles In New York and Putney Swope. Her television appearances include the American Playhouse drama Misplaced on PBS. Her most recent theater roles were in Martha Clarke's Vienna Lusthaus, Hedda Gabler at the New Theatre Workshop in 2004, and 'Darkling' in 2006. In June 2007, she returned to Poland for a performance of Darkling in Gniezno at the Aleksander Fredro Teatr.

In May 2005, Czyżewska was honored with the Cultural Award of Merit by the Consul General of the New York Polish Consulate. This is the highest award for a Polish American to receive. The ceremony began the first American retrospective of her work at the first New York Polish Film Festival, directed by Hanna Hartowicz.[6]

Her final leading role was in the film June Weddings, adapted from a play written and directed by Barbara Hammond, that brought her great critical praise on the film festival circuit. Her role of a Russian émigré in New York was called "superbly acted" and "a grown-up feast". "The delightful Elzbieta Czyzewska plays a Russian woman so slyly, seductively Old World and languorous she gives "v" its own beat when she says "love." Baltimore's City Paper (Oct 23, 2008). The film also starred Tom Noonan.


She died on June 17, 2010 in New York at the age of 72 from esophageal cancer.[7] John Guare wrote "Erased/Elżbieta", a tribute play to Elżbieta Czyżewska which premiered at the Atlantic Theater in NY in 2011.


  1. ^ Some sources such as Find a Grave and The New York Times cite April 14, 1938
  2. ^ Obituary (in Polish)
  3. ^ Obituary The Guardian. Retrieved 2015-03-03.
  4. ^ Sally Kirkland - Awards Retrieved 2015-07-30.
  5. ^ Voices from Sandover, WorldCat, 2004.
  6. ^ New York Polish Film Festival 2005 Official website
  7. ^ obituaryNew York Times

External links

  • Elżbieta Czyżewska at the Internet Movie Database
  • Elżbieta Czyżewska Official Website
  • Biography at the
  • Elżbieta Czyżewska at the Filmpolski Database (Polish)
  • Aktorka z iskrą w oczach Rzeczpospolita (Polish)
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