Elzbieta Czyzewska, Legendary Polish Star, Dies at 72

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22 Jun 2010

Elzbieta Czyzewska, who was a star of Polish movies and television in the 1960s, and ended up scraping together a film and stage career in America after becoming an unwilling exile from her country, died on June 17 in Manhattan. She was 72.



In the 1960s, no actress was more famous in Poland than Ms. Czyzewska. Starring in such films of the Polish New Wave as "A Bride for the Australian" (1963), "Where is the General" (1963) and "Giuseppe in Warsaw" (1964), she was widely admired and beloved. In 1964, she won the Golden Mask Award as the most popular actress in Poland, and the following year she represented her country at Cannes. But her career came crashing down when she met and married New York Times correspondent David Halberstam, who was in Warsaw to interview her following the Polish premiere of Arthur Miller's After the Fall.

Soon after they married, Halberstam wrote an article about anti-Semitism in Poland. The Polish government responded by expelling him from the county, declaring him persona non grata. Ms. Czyzewska joined him in New York. When she returned to Poland in 1968 to work with famed Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda, however, anger against her husband had not subsided. She was denounced. The actress returned to New York, and did not go back to her native country until the 1980s, with the rise of the Solidarity movement.

She found intermittent success on the American stage. Her few appearances were routinely praised, but opportunities proved hard to come by. Few performers have seen their ill-starred lives so often used as fodder for others' artistry. Novelist William Styron, who knew her, reportedly adopted the actress' Polish accent for the title character in his book "Sophie's Choice." And her career was supposedly the basis of the 1987 film "Anna," about a formerly famous Eastern European actress who can not get work in New York.

She acted in a 1974 production of Camus' The Possessed, which was directed by Wajda at the Yale Repertory Theater, giving what would be remembered as a legendary performance as a crippled woman.

Ms. Czyżewska won an Obie Award in 1990 for her role in Crowbar by Mac Wellman. She appeared in several Wellman plays, as well as Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken at the American Repertory Theater, and Arthur Laurents' Big Potato at the Doris Duke Theater. Her most recent theater roles were in Martha Clarke's Vienna Lusthaus, an avant garde Hedda Gabler at the New Theatre Workshop in 2004 and Esther Demsack, a comedy by Billy Finnegan at the Public Theater as part of the Summer Play Festival in 2008. In June 2007, she returned to Poland for a performance of Darkling in Gniezno at the Aleksander Fredro Teatr.

Her American films include "Music Box," "Running on Empty," Eduardo Machado's "Exiles In New York" and "Putney Swope."