Tag Archives: Faina Ranevskaya

Yury Zavadsky plaque, Moscow

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Yury Zavadsky (1894-1977) lived in this building at 15 Tverskaya Street, the very heart of Moscow, from 1940 until his death. We now remember Zavadsky as a famous director, the principal director of the Mossoviet Theater, also from 1940 until his death. But he had also been a leading actor at the Vakhtangov and Moscow Art Theaters, and was, according to legend, one of Yevgeny Vakhtangov’s favorite students. Marina Tsvetaeva happened to meet Zavadsky and see him on stage sometime in 1918, and she wrote an entire cycle of poems – 25 to be exact – inspired by him. Entitled “The Comedian” (as in the French, meaning “actor”), the collection bears the following dedication: “To the actor who played the Angel, or to the Angel who played the Actor – isn’t it all the same, since, by Your grace, instead of the snowy winter routine of 1919 the routine I carried out was filled with tenderness.” The first of the poems was written Nov. 2, 1918, the last of them – in March 1919. The Zavadsky Studio (1924-1936) was a well-known experimental theater in its time, and it gave starts to a number of major actors, including Vera Maretskaya, Rostislav Plyatt, Nikolai Mordvinov and Pavel Massalsky. Maretskaya was married to Zavadsky for a short while, as was the great ballerina Galina Ulanova. I’m a little confused about the dates because some sources say Zavadsky met Ulanova in 1940, some say he was married to her in the 1930s. In any case he was married to Maretskaya before he was married to Ulanova. If the exact dates are truly important to you – be my guest: research them.

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It is our good fortune – if not Zavadsky’s! – that one of Zavadsky’s actors at the Mossoviet was the great Faina Ranevskaya. Ranevskaya – about whom I’m going to have to find a reason to write in more detail – was not only considered one of the great Russian actresses of the 20th century. Possessing a truly bitter sense of humor, she was arguably the funniest. She and others have left behind a treasure trove of anecdotes and memoirs that have been gathered into several best-selling books. Because of her relationship with Zavadsky, many stories involve him. Here is one:
“Oh, did you know Zavadsky had a terrible misfortune?”
“What?”
“He died.”
Or:
“Ranevskaya was frequently late to rehearsals, which really irritated Zavadsky. One day he asked all the actors to merely ignore her when she entered. When she did finally come in, huffing and puffing, she said ‘Hello!’ Nobody answered. ‘Hello!’ she repeated. Still no answer. ‘Hello!’ she said a third time and still got no reaction. ‘Ah!’ she said. ‘There’s nobody here! Then I’ll just go take a piss!'”
Surely one of Ranevskaya’s most immortal pokes at Zavadsky was this:
“Zavadsky once shouted at Ranevskaya from the auditorium: ‘Faina, you chewed up my entire idea!’ Faina grumbled rather loudly, ‘Well, I thought I had the feeling I’d just eaten shit,’ to which Zavadsky reportedly shouted: ‘Get out of this theater!’ Ranevskaya walked to the edge of the stage and shouted back, ‘Get out of art!'”
Ranevskaya saved some of her most barbed epithets for Zavadsky. She reportedly called him: “a reduced-price Meyerhold” and she was heard to say that, “Zavadsky will catch a cold only at my funeral”; “Zavadsky gets awards not because he deserves them but because he wants them. The only award he doesn’t have yet is ‘Hero Mother'”; “Zavadsky dreams that he’s buried on Red Square”; and “How I would love to smack the faces of everyone who fakes it, but I hold my temper. I tolerate crudeness and lies, I tolerate a pitiful, poverty-stricken life. I tolerate them all and will continue to until the end of my life. I even tolerate Zavadsky…”
I didn’t intend to turn this into a Zavadsky roast, but, hey. He’s got all that stuff about being a Socialist Hero, a Hero of Labor, a Lenin Prize winner and a People’s Artist splashed out on his memorial plaque, so he can stand a few barbs tossed off by one of the best actors he ever worked with. 

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Serafima Birman home, Moscow

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Serafima Birman (1890-1976) is one of the names from the Soviet era of theater and film that invariably attract the epithet of “great.” She was among the first group of actors to study with Stanislavsky, officially a member of the Moscow Art Theater into the mid-1920s. She was also a member of Mikhail Chekhov’s Moscow Art Theater 2. She was a founding member of the Lenkom Theater. She acted, directed and taught both disciplines. Her appearances in film were few and far between, but once seen, she was impossible to forget. A Russian blogger who calls herself Mary Quite Contrary wrote this about Birman’s performance of Yefrosinia Staritskaya in Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan The Terrible: “But the real shit hits the fan, of course, with Serafima Birman’s Yefrosinia Staritskaya. She is such a snake in the grass, but is performed so brilliantly that you can’t take your eyes off her massive black silhouette and hissing voice.” You can find this comment as well as a couple of stills of Birman in the film at Contrary Mary’s blogsite. You can see one of Birman’s scenes from the second half of the movie on YouTube.  Birman actually got this role in a backhanded way. It was originally going to be Birman’s great contemporary Faina Ranevskaya who would play Yefrosinia, but the studio decided that they did not like Ranevskaya’s “strong Semitic features.” As a result, the role went to Birman, every bit as much a Jewess as Ranevskaya, but who was listed in her passport as “Moldovan” because she was born in Kishinyov.
A lot is made of Birman’s physical appearance. One female journalist on the Russian Showbiz Daily website goes really overboard by calling Birman “unbelievably ugly” (neveroyatno nekrasivaya), although she does, at least, allow that she was a “genius.” This same post, as well as many others, go into great detail about Birman’s “unusual” visage, her desire to be “beautiful,” etc. It gets pretty damn annoying, I must say. I’d love to ignore this part of Birman lore, but it’s everywhere, and so I mention it in order to call it out. Not only is it bunk, it has nothing to do with anything. Period. Let’s be done with that nonsense.
Birman’s pedigree in Russian acting couldn’t be better. She began studying with Stanislavsky with Mikhail Chekhov, Yevgeny Vakhtangov, and Sofia Giatsintova. I haven’t found a source in English for one great story about Birman, but it’s worth quoting the Russian (Showbiz Daily) just in case it’s true. Arthur Miller was in Moscow and someone took him to see a dramatization of Dostoevsky’s Uncle’s Dream starring Ranevskaya and featuring Birman in a small role. Supposedly, Miller said, “Ranevskaya is a marvelous actress, but what she does is two-times-two-equals-four. What Miss Birman does is two-times-two-equals-five.” (That’s a back-translation from the Russian and doesn’t pretend to be a true quote of Miller.)

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Birman in the late 1920s lived in Apt. 6 at building No. 18 on Vspolny Lane, just a block from the famous Patriarch’s Pond. There’s nothing on the yellow building to indicate she lived here, but I know she did thanks to a wonderful catalogue of theater addresses that I own and which I mentioned in a recent blog about Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. In a couple of years she moved to another address and I rather imagine I will have to show you that place in good time.
Birman had – and still has – the reputation of an extremely demanding artist. As we all know, that means that the label of “hard to work with,” or “difficult personality” has also stuck to her. And, as we all know, that just means that people who don’t know what they’re talking about are writing about her. Still, it makes for some good stories, and good stories are always welcome. Here’s one I have shaved down a bit from a site called So People Will Remember:
Birman once dropped in to see her friend Ivan Bersenev rehearsing a show at the Lenkom Theater where they both worked. Peering in from the wings, she was horrified to see Bersenev, sitting at his director’s table in the hall, munching on a sandwich. Birman was furious. “How could you? You?! In the cathedral of art! And you call yourself a director! This is a cathedral, a holy place!” That evening Birman refused to ride home with Bersenev in his car, as was her custom, choosing to walk instead. Bersenev and the actress Sofia Giatsintova drove slowly alongside her in the car. “Sima! Don’t be silly!” they shouted at her. Birman pretended not to hear them the whole way home.
My wife Oksana Mysina played Birman in a relatively recent TV biopic about the actress Valentina Serova, one of Birman’s best friends. You can see one of their scenes from Yury Kara’s “A Star of the Age” on YouTube.

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