If asked to name the Polish director who has left the most lasting impression on Hollywood, most of us would probably suggest Roman Polański. Yet while Polański was still a toddler, there was an altogether different Pole already working with the likes of Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich; a man whose influence can be felt in the performances of subsequent American greats, like Marlon Brando, Marilyn Monroe or Jack Nicholson.
Ryszard Bołeslawski was born in 1889 in Mohylów Podolski, then part of Tsarist Russia-ruled Poland. He trained as an actor at the Moscow Art Theatre under Konstantin Stanislavski, where he was introduced to Stanislavski’s ‘system’ – an approach to acting grounded in the ‘art of experience’, whereby actors consciously aim to activate instinctive emotional responses and unconscious behaviours as they rehearse and perform. After graduating, Bołeslawski returned to his newly-independent Polish homeland, shortly thereafter moving to New York, where he took on the anglicised name Richard Boleslawski and in 1923 set up the American Laboratory Theatre with fellow Moscow Art Theatre alumna Maria Ouspenskaya. Together, they began to teach Stanislavski’s system to the likes of Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner, who used this knowledge to develop Method acting – the system famously implemented by Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), and still used today by actors such as Daniel Day-Lewis and Joaquin Phoenix.
Bołeslawski’s teaching success in New York earned him the attention of Hollywood. Soon enough, he was directing the silent stars Laurel and Hardy, as well as working on contracts with the major studios. Bołeslawski’s career was sadly cut short with his untimely death at the age of 47, but his name is immortalised on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.