"I am the ugliest actress in Spanish cinema," María Isbert announced proudly when I interviewed her 10 years ago at her home in Madrid.
Isbert was one of the greatest of a great generation of repertory actors and the scion of one of Spain's most celebrated thespian dynasties. She was never a star but her comic presence in more than 250 films over more than 70 years made her instantly recognisable.
She was born in 1917, the daughter of the legendary Spanish actor Pepe Isbert. She started to act in the theatre in 1937 and soon after was called upon to perform small parts in films. In the course of her career she acted under the orders of almost everyone of note within Spain's film industry.
Juan de Orduña gave her her first film role in 1943's La vida empieza a medianoche. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s she was a stalwart in films by directors including Edgar Neville, Jerónimo Mihura and Luis García Berlanga. Marco Ferreri cast her alongside her father in El cochecito (1960), a film that resulted in the revocation of Italian Ferreri's work permit by the dictatorship. The following year Isbert played one of the beggars in Luis Buñuel's notorious masterpiece Viridiana, a film that infuriated both the Franco regime and the Vatican. Isbert told me that such was the scandal, that she had never actually seen the film.
She studied at a German school in Madrid and was fluent in several languages, becoming an actress against the wishes of her father, who harboured hopes that she would become a state functionary with a job for life. As it was, she was rarely out of work, except by choice. Age made little impact on her opportunities and she continued to appear on stage and screen well into this century. Although she could never be considered a versatile or dramatic actress, her distinctive voice and singular facial attributes lent themselves to a variety of comic roles that saw her cast in radically differing kinds of films.
While she played minor roles in a string of popular comedies of the 1960s and 1970s she also had a part in the future experimentalist Ivá* Zulueta's first film, Un, dos, tres, al escondite ingles (1969), a Spanish variant on the Beatles' film Help! In the 1990s she worked with the directorial partnership "La Cuadrilla" on Atilano, presidente (1998) and one of her last roles was in – in an echo of her comment to me – La mujer más fea del mundo (The Ugliest Woman in the World, 1999). She last acted on stage in 2003, retired from films in 2005 and made her last TV appearance in 2006. In 2008, in an emotional ceremony she was awarded honorary membership of the Spanish Academy of Cinematic Arts.
Mother to seven sons, two of whom (Carlos and Tony) became actors in their own right, she was widowed early and took nearly 20 years off work to devote to her family. She was familiar with life's hardships yet in company made light of them. Her wry but dark comedy was emblematic of the times she had lived through, and the particularly Spanish brand of the theatre of the absurd associated with those times.
María Vicenta Ysbert Soriano (María Isbert), actress: born Madrid 21 April 1917; married Antonio Spitzer (died 1973; seven sons); died Villarobledo, Albacete 25 April 2011.
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