Ouspenskaya was born Maria Alekseyevna Ouspenskaya on July 29, 1876 in Tula, Russia (at that time it was the Russian Empire). She was the daughter of a lawyer.
Ouspenskaya went to Warsaw Conservatory in Warsaw Poland to study singing and acting at the Adasheff's School of the Drama in Moscow. She toured the the Russian provinces to get her practical traing as an actress. In 1917 she joined the Moscow Art Theatre (this was during the Russian Revolution), she became a founding member of the First Studio. She worked under the great Konstantin Stanislavski and Leopold Sulerzhitsky and studied the "Stanislavski Method" and she would use and promote that method all her life. Ouspenskaya traveled throughout Europe with the Moscow Art Theatre, she also started her film career, appearing in several Russian silent movies. The troup went to New York City, New York in 1922 and Maria defected to the United States.
Ouspenskaya would perform on Broadway on a regular basis through the 1920's. She also taught acting at the American Labority Theatre. In 1929 she founded the School of Dramatic Art in New York City with Richard Boleslawski (a colleage from Moscow Art Theatre). One of her early students was and unknown young lady named Anne Baxter. Some of her other famous students were John Garfield and acting gurus Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg.
In the 1930's Ouspenskaya's school would start having some financial problems and she had to find ways to finance it. Although she had stayed away from Hollywood, she would go there to help finance the school. She also opened "Maria Ouspenskaya School of Dance" on Vine Street in Los Angeles. One of her early students was Marge Champion who would be used as the model for Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937).
In 1936, Ouspenskaya would appear in the stage adaptation of "Dodsworth" later Hollywood would ask her to reprise her roll in "Dodsworth" (1936) (which earned her a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress (she achieved the accolade of playing the briefest role ever to receive an Oscar nomination)). She also received a nomination for an Academy Award for "Love Affair" (1939). Her very pronounced accent and small size did not seem to hold her back any (she was only 5' 1.5" (1.56 m) tall and never weighed more than 90 lbs).
Ouspenskaya would appear in in a few other films such as "The Rains Came" (1939), "Dr. Ehrlich's Magic Bullet" (1940), "Beyond Tomorrow" (1940), "Waterloo Bridge" (1940), and "The Mortal Storm" (1940).
Ouspenskaya would appear in the roll that made her famous in the horror genre, that of Maleva, the old Gypsy fortuneteller in the classic Universal Film "The Wolf Man" (1941) starring Lon Chaney Jr , Evelyn Ankers and Bela Lugosi. She would reprise her roll as Maleva again in the Univeral Film "Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man" (1943) also starring Lon Chaney Jr . She would make a few more films before her death.
Due to her often-superior demeanor and addiction to astrology she satayed in high demand and was very highly respected for her talent. Ouspenskaya was addicted to astrology so much that she was in nearly daily communication with Carroll Righter (the L.A. Times astrologer) and he would advise her on the best times to appear on camera along and when and where to travel.
Ouspenskaya was a very heavy smoke and sadly on November 30, 1949, she allegedly fell asleep in bed while smoking a cigarette and suffered severe burns. She was taken to the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital. Three days later, On December 3, 1949 she died at the age of 73 of a stroke. Maria Ouspenskaya was buried in Glendale's Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery. Her gravestone gives her year of birth as 1887, but she as actually born in 1876.
The character of Maleva was spoofed by Anne Bancroft in the Mel Brooks comedy "Dracula: Dead and Loving It" (1995). She was such a wonderful actress actress and character people should be more involved in her work.
"The way you walked was thorny, through no fault of your own, but as the rain enters the soil, the river enters the sea, so tears run to a predestined end. Now you will have peace for eternity." - (From "The Wolf Man" (1941))