“Since the beginning, I’ve said, ‘I’m not going to get involved with my image.’” – Charlotte Rampling

It’s her birthday today.

I first saw Charlotte Rampling in Angel Heart, where she has one hauntingly weird scene: a rumpled schlubby Mickey Rourke visits her to question her. Her apartment is filled with strange artifacts, beautifully placed. The decor is a mixture of lush-bordello and shabby-chic. There is the creepy sound of the piano, the one striking notes, and the clinking of her spoon against the side of the cup. Every sound has clarity, adding to the sense of her character’s strangeness. There’s her quiet intense voice, measured, yet with dark knowledge beneath it. Her light blue eyes seem to see right through him. Charlotte Rampling is a beautiful woman, but there is an unnerving quality to her beauty. It is not come-hither beauty. It is beware-beauty.

I had no idea who she was. I was instantly intrigued and began keeping my eyes peeled for her. She’s my kind of actress. Fearless. Un-pin-down-able. Doesn’t seem to give a fuck. Doesn’t care at all about her beauty, except this it is one of the many useful tools in her arsenal. Throughout her career, she has resisted classification and type-casting and she also just doesn’t recognize any limitations. She does not make “careerist” choices. She hasn’t waited until she’s elderly to start making brave bold unconventional moves. She started OUT that way. (I always think of Rampling and Helen Mirren as similar: both of them started out making attention-getting controversial choices in what films they appeared in. They refused to be “someone’s girlfriend”. They never took boring roles. The pressure on beautiful young women to only do certain kinds of things is super intense. It takes … balls … to resist. Gena Rowlands. Theresa Russell. Bibi Andersson. Charlotte Rampling is one of THOSE.)

Angel Heart was striking, but when I rented 1974’s The Night Porter (with Dirk Bogard) I realized who exactly I was dealing with when I was dealing with Charlotte Rampling. She was only in one scene in Angel Heart. She’s in almost every scene of The Night Porter and she is such a disturbing and dark presence you almost can’t look at her.

In my wild 20s, I wanted to wear that as a Halloween costume, but cooler heads prevailed.

She is one of the scariest actresses of that lucky generation of actresses who “came up” in a time when directors/writers – often men – were creating these monster parts for women requiring great skill and courage. You don’t cuddle up to Charlotte Rampling, in the same way you don’t warm to Gena Rowlands or Theresa Russell. You admire, but you also step back. All can do as an audience member is sit back, shut up, stop wondering why they are so DIFFERENT from other actresses (where is the inspirational closure, where is the self-empowerment message, where is the resolution, where is the clarity?), and let yourself be overwhelmed by them. Frightened by them.

Her performance in The Night Porter is shocking, and I don’t shock easily. The clips are age-restricted so you have to click through – here’s her first entrance.

It’s best, though, to just see the whole film.

I wanted to point your way towards a wonderful piece by Stephen Metcalf from 2008 – which has stuck in my head all these years – about The Verdict, and one specific scene between Paul Newman and Rampling.

In 2011, she showed up as Kirsten Dunst’s and Charlotte Gainsbourg’s mother in Melancholia, one of my favorite movies of the last 20 years. She’s as sour as a lemon in Melancholia, and her attitude sits on top of simmering rage. She’s not a warm mother. She’s not affectionate. She’s not conventionally “motherly” and her presence serves as a biting commentary on why her two daughters are the way they are.

She’s not the lead, and only shows up in a couple of scenes – but like other great character actresses – when she shows up in something she almost single-handedly justifies its existence. I reviewed the film when I first saw it at New York Film Festival in 2011.

This is not meant to be a career retrospective. There are so many more roles I could mention! She works constantly, and mostly in challenging unconventional work. She’s not afraid of working with younger newer film-makers. If their vision is intriguing, she’ll take a chance on them. She does not shy away from risks. She’s all about risks.

I did want to point your way towards Lian Lunson’s beautiful spiritually-meditative film Waiting for the Miracle to Come, filmed primarily on Willie Nelson’s Texas ranch, and starring Willie Nelson and Rampling as a retired vaudeville couple, waiting for their daughter to return to them, the daughter they gave up.

It’s a beautiful movie, and Lian – who has directed primarily documentaries and concert films – created something truly special. Charlotte Rampling’s character lives her life as Marilyn Monroe, has created her entire persona as an homage to Marilyn, and is so lost in the fantasy she LIVES this way. Instead of pathologizing her, though, Lian embraces her – as does Rampling. She may be a little bit like a Tennessee Williams character but let’s not forget, Tennessee Williams always said he wrote about survivors, that he never once wrote about a “victim”.

I had the great pleasure of interviewing Lian about her film which you can read here. The image of Lian and Charlotte Rampling going to see Merle Haggard in concert in Texas will not leave me any time soon.

Finally: for some years now, Charlotte Rampling has been traveling with a recitation show called Night Dances, where she performs Sylvia Plath’s poetry, accompanied by cellist Sonia Wieder-Atherton (who also directed), playing Benjamin Britten’s solos for cello underneath. It sounds riveting!

Rampling has done it everywhere, throughout Europe and England and Ireland, as well as in the States. Why didn’t I go see it when I could? Here’s a review of the show in the New York Times.

With minimal movements and eerie concentration, Ms. Rampling spoke 11 of Plath’s lengthy, elusive poems, all performed from memory. Sometimes she stood and confronted her listeners. (Or was she confiding in them?) Other times she spoke while reclining on an ottoman, or propping herself up with her arms. In more narrative poems, like “Edge,” her delivery was restrained yet purposeful; in emotional poems, like excerpts from “Three Women,” she was swept up in the moment, as if struggling with how to express herself.

Rampling continues to inspire and astonish.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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