Two Beauties

Charlotte’s eternal “Look”; Melissa loves Michel

Before her, there was the unforgettable Louise Brooks in the 1920s, Garbo and Dietrich in the 1930s, and then Lauren Bacall, who was even known as “The Look” in the 1940s.

But ever since “Georgy Girl” (1966), Charlotte Rampling, with her strikingly malevolent beauty and brutally uncompromising choice in film roles, has been the undisputed owner of that title, which is also the name of a new documentary about her that just opened (Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, 1886 Broadway at W. 62nd St., lincolnplazacinema.com; Cinema Village, 22 E. 12th St., cinemavillage.com).

In person, she was anything but the fearsome, daunting presence her screen persona would suggest. When I met her at the Soho Grand, whip-thin, attired casually chic style à la étudient Francais, she was every bit the warm, witty woman she is in her mesmerizingly smart biographical film.

“I’m glad you liked it,” she said, “because we don’t really know what it’s going to be like for people seeing this film. Maybe it was a pity because too much was said, and one’s mysterious mystique has gone out the window.”

I told her that she remained evasive about little except her own relationship history, like her “engagement” (since 1998) to French businessman Jean-Noël Tassez. She replied, “Yeah, it was a decision on my part. It is hard to keep a relationship alive. More and more people just crash in and out of relationships, so you have to try and ask, ‘Is it really worth changing all the time? [Sighs.] It doesn’t make sense, all these young people in their 20s with babies and things, jumping out and jumping in.”

When I expressed admiration for her commitment to playing strong, often unlikable women, she said, “Probably ‘Georgy Girl’ started that because that woman was so disliked when the film came out. People were like, ‘Ohmigod, this character is so horrible, selfish, and does everything for her own gratification.’

“But in the 1960s, women did want to lead their lives. We didn’t want babies. And she really was set in her way, so in-your-face that it was just staggering. Even if it was the ‘60s with doors opening, things changing, and people getting much braver, that role was staggering in her assuming what she wanted, completely pre-feminist.

“I thought that these women were fascinating to play, the ones who really make it happen, as far as I was concerned. I always needed to find my way into cinema, which became the noncommercial way because commercial roles didn’t suit me. They weren’t edgy, fascinating, or psychologically attuned enough, too much about entertainment, which I have nothing against, but it didn’t seem to suit me. I’ve been on a certain sort of life quest and realize that with ‘The Look,’ what I was seeking without knowing was to show that I’ve actually joined the two, myself as a person with the people that I play. It has to be harmonious, with the same sense of morality and intellectual input from the role to the person and vice versa, an alchemic kind of meeting.

“The actresses I always really watched a lot were Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, a bit of Katharine Hepburn, because I thought the spirit of those women was so modern, authentic, and so brave.

“The Look” is one of the sexiest docs ever made, as well, largely because of its chapter dealing with Rampling’s 2004 collaboration for Marc Jacobs with photographer Juergen Teller in “Louis XV,” a book jaw-dropping in its combined eroticism and tenderness: “That was Juergen, and why I’m such a friend of his, because we both have that combination. I can be very erotic but also very normal as a person, and he’s the same, completely sweet with these incredible ideas. That’s how we were able to make these pictures. His wife was there, too, photographing away, this girl he’s just now married, and we sort of became family.

“We probably did have a glass of champagne or two beforehand, but the thing is, I’m very available once I like somebody, and I’m ready to do lots of stuff providing it’s not kinky or nasty. As you say, there’s a kind of joy and sweetness in it, although pretty outrageous, like that shot on the piano with his bum out. [Laughs.]. You think, ‘What is this?’”

Asked about her impeccable, timeless style sense that has inspired designers like Jacobs and a host of others for decades, she replied, “I got that from my parents. My mum and dad were very elegant. I just put anything on that doesn’t look awful, so that’s very lucky. Of the designers, Yohji Yamamoto is my favorite — lots of others, too — but Yohji is my master. We’ve done things together and I know him well. He’s not doing so much now, but he’s had a great inning, and Marc, absolutely, is so good.”

On working with director Luchino Visconti: “He was my first master. After ‘Georgy Girl,’ I wanted to leave England and try roles elsewhere. I worked in Italy with Gianfranco Mingozzi, and Visconti saw that film and cast me in ‘The Damned,’ and I knew that was the direction I wanted to go in. I was bowled over by Italy, their appreciation of beauty. I’d never been brought up in a house which was very favorable to beauty — English, Protestant, nothing to do with feelings, and all that side of me was opened to this operatic vision of life through Visconti. He was very hands-on in every detail and certainly directed his muse, Helmut Berger, training him and making him into his thing.”

About director Lars von Trier (“Melancholia”), Rampling said, “I played his mother, I might say, wearing her silly hippie dress at the wedding and hating everything. That tells you about him — the mother from Hell who ruined his life. Maybe not ruined, but certainly made him into something of a basket case.”

When I told her that “Heading South” (2005), in which her character pays Haitian boys for sex, was my favorite among her films, Rampling said, “You’re right, it’s an important picture, but it was difficult to make, with uncomfortable relations like that. I had real trouble with this woman, didn’t like the idea of women having to do that, for some reason. Some women do seem to want that, but maybe because of the way I am, my characters have to be related to me, otherwise it’s not interesting. But this character I couldn’t get close to, didn’t want to and didn’t like her, probably the only one of all I’ve played.

“You don’t have to like your character, and if you say I was good, probably it’s almost because of that. I wasn’t rejecting her, I don’t know what it was, but that kind of tension can often bring other things to life.”

About “Basic Instinct 2,” Rampling said, “I do little bits and pieces of commercial work when they come up and are amusing. I thought this was going to be a really fun film, but it didn’t turn out that way because I thought [Sharon Stone] didn’t seem to enjoy playing it, as I thought she would. Maybe there was too much pressure on her, and I think she got scared.”

Asked about her role in director Todd Solondz’s 2009 “Life During Wartime,” she replied, “You’re absolutely right when you say that was like me doing a take-off on myself. I had problems getting there and doing it, but I said. ‘I’ve got to play this woman,’ while everyone said, ‘But why? She’s appalling!’ So tragic, but fantastic. It was almost too much, she couldn’t go any further [claps delightedly], and that horrible long hair!

“Todd asked, ‘Do you mind having long hair?,’ and they chucked it on me, and I thought, ‘Oh, God.’ Hilarious! She’s so deadpan — you could actually mimic that scene, which they’ve probably done already on the Internet.”

Melissa Errico’s new CD “The Legrand Affair” (Ghostlight Records) is a spectacularly lush tribute to composer Michel Legrand, the perfect, swooningly romantic thing to play over glasses of du-Pape with that special someone. The singing actress will celebrate its release with a performance at Joe’s Pub on November 19 (7 p.m., inside the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St., btwn. E. Fourth St. and Astor Pl.; $25, plus a $12 table minimum, at joespub.com.).

Errico, whose soprano has never sounded so brilliantly plangent, told me, “It was recorded with the Brussels Philharmonic, a 100-piece orchestra. I met Michel with my gay boyfriend, Malcolm Gets, when we did Legrand’s musical ‘Amour.’ Michel wrote all these orchestrations for me, but the album is really a duet with me and the genius ‘Windmills of His Mind.’

“We actually sing a duet on it, ‘Once Upon a Summertime,’ which was his first hit as a teenager. Blossom Dearie heard it on radio in Paris and she called Johnny Mercer, who wrote the English lyrics. Legrand has no boundaries, mental or otherwise, and, here, sings a vocalise and manages to expose every part of this 100-piece orchestra. The CD was just full of this magical stuff.”

Errico hasn’t been visible on Broadway for too long a time now. A shame, since she is that ultimate rarity, a musical leading lady whose exquisite looks match her voice — just try and think of one.

“I just celebrated 40, with a husband [Patrick McEnroe] I’ve known since childhood and little daughters, a certain age when the rush of show business got to me,” she said. “I didn’t give up, but stopped feeling like everything had to be done today. I can’t compete with the rhythm of all that and all these new faces, and don’t have a big company behind me, pushing.”

She has been busy, however, performing all over the place, like a concert version of “Camelot” with Jeremy Irons. “We inquired about Broadway rights, and they were presently — as of last summer — held by a London production with Robert Lindsey and Maggie Gyllenhaal!,” she said.

Most recently, Errico sang at the big Friends In Deed benefit — embellished by one of Stephen Sondheim’s famed treasure hunts — at the Museum of Natural History, “where I replaced an indisposed Barbara Cook with two-and-a-half-hours’ notice. I sang three Sondheim songs, did my alluring, smarty-pants Melissa elegance, and then told the audience the story of my day, with the kids, no baby sitter, husband out of town. My brother-in-law is John McEnroe, who lives across the street from the Museum, and, rather than quickly change into my gown after my sound check in the public bathroom with guests coming in, I went to his place.

“He’s in shorts, his kids are screaming, ‘What are you doing in the bathroom,’ and his rock star wife, Patty Smyth, tells me, ‘Your hair looks like shit.’ With Spanx, the dress, when I tore off the price tag, mercifully fit, and there’s Patty, doing my shoes, and John walks in, saying, ‘Whatever. Who the fuck is Barbara Cook?’”

Errico’s career has gone through some lows, since the indifferently received show “High Society” (1998), and she admitted, “I’m an Aries, but one who tempers herself and makes sure no one gets hurt. I’ll never stand on somebody’s back to get ahead, and I can tell you stories where I’ve been given those opportunities and I do pat myself on the back. I may not have gotten certain big roles but I know I acted honorably, because it meant betraying a friend or somebody wanted me and not my co-star for a Broadway transfer.”

Errico took the “High Society” failure very hard, and, when it ended — after Errico’s husband called her agent, Sam Cohn, telling him, “We have to close this show for her safety,” which she admitted to me for the first time — she went to Los Angeles: “I cut my hair, wanting to look like Isabella Rossellini, which was how I dealt with my sadness, and the first person who cast me was Kelsey Grammer for his TV series ‘Neurotic Tendencies.’ It was about an NYU student who hails a cab at the same time as this older man and they get in together and fall in love.

“That was how he met his [now divorced] wife, Camille, who was co-producer on that show, which turned out to be the marriage from Hell… They were obsessed with me, but the second day of work I got fired. They said my charm wasn’t translating from the audition and recast me, but I heard that nobody could have made it funny.”

Errico has not had the same rotten luck with everyone. Sarah Jessica Parker adored her Irish Rep production of “Finian’s Rainbow,” wanted her child to grow up hearing its music, and, when told that making the CD would be beyond the show’s budget, promptly wrote a sizeable check to cover the difference.

Alec Baldwin has been another big supporter: “He always said, ‘I woulda dated you in a minute, blah blah, but I don’t remember him ever asking. Years ago, I had a big love affair with my director of ‘My Fair Lady,’ Howard Davies, who was 27 years older than me, and I love him dearly, but Alec said, ‘We all wanted to kill Howard!’ I think I have to remind Alec that there was also somebody around at the time for him named Kim. [Laughs.]

“When I did that Hollywood exile, I asked him if I should get a big manager and he said, ‘The stupider, the better, and if you’re going there, be prepared to tile your bathroom and then retile it. You’re gonna be so bored.’ Last March, the Roundabout had a tribute for him and I hadn’t seen him in eight years, but he picked me to be one of six divas —Bernadette Peters, Jane Krakowski, etc. — to sing for him.

“I recreated my ‘One Touch of Venus’ and sang ‘That’s Him’ directly to him, like ‘Happy Birthday, Mr. President.’ I was testing my post-Mommy inner diva, and it was alive that lovely night. My agent emailed me to say how well I did, which was good as I’m always afraid they’re gonna fire me for not making them more money. Alec grabbed me and said, ‘You know how good you are? When you sing, there’s no one in the room!’ I got a little sad afterwards — part of me doesn’t know what to do with that. Like what? ‘Great Alec, let’s go get me…!’ That doesn’t jazz me and makes me feel like hiding in a box.

“But, last summer, he asked me to do this play with him at Guild Hall in Easthampton, “The Gift of the Gorgon,” by Peter Shaffer, a really tough, wild role unlike anything I’ve ever done, and that was glorious.”

Contact David Noh at Inthenoh@aol.com and check out his new blog at http://nohway.wordpress.com/.

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