Charlotte Rampling stirred up controversy after claiming that the uproar over the Oscars' lack of diversity is "racist to whites"
Credit: Clemens Bilan/Getty

Well, Charlotte Rampling just went and put her foot in it.

That’s a kind way of saying that the 69-year-old British actress, a surprise Best Actress Oscar nominee for a small movie called 45 Years, should not have told a French interviewer that the controversy over the award’s lack of diversity is, in her opinion, “racist to whites.” She should not have added that “maybe black actors did not deserve to make the final stretch.”

If Rampling was already considered a remote possibility to win against the likes of Room’s Brie Larson, she just pushed off from shore in a little dinghy and rowed herself way out to sea. The social-media response was instant and condemnatory. Piers Morgan tweeted: “MISSING: a set of marbles. If found, please return to Charlotte Rampling.”

Prior to this eruption – in fact, prior to Rampling’s nomination – many Americans probably had little awareness of who the distinguished actress even is or was. Most recently they might have spotted her as a psychiatrist on Showtime’s Dexter. She also turns up in the new BBC America series London Spy. Her best performances (many of them in obscure French movies) are emotionally reserved but somehow rich, haunted by an air of sadness, doubt, trouble and anger. 45 Years, in which she plays a woman who realizes that her husband has lied about his true feelings all through their long marriage, could be said to be Rampling distilled to her essence. The whole film, in a sense, hinges on a simple, unexpected gesture she makes at the end.

This is not the sort of actress who has ever been guided by a thirst for “vehicles” or roles that display “range” or “versatility,” let alone projects that generate awards buzz or box office.

Rampling has had what you might call a smallish career over the past half-century, but a fascinating one, too. With her smoky, hooded eyes and strong cheekbones, she was one of the great beauties to come out of swinging London in the 1960s. Even now, she’s physically magnetic on camera – she was the subject of a 2011 documentary, The Look.

Her acting career initially seemed haphazard and indifferent to stardom (she has talked often about problems with depression), and maybe even hostile to it: Her most famous role was in a notorious movie, 1974’s The Night Porter, in which she was a Holocaust survivor having an S&M affair with the Nazi officer who tortured her in the war. She also appeared in the 1977 movie Orca, about a killer whale. Oh.

Slowly, though, she found her niche playing beautiful women, more often than not of a certain age, who functioned as a sort of highbrow, high-class, high-strung femme fatale. Tautly exquisite, she betrayed Paul Newman in The Verdict and suffered a nervous breakdown (in close-up) in Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories.”

45 Years is possibly the culmination of her film career. At the moment, though, it’s also a salvage job for publicists.