DATE June 19, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Author B. Mark Smith discusses stock market history
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
After 20 years as a stock trader and serving as vice president of Goldman
Sachs, Mark Smith left Wall Street to write. His first book is all about the
Street. It's a history of the American stock market from 1901 to the present
called "Toward Rational Exuberance." It isn't an investment guide. Smith
says his purpose is to help readers understand the modern stock market and the
central role it plays in today's economy. The year his book begins, 1901, is
the year, he says, marks the beginning of the modern stock market. US Steel
was formed that year, a trust that challenged investors' assumptions of how
stocks should be valued.
Mr. B. MARK SMITH (Author): Well, up to that point, and frankly after that
point to a large extent, but up to that point, stocks were evaluated strictly
on the basis of the dividends they paid. Nobody really wanted to try to
predict the future as we do routinely today, in part because accurate
information wasn't available, in part because there was so much blatant
manipulation and chicanery going on that nobody could trust the information
that was made available. But US Steel, when Morgan assembled that company,
what he was trying to do was say that, `Look, this company will be more
efficient going forward. It will earn more in the future because of the way
it's constituted. We can't just look at it as the sum total of the companies
that were merged together to form US Steel. We have to realize that, as an
ongoing entity, it will generate more earnings, and it will be a different
animal than what has gone before.' And so that was the first inkling, I
think, of the notion that stocks should be viewed for their future potential
earnings, which is routine today, but people don't realize back at that time,
if you tried to say, `I'm going to anticipate what a stock is going to earn
two or three years from now,' you'd be accused of just engaging in
speculation, that it was considered to be something that couldn't be done.
All you looked at really was the dividend the company paid than and nothing
GROSS: You said there was a lot of chicanery in this era in the stock market.
Give us an example of what was going on.
Mr. SMITH: Well, I have a number of stories in my book, but one of my
favorite stories is a man by the name of John Gates who ran a major steel
company that was actually merged into the US Steel by JP Morgan. And what
Gates did--this company was doing very well. The stock was selling at a high
price. Then all of a sudden, out of the blue, he announced that he was
closing 13 of his steel plants, presumably because business wasn't that good.
Now, obviously, that caught the market by surprise. The stock dropped
sharply. But what had happened is that Gates had sold short the stock of that
company, which is really--you know, the selling short is the reverse of
buying. In a way, you're betting the stock is going to go down. He had sold
short for his personal account, closed the plants, caused the stock to go
down, then bought back his short to make a profit, then reopened the plants
and went on doing business as he always had before.
Now this was a blatant manipulation. It would be, you know, completely
illegal today, but that kind of thing happened all the time. It was
considered to be routine back at the turn of the century. For obvious
reasons, the poor investor who was caught by that kind of manipulation, you
know, couldn't be very trusting toward the way companies were managed or the
kind of information was available to them. Hence, you had to value stocks
based on very conservative criteria.
GROSS: And were there no laws governing the stock market then?
Mr. SMITH: Very few. I mean, there were laws regarding fraud and a few
things like that, but most of the regulations that existed were New York Stock
Exchange regulations that grew up over time, primarily to protect the members
of the New York Stock Exchange, not the public.
GROSS: How was business transacted on the stock market at the turn of the
century? If you wanted to buy or sell a stock, what would you do?
Mr. SMITH: Well, actually, you know, the New York Stock Exchange and the way
it operates hasn't changed that much over the last hundred years. Now Nasdaq,
being a separate market system, is completely different. But the system of
actually buying and selling stocks on the New York Stock Exchange is almost
unchanged over the last century. Basically, there is a single post or a point
where a given stock is traded. All the buy and sell orders come together at
that particular post and are matched up, and that balance of supply and demand
then causes the stock either to go up or go down. And, you know, obviously,
we've had some changes in technology since then, but that fundamental open
outcry auction system, which is the way it's defined, hasn't changed much in
the last hundred years.
GROSS: My guest is B. Mark Smith. He's a former stock market trader and
author of the new book "Toward Rational Exuberance: The Evolution of the
Modern Stock Market."
Let's talk about the Dow Jones average. This was created at the turn of the
century where your book begins. It was created by who?
Mr. SMITH: Charles Dow. And he actually was the owner and original editor
of The Wall Street Journal and came up with the idea of creating an average.
At first, it was basically of rail stocks, and he added a few industrial
stocks, you know, which created what we know now as the Dow Jones industrial
average in 1896. At that time, there were only 12 what he called industrial
stocks that he felt were worthy of including in the average. Now the average
is up to 30 today. But that was the only average that goes back that far in
history. All the other market indices that we use today didn't get started
until some time later in the century, so for points of comparison in my book,
I use the Dow as much as possible, because it's the only one that's continuous
over the course of the hundred years.
GROSS: What was his intention when he put together the average?
Mr. SMITH: To try to come up with some way of measuring the market, because
up to that point, obviously, there were no calculators or computers, and
everything was very primitive. And people really didn't have any way of
knowing what the market was doing. You could observe individual stocks, but
until somebody came up with an index to measure all the stocks, or at least
representative stocks, there was no way to really give you a broad gauge of
what the overall market was doing.
GROSS: How do you think the Dow Jones average changed how people looked at
Mr. SMITH: Well, it made it possible to talk about the market. In other
words, prior to that point, you could only talk about individual stocks. When
the Dow was developed and subsequent averages, you could then say, `Well, the
market did this,' or `The market did that,' as opposed to say, `US Steel did
this,' and then just take US Steel as a proxy for the market. So it gave a
much more accurate means of assessing what was happening in the overall stock
GROSS: Let's jump ahead a few years to Clarence Barron, who founded the
financial weekly Barron's in 1921. You say one of his contributions is that
he thought outside investors could invest successfully in stocks and not be
adversely impacted by the machinations of market operators as long as investors
made solid, long-term investment decisions based on sound, economic
fundamentals and stayed away from short-term speculation. Was that a new
Mr. SMITH: In a sense, in the early 1920s, Barron and a couple of other
people began to talk more about, you know, what I referred to earlier with US
Steel in that people, you know, should look forward and anticipate what the
market was going to do as opposed to just judging it based on the dividends
that stocks currently paid. You started to see slowly in the first few
decades of the 20th century this idea become developed. Barron was one of the
first people who actually, you know, stated it in his new publication,
Barron's. It seems like commonsense now. So much of what has developed over
the last hundred years, we just take as being, you know, intuitively obvious
now. But at that time, you know, Barron's was trying to refute what was a
widely perceived impression that, because the market was subject to so much
manipulation, investors just couldn't possibly succeed in it, they just were
playing a losing game. And his notion was, in the long run, stocks are going
to grow with the economy and with the growth in corporate profits, and the
manipulation wasn't going to have effect. So if you just tried to focus on
the long run, you wouldn't be adversely impacted by the manipulating.
GROSS: Of course, Barron had this idea and made this statement just a few
years before the stock market crashed, so the long-term wasn't really looking
all that good.
Mr. SMITH: Well, see, that's one of the things I tried to deal with in the
book is mythologies grow up over time about the market based on conventional
wisdom that develops after the fact. And quite often, that conventional
wisdom turns out to be wrong. For example, you know, I spend quite a bit of
time talking about the 1929 crash. And a lot of people would be surprised to
know that that crash really wasn't much more severe than a number of other
crashes that had occurred in the 19th century or some declines that have
For example, in 1987, in that crash, in one day, the market was down 23
percent, which was twice the decline of the largest single daily decline in
1929. And so the notion that somehow the 1929 crash was this disastrous event
that had never happened before in somehow unique and financial history really
isn't accurate. The only reason that people pay such attention to it today is
that it was followed by the Great Depression. It was the Great Depression
that destroyed the stock market, not the 1929 crash.
GROSS: So you don't think the crash helped cause the depression?
Mr. SMITH: No. As a matter of fact, I argue quite strenuously that the
crash did not cause the depression. It did not really even predict the
depression because at the time the state of economic knowledge was nowhere
near sufficient to make that projection. And what people forget--again this
gets lost in the mythology, but once the crash itself ended in mid-November,
1929, the market rallied substantially and within about three or four months
had gained back over half of what it had lost during the crash. So in March
or April of 1930, somebody sitting there at that point in time could easily
have said, `Well, the crash is gone. It's just another one of these declines,
or our market breaks that we saw repeatedly in the 19th century, it really
isn't that significant.' Then, of course, the Great Depression
came--What?--you know, pulled the stock market down, but that was an entirely
GROSS: So what's your theory about what caused the depression?
Mr. SMITH: Well, I don't claim to be an economist, and economists still
today argue about that. But basically, as I say very briefly in the book,
that probably poor Federal Reserve monetary policy combined with a weak
banking system that basically just collapsed under pressure combined with some
very bad protectionist trade legislation that stifled international trade, all
these thing together caused what would have been a normal cyclical downturn in
the economy to turn into a depression. Again, the 1929 stock crash had
virtually nothing to do with that, and it certainly could not have predicted
the depression that happened later.
GROSS: You write about a lot of evolutionary changes in the stock market
over the past century, and I'm wondering if really immersing yourself in stock
market history changed your idea in any fundamental way about how sound the
stock market is and about how safe it is for the long-term.
Mr. SMITH: Well, it's interesting that you say that, because I've been
interested in the stock market since I was 15 years old, and I would actually,
when I was in high school, in college, go back into the library and read
through old newspaper accounts of the famous crashes in the 19th century or
1929 as an example. So when the 1987 crash occurred--and at that time, I was
a professional trader working at First Boston, I was right in the middle of
it, at one point, when I realized that the market was down over 20 percent on
the day and I realized that the largest single-daily decline in 1929 had been
only slightly over 20 percent, I said, `Wow, this is an important event.' And
I guess you could say that my knowledge of history and the fact I'd spent so
much time for my personal interest in studying stock market history caused me
to look at an event in my professional life differently than I might otherwise
GROSS: Well, tell me more about what that day was like for you. Did you lose
a lot of money personally? Did your clients lose a lot of money? What was on
the line for you?
Mr. SMITH: Well, basically, as a professional trader, I was trading for the
firm's account. At that time, I was First Boston, and later, I moved to
Goldman Sachs, so I was trading the firm's money. It wasn't really clients'
money. And the kind of products that I was trading at that time, which were
stocks and inconvertible bonds relative to stocks, actually didn't do that
badly, because, in a sense, we were playing relationships between different
kinds of securities as opposed to just, you know, owning stocks and watching
them go down.
It was fascinating, because as I watched the numbers go down and realized what
was happening, you almost had a sense of unreality. People who had been
involved in automobile accidents, for example, tell me that you seem like
you're almost divorced from reality. You're floating up in the air someplace
sort of looking down at all the chaos around you. And that was sort of like
the impression that I had when I was sitting here right in the middle of all
this chaos and all these hundreds of billions of dollars being lost. It was
almost like, `Wow, could this really be happening?' I know that sounds a
little strange, but that's the way I reacted to it.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is B. Mark Smith. He's the
author of the new book, "Toward Rational Exuberance: The Evolution of the
Modern Stock Market." He's a former trader and was a vice president at
Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is B. Mark Smith. He's the author of the new book, "Toward
Rational Exuberance: The Evolution of the Modern Stock Market."
Now, you know, some reviewers have really taken you to task for coming up with
this title "Toward Rational Exuberance," which is an answer to the whole
irrational exuberance thing, which is both the title of a best-selling book
and something that Alan Greenspan said to describe how he thought the market
was behaving a couple of years ago, you know, irrationally exuberant. But now
that you have your book, "Toward Rational Exuberance," you know, the market
has really been, you know, doing comparatively poorly, so, you know, a lot of
book reviewers are saying, `Boy, the timing's really bad for this title.'
Mr. SMITH: Yeah. Unfortunately, we couldn't control the timing, but it's
interesting that--I think that would fall into another case of what I call
mythology about the stock market. For example, obviously, technology stocks
have not done well in the last year or so. Or if somebody, you know, had all
his portfolio invested in dot-com or Internet stocks, then obviously they've
been decimated. But if you look at the Dow Jones average, it's right around
11,000, which is only a few points away from its all-time high. If you look
at the Standard & Poor's 500, which that index represents 90 percent of the
market capitalization in this country, including a lot of technology stocks,
it was down, at one point, a little over 20 percent last year, which barely
meets the definition for a mild bear market. It has since come back. That is
not at all a very serious decline by historical standards.
I mean, when people talk about a bursting bubble or these huge losses that
have supposedly been inflicted upon investors, they're really only talking
about a certain narrow group of stocks, meaning the technology stocks,
primarily the Nasdaq technology stocks, a few of the Internet, dot-com and
telecommunication stocks. The broader stock market, as a whole, has not done
that badly at all. And that's what I try to do in my book. I don't gear my
book towards a particular point in time. I'm not trying to say in my book
that stock prices are too high or too low. What I'm trying to do is explain
the process that occurred over the last hundred years and put a lot of these
myths in perspective. In my mind, a lot of the mythology about what
supposedly happened in the market in the last year or so isn't accurate
because people are just looking at one particular segment of the market and
using that as a means of generalizing to the market as a whole, which is not
GROSS: But on the other hand, there seems to be a general economic downturn
going on, and a lot of businesses are reporting losses. And those reported
losses are affecting other businesses' stocks...
Mr. SMITH: Yes.
GROSS: ...because there's this general fear of a downward trend.
Mr. SMITH: Well, that's happened before. I mean, we had recessions before
and I'm sure we'll have it again.
GROSS: A lot of people have money tied up in the market through their
Mr. SMITH: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: (Technical difficulties) ...thoughts about how the market's going to
be affected when the baby boom starts to retire and a lot of people start
withdrawing their money from those retirement funds and the market.
Mr. SMITH: Well, I think you'll actually see an effect before that. And one
of the things I talk about in the book is that in the 1980s and '90s, as
people have moved towards investing much more of their pension assets in the
market, people have a longer-term time horizon. Obviously, if you're
investing for retirement, you're not usually investing for money you're going
to need in the next four or five years, so you an afford to ride out the risk.
After the 1987 crash, for example, when a lot of people were worried that the
average investors would panic and pull his money out of the market, that
didn't happen. It's because people have bought into this notion that stocks
are a good long-term investment and you don't worry about the short-term
fluctuations; hence, you're willing to take more risk. You're willing to
invest a larger percentage of your assets in stocks.
But as the baby boom generation, of which I consider myself a member, moves
closer to retirement, we will become more risk-adverse. Even before we start
taking the money actually out, like you suggest, we will start thinking, `Hey,
I can't afford to take a 20- or 30-year time horizon anymore. I've got to be
much more concerned about these short-term fluctuations; hence, maybe I should
reduce the percentage of my portfolio that's invested in stocks.' As we
become more risk-averse, I think that will dampen the rate of increase in the
stock market (technical difficulties) ...forward, even before the baby boomers
actually start to withdraw their money. So that's a very major effect that I
see coming in the next, you know, 5, 10, 15 years.
GROSS: So tell me more about what you think that'll mean.
Mr. SMITH: Well, I think what it means is you're not going to see the kind
of rates of increase that we saw in the 1990s in the stock market, you know?
Part of the reason that the stock price went up so fast in the '90s obviously
was that the economy was doing very well. But beyond that, stocks rose even
faster than the rate of growth in the economy or the (technical difficulties)
growth in corporate earnings because people were moving towards this
willingness to take more risk. They're willing to put more of their portfolio
in stocks. Because they had this long-term philosophy, they're willing to buy
more speculative stocks because they had a longer-term time horizon.
As the baby boom generation moved closer to retirement, even (technical
difficulties) ...they actually started taking their money out, I think you'll
see a reversal of that process, which means if people take less risk, if they
want to own fewer stocks in their portfolio, the stock market won't go up as
fast as it has in the past. In fact, I think it'll probably only go up
roughly as fast as corporate earnings do in the future, which historically is
about 7 percent or so.
GROSS: President Bush supports the proposal of investing Social Security
money in the stock market. Do you think that's a good idea?
Mr. SMITH: Well, actually, both Bush and Gore proposed ways of using federal
tax dollars to subsidize investment in the stock market. The primary
difference between Gore's proposal and Bush's proposal was that Gore proposed
to do it outside of the Social Security system and use general tax revenues
and his proposal was also slightly more tilted towards lower income
individuals. But both of them, in essence, accepted the notion that the
federal government should, in some way or another, subsidize through the use
of tax dollars, whether they're Social Security tax dollars or general revenue
tax dollars, the idea of investing in the market. And I think it makes sense,
in a limited way, because the returns that this typical Social Security
investor gets now or the Social Security participant gets now are so poor,
historically, that even if you make the more conservative assumptions that I'm
making about what the market is going to do in the future, it's hard to see a
scenario where you're going to get less than 2 percent, which is basically
what the Social Security participants have been getting up to this point.
So in a limited sense, I think both the Bush and the Gore proposals make
sense, and there's really not that much of a difference between the two, other
than that Gore tries to preserve the fiction, really, that he's doing it
outside the Social Security system to preserve this so-called lock box,
whereas Bush does it within the Social Security system. But they both
basically have endorsed the same idea. And I agree with it in a limited way.
GROSS: Now that you're not a trader anymore and now that you say most of your
money is tied up in mutual funds, do you follow daily information very
Mr. SMITH: Yeah, I'll watch CNBC. I read, you know, The Wall Street Journal,
The Financial Times, The New York Times every day. And so I do, in part
because I'm just naturally interested in it, in part because it might
ultimately influence, you know, some investment decisions I make and, in part,
because I'm researching another book on the global stock market, so I need to
be aware of these things. So all three of those factors come into play, but I
do follow it pretty closely, yes.
GROSS: When you watch one of the financial shows and all the experts there
are offering their stock tips, what do you think?
Mr. SMITH: Well, some of my comments I probably couldn't make over the pubic
airwaves, but I've always joked that a lot of these guys who are market
prognosticators get up in the morning and they have three separate
explanations for what's going to happen in the market that day. They have one
that they'll use if the market goes up, they have another one they use if the
market goes down, and they have another one they'll use if the market stays
unchanged. And they wait till the end of the day, then they pick the one that
applies and they use that. So I don't have a lot of faith in the ability of
people to make short-term market judgments, I think, and I present a lot of
the evidence in my book. There's a surprising amount of data that shows that
it's really very difficult to do that. And certainly my own 20 years of
experience as a professional trader where I, if anybody, should have been able
to consistently outsmart the market on a short-term basis--and I never was
able to, and I always thought I was a pretty good trader and my employers did
most of the time. So I take a lot of what is said on CNBC and some of these
financial programs with a grain of salt. I guess that's the best way I can
put it, diplomatically.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. SMITH: Thank you.
GROSS: B. Mark Smith is the author of the new book "Toward Rational
Exuberance: The Evolution of the Modern Stock Market." I'm Terry Gross, and
this is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Charlotte Rampling discusses her life and film career
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Charlotte Rampling, is making a comeback after a long bout of
depression that prevented her from acting for several years. She started her
career in England in the mid-60s. Her best-known films include "Georgy Girl,"
"The Damned," "The Night Porter," "Zardoz," "Farewell My Lovely," "Stardust
Memories," and "The Verdict."
For the past 25 years she's lived in France. She plays an English woman
living in France in the new French film "Under the Sand." When the film
begins, Rampling's character Marie is driving with her husband Jean to their
summer home. There are long silences on the trip, and after their arrival
Jean seems detached. Soon they go to the beach and Marie takes a nap while
Jean prepares for an ocean swim. She wakes up to find he's disappeared.
Viewers aren't sure if Jean has drowned, committed suicide or walked out on
his wife. Marie is unable to accept any of these possibilities and carries on
as if he's expected back momentarily. In this scene, she meets her friend
Amanda at a restaurant. It's months after Marie's husband has disappeared,
but she's still talking about him in the present tense.
(Soundbite from "Under the Sand")
"AMANDA": So how are things?
Ms. CHARLOTTE RAMPLING: (As "Marie") OK. I'm just tired.
"AMANDA": Why don't you come to spend this weekend with us in the country?
You can rest up, hmm?
Ms. RAMPLING: What about Jean? I'm worried about him.
"AMANDA": What do you mean?
Ms. RAMPLING: Just wondering if...
"AMANDA": If what?
Ms. RAMPLING: I'm just wondering if he's not thinking about suicide.
"AMANDA": You mean you think that Jean might actually have committed suicide
Ms. RAMPLING: Amanda, if you knew anything about him, you would tell me,
"AMANDA": Of course I would. You're my best friend, Marie. But now it's
time to forget. There's no point going over it again and again. You have to
carry on, Marie. You have to live for yourself.
GROSS: Charlotte Rampling, welcome to FRESH AIR. The part in "Under the
Sand" was written for you by the director and screenwriter Francois Ozon. Did
he tell you why he wrote this for you, why he sought you out?
Ms. RAMPLING: I think he wanted a woman, an actress, but also a woman who is
prepared to delve very deeply into a different area that they're not
necessarily very comfortable without being inhibited and without wondering
what she necessarily looked like, without wondering about the fact that she
was acting on a ...(unintelligible). He wanted it to be more of an
experience, the whole film. And I think the way that I work has quite often
been like this, and I think that's what he picked up on and was very intrigued
by and sort of taken a step ...(unintelligible).
GROSS: My understanding is that you shot the first part of the movie and then
Francois Ozon, with your input, wrote the rest of the movie. So the first
part of the movie takes you up to the point where the husband disappears. Did
your interpretation of the first part of the movie change as you participated
in the writing process of the second part of the movie? Did you get different
ideas about what this couple's marriage was like, what kind of person your
Ms. RAMPLING: Well, I think in a way by living quite a while--because between
those two periods ended up being a bit longer because we had money problems.
It ended up being about five months. But during those five months, I didn't
work on another project. It was very much about really trying to understand
and be in that situation, not necessarily in a conscious way, but just
somehow, you know, like living your dreams with the idea of this kind of loss,
which I've actually personally been through way back with my sister when I was
20, and probably never really come to terms with it 'cause you don't really
very easily come to terms with grief. Nobody knows really how to grieve.
Some do it better than others. But in our five-month period of that writing
period, we had an awful lot of time to find out about Marie and about who, you
know, she meets and who can help her and how she actually comes through.
GROSS: What happened to your sister?
Ms. RAMPLING: My sister died when she was 23 and I was 20, quite suddenly, I
mean very suddenly, a brain hemorrhage. And so the shock sort of ricocheted
throughout our family, and my mother didn't really recover. She just died
recently, but she sort of--some huge part of her died when my sister died, and
she never really recovered. So she was unable to come to terms with it, and
she was a broken woman. And I, you know, as a younger girl, just sort of got
on and lived my life, but realized when I was doing this film, all sorts of
things came through to make me ...(unintelligible) or just to put things to
rest, let's say.
GROSS: Did you draw on your mother's reaction, too, because you
witnessed--you not only experienced your sister's death and, you know, from
your point of view, but in this same story your mother would be totally broken
Ms. RAMPLING: Yes, I suppose so. You see, I suppose I was able to do this
film in the way that I did it, and it seems that it has come across quite
powerfully, and I think probably the only way I was able to do it because I've
lived through all that for so many years, and it sort of haunted me, you know,
for many, many years because you don't really know what to do about it, and
you put it away and I banished it and pretended. You pretend and you go into
denial like Marie does, and you say, `Well, I mean, it happened, but I'm not
going to think about it. You know, I'm not actually going to think of what it
means. I'm not going to go into that darkness.'
But actually you end up having to, and you're going to end up having to in
rather odd ways. So I didn't--the actual grieving process that Marie goes
through is condensed in a quite visual period of time, which is really quite
healthy because it could go long, sort of can drag out for a very, very long
time when people can't come to terms with the death of somebody. And it does
go on for a very long time. It is very--How should I say?--very debilitating
for the person because you're sort of like held in some kind of grip. It's
like until you actually go towards the dead, you can't actually let yourself
live. It's a very--well, you know, it's a complex...
GROSS: It's something you could describe in the last scene of the movie.
Ms. RAMPLING: Almost probably, yes. Yeah, yeah. The last scene in the movie
is very much that. And it's, yes, swinging to and fro.
GROSS: Charlotte Rampling is my guest, and she's starring in the new film
"Under the Sand."
You were born in England in 1946. Your father was a British colonel who
became a NATO commander. What did he do in World War II?
Ms. RAMPLING: He was a gunner in the royal artillery (technical difficulties)
GROSS: So you grew up just after the war in England. Did you have vivid
memories about the war through what your parents told you?
Ms. RAMPLING: No, because my mother and my father never spoke of it, and it
was very true about a lot of people who had been through the war. People
didn't speak about things like that in those days, so I never knew anything
about anything that my father had done because he wouldn't tell me. And I
GROSS: You must feel like there's a whole part of him that you don't know.
Ms. RAMPLING: There is, and you never know because it might just all come
out just before he dies. When I say all come out, that's, you know, in a way
that's a rather romantic illusion, but he is beginning to talk now. Since my
mother died, he's beginning to talk, which is really quite extraordinary. So
you never know. You never know until somebody dies what they might reveal.
GROSS: I don't know if your father talked to you about this, but he won a
gold medal at 400-meter relay in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. This was the
Olympics that was documented in the Leni Riefenstahl movie "Triumph of the
Will." Could you see him in the film?
Ms. RAMPLING: Yes. Oh, yes. I mean, I only knew about that through
somebody else who told me that they'd seen my father in a film and that he'd
won this medal. I mean, that's as much as he's, you know, boxed into his
isolation. And so then I found out and I said, `Dad, I'm sending you a film
that you're in,' and then he started to break down and he started to break
into it and I tried to talk about it, and we talked about it a bit, but it's
the most beautiful film and he runs like a god because he had to catch up a
race that the runner before him was losing because he was ill, Frank Wolff.
My father was in the second lap of the relay, and it's an extraordinary race.
And the BBC recorded it, too, as one of the most outstanding athletical feats,
and he won a record four-lap race. He held the record for many, many years
for running absolutely. And then after that, I think he stopped because he
ran so well that I think he couldn't bear it and he had to stop. There are
strange people for many of those years.
GROSS: Well, did you have a strict upbringing? Was he strict with you?
Ms. RAMPLING: Yeah, but although I resented it, I'm quite glad I did have a
strict upbringing like that.
GROSS: You were also educated in private schools. Were you educated to be a
very proper young British woman?
Ms. RAMPLING: Yeah, in uniform and proper and learning with a lot of other
English girls at that time, and all that (technical difficulties). I sort of
in my way rebelled in my heart against it, but I knew that it was building
some strong fiber in me, and it had, because it's given me a very fine
structure and a sense of discipline, which actually does only help in life
yourself. You don't have to impose it on others, but you can if you have it
somewhere in the fiber of your soul from your education. It's not a bad
GROSS: Were you told before you started acting that you were beautiful, and
did that make your life any better, any easier? Were there any surprising
complications from that?
Ms. RAMPLING: No, 'cause I don't think that you really sort of do know that
you're beautiful in a funny way, but I know this sounds odd again. But if you
ask any young, beautiful woman, they sort of--you just want to be part of the
pack actually at that age. You just want to learn how to grow up and not be
taken out and sort of be shown that you're too different. I mean, that's how
GROSS: But usually--you know, the assumption is being really attractive
increases your stature, makes you more liked, more popular...
Ms. RAMPLING: Yeah, it does, but...
GROSS: ...more everything that young girls want to be.
Ms. RAMPLING: Yes, but I knew that I didn't deserve it and it wasn't
anything to do with me, so I knew from a very early age that I should never
play with this as some kind of weapon because it didn't belong to me. And it
was useful. It could be useful and it sure has been useful and, you know,
I've had fantastic years knowing that I'm beautiful. But I was also terrified
about the whole: Why did people like me more than my friend who was less
beautiful? Why did I get the advantages? Why was always I asked out to
parties and they weren't?
GROSS: Were there things you really wanted to be noticed for that you felt
you had more earned, that were more about your talents or your personality?
Ms. RAMPLING: Well, you think so but you don't quite know at that age. You
think, you know, there must be others. You know there are other things,
deeper, hidden things that you want to learn about as you grow older and as
you grow up, deep things that you feel that are your value, your own personal
unique value that only belong to you as a unique individual, being part of a
collective, not just almost on your own. And beauty is something that gives
you the pathways into all these fields if you want to. But I always
felt--I've really beaten myself up about it in a sense I felt that I really
have to earn it, that's all. But then if I denied it, it would be the same
thing. I'd have fought as hard to be accepted, and just because I'm not
Ms. RAMPLING: ...the battle is the same.
Ms. RAMPLING: The battle actually is the same, but supposedly the beautiful
ones have the luckier, you know, coin.
GROSS: My guest is Charlotte Rampling. Her new film is called "Under the
Sand." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is actress Charlotte Rampling. She's starring in the new
film "Under the Sand."
So you started making films when you were 17. You were 20 when your older
sister died of a brain aneurysm, so you already had several films that you
made. So just as you were, you know, becoming a star and entering into this
exciting world, your sister died, and so you were in this kind of increasingly
glamorous world at the same time you lost her. That must have been, well,
just an incredible contrast between the world you were entering and the grief
that you were feeling.
Ms. RAMPLING: Yeah, and that's when I stopped making fun pictures. I was
having a lot of fun. I was really having fun for three years, sort of in my
life, I really had fun. I mean, I don't say that I didn't, you know, have
that later on, but much later on, and the guilt was just terrifying, you know?
When somebody dies, and especially my mother was beside herself with grief,
you just say, `I can't make fun films anymore.' So that's when I went into
the darker side and, you know, I sought out films that psychologically were
much more painful.
GROSS: Well, let me get to one that's probably about as dark as it gets.
There's a film you're very famous for, the 1974 movie "The Night Porter," and
you play a concentration camp victim who, several years after the war, you
meet up with a Nazi who abused you in the camp, and you both start up a very
disturbing kind of sadomasochistic sexual relationship. The Nazi is played
by Dirk Bogarde, who you also worked with 1969 in "The Damned." How did you
feel about taking this role? I mean, this is a role that some people would
describe as very dark. Other people might describe it as disturbing. Others
might call it kind of sick. You know, it's a pretty heavy role.
Ms. RAMPLING: It's about--yeah.
Ms. RAMPLING: It's about forbidden things, you know. It's about areas that
we don't often really want to go into and analyze and think about and turn
over and look at. It's about, you know, deep, dark fantasy world that, you
know, perhaps we dream about but we don't really want to get into. And I
think the reason I took this film--I've lived on a very instinctual level, and
my choices are sort of just, you know, grabbed somewhere inside, 'cause if you
start to analyze why you would do "Night Porter"--and I'd just had a baby, who
was my first son, who was three months old--and when Dirk Bogarde called me,
'cause I'd worked with him in "The Damned" with Visconti before, and when he
called me, he said, `Look, I've decided to do this film after five years
'cause I turned it down three times. I've decided to do this film. There's
only one girl that can do it, and I won't do it with anyone else but you.'
They wanted Romy Schneider at the time, who was a bit much bigger star. I
wasn't a star at all at that time, so I didn't, you know, wield any money or
power or name. But when Liliana Cavani saw me, she said that was it, and
there was a kind of fascinating thing that happened with Dirk and I around
this subject. Dirk, his reasons from the war and the pain and horrors that
he'd lived through through the war; and me for what I'd been through on a
personal basis. And so, you know, again that was all put into the film.
GROSS: What do you think of as your character's motivation for entering into
this relationship with an unreformed Nazi?
Ms. RAMPLING: Well, she was abused and couldn't do anything else. Like
abused children, she was very young. She was 16. And when she saw him again,
it was the only thing that had ever really deeply affected her, whether it was
love or whatever it was. It was so affecting to her, this experience that she
had when she was 16 in the camp, that when she saw him again she could not
resist it and had to go plunging back into that darkness.
GROSS: There's a very provocative scene in "The Night Porter" in which you're
singing a very sultry cabaret kind of song in a room of Nazis. You're moving
around the room slowly and evocatively wearing baggy pants which are held up
by suspenders and the suspenders are the only garment that you're wearing from
the waist up. Would you describe filming this scene?
Ms. RAMPLING: Well, strangely, as films are, that scene was the first scene I
had to make in the film, and I arrived and I not only had to learn the song,
the German song of (German spoken), an old song of hers, but we also had to
learn what we were gonna do in this very sort of evocative, tragic scene, and
it was the first thing we did. So we just do it.
(Soundbite from "The Night Porter")
Ms. RAMPLING: (Singing in German)
GROSS: That's Charlotte Rampling singing in the scene from the 1974 film "The
Night Porter." So what was the experience like of making a film that's this
dark and this sexually dark? I mean, was it a disturbing experience for you
to make the movie?
Ms. RAMPLING: Yeah. Yeah, completely disturbing. Completely disturbing.
You sort of put yourself on hold. There's an odd technique that you have in
this business, as you put yourself sort of slightly in denial about a lot of
stuff, because otherwise you can't really do it.
Ms. RAMPLING: And you know that you can command your body into action to do
it absolutely as you want to do it, but your mind is not quite connected to
what you're doing. Your mind is somewhere else.
GROSS: Had you sung much before this movie?
Ms. RAMPLING: No, just like everybody, you know, singing away. And you do
in voice classes, too, that I'd taken. There was singing lessons and how to
project your voice, so I had worked on it, but the voice had to be very bad
really. It had to be not too good. It had to be the terrified sort of
strange voice of a 16-year-old singing under duress and also in a way getting
sort of a bit high on it. So there was all that mixed in.
GROSS: Now correct me if I'm wrong, but I had read that you had considered
singing when you were in your teens, but your father didn't want you to be a
singer because it meant wearing short skirts at cabarets. I had laughed so
hard when I saw that because this is your singing debut here.
Ms. RAMPLING: Yeah, that's actually very interesting you bring this up. I
just hadn't thought about it. Absolutely true. His nightmare come...
GROSS: He was worried about you wearing a short skirt, and here you are,
like, you know, wearing nothing but suspenders and pants.
Ms. RAMPLING: Right, and more decadent debut could you have not.
GROSS: Precisely. Did he ever see the movie?
Ms. RAMPLING: Well, he said he'd never seen it, but I had found out that he
had years and years and years later, and I wonder actually if he had really
anyhow. But we don't talk about my films at home. Well, my mom doesn't
because she can't, but my dad never talks about my work. It's one of the
subjects that we don't talk about.
GROSS: Right. I got it. Yeah.
Ms. RAMPLING: But he's talking--as I say, he's, you know, coming out now a
little bit and he's really beginning. He was interested why I went to America
and what is this film, you know, "Under the Sand." First time we've ever
actually talked about. And this is since my mother died, interestingly. It's
quite--strange things unlocked, aren't they? You never know. And so he's now
talking a little bit about them. Now he's realizing a little bit what I've
done in my life and he's saying how proud he is of me and things like that.
So it's really neat.
GROSS: My guest is Charlotte Rampling. Her new movie is called "Under the
Sand." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Charlotte Rampling is my guest. She's starring in the film "Under the
You know how you were saying after your sister died you really wanted to take
roles that weren't, like, funny and entertaining, but roles that were in dark
films because that was the mood that you were in. Did you at some point move
away from that and feel that you could do entertaining or funny films again,
they didn't have to just be about darkness?
Ms. RAMPLING: Well, that came later. You see, that came, I would say, in my
late 30s really, when I decided not to make any films at all because it just
wasn't--I mean, I just--all this wanting to go into the darkness of the films
had been extraordinary, and I learned a lot, but I'd come to a dead end. And
I then sort of had to go into my own particular world, and then when I came
out of that--I suppose you could call that the depressive time, right? So
when I'd come out of that a few years later, then there was much fluidity in
choice and, yeah--and now films can ...(unintelligible). I'm much freer to
choose that way ...(unintelligible).
GROSS: Are you saying you went through a period of depression where you
didn't even want to work?
Ms. RAMPLING: Yeah, but that was very necessary, too, obviously. On the
kind of journey I was on, if you look in retrospect, you know, I just had to
go into that, too, and just shut down, and then, you know, you learn other
things which bring you out and on you carry on.
GROSS: How long was that shutting down period?
Ms. RAMPLING: Well, it wasn't a complete shutdown all the time but a
complete shutdown for about three years and then it sort of eased and eased
and eased, and then you realize that you're coming into the light and you're
able to actually begin doing things and connecting with the world and all
that, and then it becomes--you realize that you're, you know, coming back into
yourself really, because you just completely lose yourself. It's really like
dying, I suppose, in a way.
GROSS: Was this in the '80s, in the '90s?
Ms. RAMPLING: This was in the '90s, yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: So one last question. When you were going through your depression,
were you confident that you'd come out of it and that you'd eventually work
Ms. RAMPLING: No.
GROSS: Right. This sounds like it went on for a few years.
Ms. RAMPLING: But you know, you have two options, don't you? To somehow
come through it or to take your life. You have two options, and that's why
depression is a very serious thing, because you do have the option, and a lot
of people take the other option. I didn't. You know, there'd been enough
death in my family, but I didn't know whether I'd come through it because I'd
just--you know, you have no idea.
Ms. RAMPLING: But I think most people do when they--I don't know the numbers
of it, but you do somehow. I don't know how, and there's all sorts of
different ways, but you do come through. But it takes an awful long time. I
mean, there are various degrees, you know? There are various degrees. There
are various intensities, too. Some people it's much milder than others, you
know, thank goodness.
GROSS: You know, people always wonder what--if you're talented, if you're a
movie star and you're beautiful and you have money, how could you be so
depressed, right? Like why, when you have so many gifts? I think some people
find that incomprehensible. But it seems like it's just kind of beyond all
that. It's something more internal than all that.
Ms. RAMPLING: Yeah, because you see, it's about your soul. It's about your
spirit, and your spirit doesn't know about all that, and your soul doesn't
know about, you know, advantages in this world, wonderful advantages. I have
been given the beauty and, you know, the children and a career and all that.
Your spirit and your soul doesn't know about all that, and that's what we're
talking about. Your spirit is yearning so, so deeply and is in such pain and
you don't know why, and that's what you somehow--it's not having to find out,
but you just have to nurture it and just hope that, you know, you will come
back wanting to live again.
GROSS: Well, it's great to see you in movies again and I want to thank you so
much for talking with us.
Ms. RAMPLING: That was very nice, thank you. Thank you for talking to me.
GROSS: Charlotte Rampling is starring in the new French film "Under the
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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