Not been a great week, folks. I saw a tweet this morning that suggested we should call an early end to it and head over to the pub to drown our sorrows. The news of actor Alan Rickman’s passing from cancer at the age of 69 has left me inclined to agree. Between him and David Bowie earlier this week, we’re losing too many of our heroes. People we were never going to meet and who never knew of our own existence but still occupy that special place in our hearts reserved for family. Alan Rickman was a compelling actor for whom no one ever seemed to have a bad word, either in regard to his work or the man himself. And yet it’s surprising to know that for someone who provided so many indelible, endlessly quotable screen moments, he was never nominated for an Academy Award, never broke out of the character actor mold for a really meaty lead part, never achieved the level of stardom someone of his talents really deserved – although by the reaction seen on social media this morning, it’s clear that he was considered something by millions that many more “famous” actors can only dream of being: a treasure.
I did not know the man, I have no personal anecdotes about chance encounters with him to share. I have only what most people have: his legacy. Few on this side of the pond had heard of Alan Rickman when he signed on to star opposite Bruce Willis in 1988’s Die Hard. In retrospect it seems hard to imagine how risky a gamble that movie was considered at the time: an expensive action picture with an untested TV actor in the lead and an even lesser known British stage veteran as the villain. Yet it’s almost a perfect piece of cinematic entertainment, and so much of its success hinges on the strength of the two men pitted against one another. Rickman, with his singular, resonant, sepulchral tones coiling themselves lovingly around clever, sophisticated, literate dialogue with the slickness of an eel drenched in light sweet crude, crafted the perfect foil for the wisecracking, blue-collar Willis, and established a standard for memorable villains that led every single movie casting agent to burn through their Rolodex hunting for the next Shakespearean Brit they could pluck from obscurity to face off against the mumbling American action star du jour. You could argue that without Alan Rickman in Die Hard, there would have been no Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs, no Jeremy Irons in The Lion King, no Gary Oldman in… pretty much everything. And there certainly would have been no Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, emoting to the rafters about calling off Christmas and carving out innards with a spoon because “it’s dull, it’ll hurt more.” Rickman became so identified as the prototypical villain that it’s interesting to note he never played another straight baddie after that. (Your daily trivia: the villain in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s fourth-wall busting Last Action Hero was written for Rickman, literally – the script features the movie’s young hero calling him by name – but after Rickman begged off, Charles Dance took the part and wore a T-shirt to the set reading “I’m cheaper than Alan Rickman!”)
Wary, perhaps, of being relegated to what might have in fact been a profitable career of snarling and firing guns every few years, Rickman stepped back into smaller features, deploying his talents instead in period pieces and romantic films, and when it suited him, riffing on his own pop culture image. He was brilliant in Galaxy Quest as a character inspired by Leonard Nimoy, a classically trained stage actor typecast as an alien in a cheesy sci-fi show and reduced to spouting his tired catchphrase at department store ribbon cuttings. (His best moment in the movie: challenging co-star Tim Allen to find the motivation of a marauding rock monster and accusing him of never being serious about “the craft.”) And perhaps no one else could have so beautifully captured the hilarious over-the-top melancholy of Marvin the Paranoid Android in the underappreciated Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy either – one cannot help but smile when Marvin first descends from the ceiling warning everyone in Rickman’s voice that he’s feeling very depressed. Our instinct to immediately love an Alan Rickman character worked against us in Love Actually when we couldn’t believe what a heartless prat he was being to his adoring wife Emma Thompson, but our faith that there was more to him than the obvious notes was rewarded when we saw at the end that he was clearly trying to atone for his terrible mistake for the sake of their family – just as we hoped we would under the same circumstances.
And then, of course, there is the cherished Severus Snape in Harry Potter. However well-intentioned or made, the movies simply can’t capture the intricate details and backstories provided in the books, and so we rely on the performances to fill in the blanks. In the early films Snape always seems to be a character very much on the periphery, vacillating between heroics and villainy, and, atypically for Rickman, rather understated. In a few of the early movies you almost forget Snape is there, so minimal are his contributions to the plot. In the first film Rickman’s presence serves as an efficient red herring, so focused are you on the notion of this blatant bad guy that he distracts you completely from the true puppet master. From then onward, he lurks about in the background, and yet, because it’s Alan Rickman, you know there will end up being a deeper story to this man than the one you’re seeing on the surface. You can’t ignore what’s going on behind those dark eyes, and in that basso as it intones “Mis… tah Pottah.” The stage is carefully set over the course of eight films for the revelation of Snape’s complicated yet ultimately noble soul, and one doubts whether or not an actor other than Alan Rickman could have pulled it off, with the patience and the skill to weave together a character one tiny, almost unnoticeable thread at a time. Millions of children (and children at heart) will forevermore read those books and picture Rickman speaking the lines, a special kind of immortality after which many can long and few will ever achieve.
Like David Bowie, it is strange to contemplate the notion that there will never be another Alan Rickman movie. That no lucky screenwriter will ever again have the privilege of hearing that utterly unique voice giving life to their lines. But he leaves behind a rich body of work of which he could be proud and of which many of his generation of actors and those after him will be envious. Though he often played intense characters, he was not off-puttingly intense himself. He did not mouth off to the press or pretend that his chosen calling was somehow divine. He was never one to embrace the culture of celebrity or push himself into the tabloids with scandalous affairs or nasty comments about his peers. He was a good man, who did good work, always brought his best game, and possessed that endearing, ever-so-British trait of being able to take the piss out of himself every once in a while (watch his final appearance on the Tonight Show as he and Jimmy Fallon inhale helium balloons.) And millions of people loved him for it. Little gold statuettes are no substitute for the echo of applause that lingers long after the final curtain has come down and the stage lights have gone out.
Our ovation for Alan Rickman will go on for quite a while yet.