The celebrity obituary pages have been relentless in the new year. David Bowie’s death a few days ago was shocking enough, but to wake up this morning to read that Alan Rickman had also died of cancer, at age 69, I could only gasp. I figured we had many more years of Rickman’s performances to look forward to. The realization that was not to be saddened me. Then, as we always do when an admired celebrity dies, I thought of his family and those who actually knew him and felt for their loss. We lost a talent. They lost an important part of their lives.
Like most American filmgoers, I first encountered Rickman as the criminal genius Hans Gruber in Die Hard. Of course, he will always be remembered as Severus Snape in the eight Harry Potter movies. Rickman leaves behind a wealth of performance beyond Hans Gruber and Severus Snape, but those two roles should not be discounted because they were popular. Rickman was brilliant as both characters.
Let’s go back to the summer of 1988 and the wonderful surprise that was Die Hard. It was the smartest action movie in ages, one that respected the audience’s intelligence. Every scene in the plot led logically to the next, and every action sequence was necessary to the story, not a chance to show off the latest pyrotechnics. Nearly every ingredient in Die Hard was perfect, and the tastiest of those ingredients was Rickman’s villain.
Rickman was a British stage and television veteran prior to making Die Hard, his first film, so he was an unknown to American audiences.I can assure you that all of us who saw the movie that summer knew we were witnessing a star-making performance. In the red-bashing era of the late 1980s (remember Drago from Rocky IV?), Rickman’s pseudo-terrorist was strikingly different from the screen baddies of the time. Gruber had the composure and control an early Bond villain, but with more elegance, more panache. He wasn’t a thug in fatigues. Dressed as if he had arrived at the Los Angeles airport straight from Saville Row, Rickman had charisma. And he had that delicious baritone voice that curled like smoke around each line he delivered. Rickman controlled the screen as if he were the main character, not Bruce Willis’ John McClane.
A prime rule of the thriller is your hero is only as good as his villain, and Hans Gruber is one of the greatest villains in movie history. One of the pleasures of Die Hard is that the hero and the villain are both intelligent, and we are held in suspense as their battle of wits plays out. Essentially Die Hard pits Willis’ blue collar, all-American know-how against Rickman’s expensively tailored, European savoir faire. It’s an American film, so you know who was going to win, but Rickman made sure Willis’ victory would be hard fought. Few screen heroes until then bled and sweated so much to earn their moment of triumph. I can’t believe I’m writing this, but Die Hard is nearly 30 years old and it is still regarded as one of the finest films of its genre. Its success would be unimaginable without Rickman.
After Die Hard I remember many people wishing Rickman would play a Bond villain, but I thought why would he want to. It would be redundant for him. He already played a Bond villain. Hans Gruber is the best Bond villain who never appeared in a Bond movie. In fact, he’s a better Bond villain than at least half of the genuine Bond villains.
Younger audiences know Rickman best from the Harry Potter movies, and I suspect Severus Snape will be the role he will always be remembered for. Unlike other actors who chafe at thoughts of their most popular characters (such as the character he played in Galaxy Quest) Rickman expressed pride instead of regret that Snape would be his legacy. He also had a loyalty to Potter creator J.K. Rowlings. When he met children who told him they loved the Harry Potter movies but hadn’t read the books, he encouraged them to read the books because they were missing important parts of the story.
I would wager that of the people who read the books before they became movies, most of us pictured Rickman whenever Snape appeared on the page. Rowling has said she had Rickman in mind when she created the character and he was her first choice to play Snape. Inconceivably, the role almost went to Tim Roth, who turned it down for Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake. Bad career move for Roth, but it gave us the Snape that was meant to be.
Severus Snape is the most complex character in the Harry Potter saga. He despised Harry Potter, but felt obliged to protect the boy wizard out of love for Harry’s mother. The real tragedy of the story is that because Harry and Snape were prejudiced against each other, they never opened up and became friends. To his everlasting regret, Harry learned of Snape’s sacrifices only after his death.
To be honest, the Potter films, especially the early ones, never required much of Rickman besides presiding over potions class with a fearsome countenance. When I read the sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, I couldn’t wait for the movie to see Rickman finally would get a chance to let it rip. But the movie omitted much of the book’s Snape material, even though he was the half-blood prince of the title. Rickman is without doubt an important part of the Harry Potter films, but it frustrates me that the filmmakers never employed him as fully as they could. He did get a fitting send off in the final film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.
Rickman had many roles besides Hans Gruber and Severus Snape, and he had the versality to prove he didn’t always have to be the villain. He could play romance, as he did in Ang Lee’s 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. He worked with Emma Thompson again in Richard Curtis’ frothy Christmastide ensemble, Love Actually (2003). He could play comedy, as in his vocal performance playing Marvin the paranoid android in the 2005 big-screen version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. His turn at the villainous Sheriff of Nottingham in the underrated Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is actually quite funny.
Probably Rickman’s best known comic role is the disillusioned Shakespearean actor Alexander Dane in the delightful Star Trek spoof, Galaxy Quest. On the Galaxy Quest TV show, Dane played the program’s breakout alien character, Dr. Lazarus, a combination of Mr. Spock and Mr. Worf. Dr. Lazarus was the logical science officer, but he came from a warrior race like the Klingons and Dane wore an impressive Klingon-like prosthesis over his head to play the character. The key to Dane was that he resented being typecast as a sci-fi character and hated going to conventions where a parade of fans asked him to repeat his catchphrase, “By Grabthar’s hammer, you shall be avenged.”
What is key to Rickman’s performance is he plays it straight rather than comedic, so that Dane’s acceptance of Dr. Lazarus and even his catchphrase by the end is genuinely moving. It’s a surprisingly affecting performance in a surprisingly fun movie.
Most of the women I know, including my wife, will immediately cite Truly, Madly, Deeply as their favorite Alan Rickman film. If you haven’t seen it, you must, thought it may be difficult to watch right now because Rickman plays a ghost. (It’s especially sad to remember that the movie’s writer and director, the Oscar-winning Anthony Minghella, also died too soon.)
In the 1990 romantic fantasy, Rickman plays Juliet Stevenson’s boyfriend, who returns to her shortly after his death and tries to pick up where their relationship left off. This is a premise that has been used maybe a dozen times before, including the megahit Ghost released that same year, but never as imaginatively. By turns sad, romantic, funny, dramatic, and ultimately hopeful, Truly, Madly, Deeply deals with the pain of loss as honestly as any film I have seen, so I take back what I wrote a little earlier. It may be the perfect Alan Rickman movie to watch right now and remember him.
Alan Rickman was an immense acting talent who could go back and forth from the stage to the screen, and from Hollywood blockbusters to smaller British films. He excelled no matter the setting. I envy audiences who had a chance to see him on stage. I always looked forward to seeing him in a film, even if I wasn’t particularly looking forward to the film. I regret we won’t be able to see any more performances from this fine actor, but I am grateful for the many he has given us. Farewell, Mr. Rickman. You will be missed by millions.