One week ago today, the world lost a truly unique talent when British actor Alan Rickman died of pancreatic cancer.
He was only sixty-nine years old.
There have sadly been many celebrity deaths already in 2016. David Bowie, who I knew first from Labyrinth and only later from his music. Brian Bedford, the Stratford theatre actor who made a cartoon fox totally crushable in Disney’s Robin Hood. Glenn Frey, guitarist & founding member of The Eagles. It’s been rough – we have reached the age where we feel like we have to start checking the obituaries because we’re going to recognize a name or two. I’ve made my peace with sliding gently toward my forties, but if I’m getting older it means my idols are too, and the outpouring of public grief that follows a celebrity death is each of us mourning our own mortality.
Alan Rickman hit me the hardest. He is one of the few actors that I would approach if I ever saw him out in the world, just to thank him for his many performances that have brought me so much joy over the years. He was my first non-teen-magazine-approved crush. He could convey a full range of emotions with a quirk of one eyebrow. A friend of mine whose young daughter performs on stage tells her to speak slowly and deliberately; “bring a bit of Severus Snape to every role you play”. Depending on how old you are and where your interests lie, he was Hans Gruber or the Sheriff of Nottingham or Harry Potter’s nemesis or Harry the cheating lout.
Just about everyone has an Alan Rickman role that sticks in their mind, and in the days following his death the internet was awash in memories, memes, and video clips. It was a public funeral, really, and it helped us all.
And so, in no particular order, here are some of Rickman’s most iconic performances.
The Sheriff of Nottingham
When I was thirteen, I went to see Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. I went because Christian Slater was in it. CHRISTIAN SLATER. I had so many posters of his face, torn carefully out of Tiger Beat and the like. I came out two hours later (and went straight to Zellers to buy the soundtrack on cassette, because I was cool like that) wondering just who that British dude was who played the Sheriff.
I distinctly remember his throwaway lines as he stormed through the castle in a rage. He runs past two serving girls, skids to halt, and points dramatically:
You. My room. 10:30 tonight. You. 10:45. And bring a friend.
I thought to myself ha ha ha, that’s funny, because there’s a sex joke in there. Wait. Hold on. Bring a friend? Like, two of them? Like two of them AND him at the same time? No joke, that was my first-ever inkling that more than two people could have sex at once, and I had no idea how it would work but it was certainly intriguing.
There are those who will always associate Alan Rickman with the Harry Potter universe, and there are those who will never get past his first movie role, in arguably one of the finest action movies ever made, Die Hard. (It’s also a sort-of-unlikely Christmas tradition for a lot of folks, so get on that, Netflix.)
Better writers than I have talked about how this particular role is pretty damned inspiring, because Rickman was 42 years old when he was cast as the suave and terrifying Gruber. I know a lot of folks who aren’t 42 yet who are convinced their life path is carved in stone. To those people I say “yippie-ki-yay, motherfucker”. Rickman owned this role, and you can see echoes of his icy, merciless performance in countless action movie villains since.
Alexander Dane / Dr. Lazarus
Galaxy Quest is a movie I watched once, when it first came out, and then not again until this past weekend. I was much more able to appreciate it now, after nearly 20 years of watching Star Trek – because if you haven’t seen it, Quest is the finest Trek parody ever filmed. This is due in large part to Rickman’s portrayal of frustrated stage actor Alexander Dane, forever trapped in a role that comes with a prosthetic head and a catchphrase: “By Grabthar’s hammer, by the suns of Warvan, you shall be avenged.” Just listen to the disgust in his tone as he is forced to recite “the line” at a store opening:
It’s also on Netflix right now, so go watch it. You’ll thank me.
I know Kevin Smith’s movies aren’t for everyone. The humour is juvenile, the directing style is usually pretty flat, and they often don’t have much more to say beyond very VERY broad social satire.
If you haven’t seen Dogma, though, you really ought to give it a chance. The humour is still juvenile, that’s true, but it’s a fascinating look at the nature of faith. Any movie that has a Catholic plenary indulgence as the plot lynchpin but still manages to fit in dick jokes – and have both work – is pretty remarkable.
Rickman’s portrayal of The Metatron – the Voice of God – is nuanced, funny, loving, and imbued with a pathos that elevates the whole film.
Surely I don’t need to tell any of you about his heartwrenching portrayal of Colonel Brandon, in Sense & Sensibility? Pity the poor actor who played the cad Willoughby, who was supposed to be believable as Marianne Dashwood’s crush but paled in comparison to the always kind but inexpressibly sad Colonel.
JK Rowling has said on several occasions that Rickman was in her mind when she wrote the character of Professor Snape, and it truly is hard to imagine any other actor in the role. It’s an amazing achievement, when you look at all eight movies as a whole; the audience is required to believe that he is a terrible villain, capable of horrible cruelty; we need to hate him as much as Harry Potter does, and that’s a challenge when the actor is as beloved as Rickman was by the time he took on this role.
As the series progresses, we are asked to feel sympathy for Snape as a child and a young man, never popular, never fitting in, coming from a broken home. We see his helplessness over his estrangement from Lily, and his anguish when he realizes his actions have caused her death.
By the final movie, when Snape dies, you are cognizant of having lived through once of the most layered and complex character portrayals you’ve ever seen on film. Then you remember that he knew where Snape was headed all along (Rowling told him, as an enticement to take on the role) and yet never allowed that knowledge to bleed through his performance in the earlier films.
It’s pretty amazing, really, and it’s no wonder that a whole generation of young people (including my own 10 year old, who was devastated at the news that Snape had died) will forever associate him with this role.
I could go on. Alan Rickman had a steady career in film, and I’ve yet to see him in a movie where he didn’t elevate the performances of everyone around him. After his death, many actors talked about how generous he was, how unfailingly kind and encouraging, how warm and loving to his family and wide circle of friends. By all accounts he was not only a unique talent, but also a genuinely decent human being.
I’ll leave you with his last “performance”, a short narration of a charity fundraiser for Save the Children. Please, click on the link – each view means a donation to this worthwhile cause, and it’s a fine way to honour his memory.