“Wait a minute. Robin Hood steals money from my pocket, forcing me to hurt the public, and they love him for it? That’s it then. Cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans, no more merciful beheadings, and call off Christmas.” ~ The Sheriff of Nottingham, Robin Hood Prince Of Thieves
“Marianne Dashwood would no more think of me than she would of you, John.” ~ Colonel Brandon, Sense And Sensibility
“Some men are born in the wrong century. I think I was born on the wrong continent. Oh, by the way, you’re fired.” ~ Elliot Marston, Quigley Down Under
“I am an exceptional thief, Mrs. McClane. And since I’m moving up to kidnapping, you should be more polite.” ~ Hans Gruber, Die Hard
“The Irish people established the Irish republic. It can only be disestablished by the Irish people.” ~ Eamon de Valera, Michael Collins
“Well, I say we get drunk, because I’m all out of ideas.” ~ Metatron, Dogma
“Weasley’s wand causes devastation with the simplest spells. We’ll be sending Potter to the hospital wing in a matchbox.” ~ Severus Snape, Harry Potter & The Chamber Of Secrets
“I get stage fright and gremlins in my head saying: you’re going to forget your lines.” ~ Alan Rickman
“I am the character you are not supposed to like.” ~ Alan Rickman
“What’s interesting about the process of acting is how often you don’t know what you’re doing.” ~ Alan Rickman
It’s been a week for the deaths of the famous. It began with the news that David Bowie had passed away, with his final album being his farewell to the world in a way that most people didn’t know until after the fact. And then on Thursday came the news of the death of one of my favourite actors, the great stage and screen actor Alan Rickman.
Most North Americans were first introduced to him through Die Hard, but the actor had a long resume before that. Born in a working class British family, he got into drama in school, eventually attending the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. The stage followed, including Shakespeare, experimental, and repertory theatre. He got cast as the villainous Hans Gruber in Die Hard after his stage work got the attention of producer Joel Silver, and the film exposed him to a wider audience. Writer Steven de Souza has said that he wrote the script as if Gruber was the protagonist, which is a fair view. It can be said that you can look at the film as if Gruber’s the hero, trying to get a difficult job done while this annoying cop runs around getting in his way. It was Rickman’s first feature film, and what a role it was- the ruthless, clever leader of a gang, charming in his own way, and he got so many of the best lines.
Rickman made a big impression with that first villain, and there were others to follow. Quigley Down Under featured him in a Western set in 19th century Australia, playing a vicious ranch owner. He followed that with a more sympathetic role as a ghost in the fantasy romantic drama Truly, Madly, Deeply (I read a comment the other day wondering if Rickman’s ghost is going to be haunting Juliet Stevenson for a few months). And then along came another great villainous film role for the actor.
Robin Hood Prince Of Thieves (aka the one with the lead actor not able to maintain an English accent) saw Rickman cast as the Sheriff of Nottingham, and he’s the best part of the film, a pleasure to watch as he chews the scenery, storms about with the best lines, and just comes across as though he’s having a ball being so nasty. His Sheriff is pure and unadulterated evil, malevolent, and ill tempered, suggesting that carving out an enemy’s heart with a spoon is better because it’ll hurt more, abusing his staff, and killing his cousin without a second thought. Throughout the film, as nasty and despicable a character as he is, you can’t help but enjoy watching him- Rickman takes the character and makes it his own.
Contrast that with another role, then, as Colonel Brandon in the 1995 adaptation of Sense And Sensibility. Jane Austen’s novel had been adapted before, and this version by director Ang Lee featured Rickman with Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Hugh Grant, and a strong supporting cast. Where some of Rickman’s previous roles had been villainous or Machiavellian, Brandon is the opposite: soft spoken, inherently decent, principled, a man of integrity. The character fit in well with the others, and Rickman’s performance gives the character a lot of humanity. He gives complexity and dry humour as well in his performance as Eamon de Valera, the Irish radical turned president in Michael Collins opposite Liam Neeson. That humour was also in play for his role as Harry in Love Actually.
It is a series that perhaps will have the longest impact for Rickman’s career- the Harry Potter films. He was cast as the pivotal professor of magic Severus Snape, seemingly that teacher we all hope we never get. Snape stalks through the films growling and sneering at his students, removing points from their houses, sending them to detention for seemingly no reason at all, and coming across like a Goth who never got past being a Goth. While on occasion he is seen to do things for the greater good, Snape generally occupies an antagonistic role to the main character through most of these films- he and young Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) have a mutual dislike that started for Snape with Harry’s father, who the boy reminds him of.
And yet he’s not the villain. Despite being thoroughly cranky and seeming to vent a good deal of hostility on one student in particular and his friends by association, and despite hanging around with the wrong people on too many occasions, Snape’s motives aren’t revealed until the last act of the book series and the movies. And it’s such a marvellous revelation, because it takes this antagonist and shows him to be a hero. A very human hero with flaws, but a hero nonetheless. J.K. Rowling had it in mind from the start, and it really works.
It turns out that when Rickman was cast for the first film, before the last of the books had even been published, he was let in on the eventual revelation, so you can imagine he played to that in his approach to Snape. He glowers and glares, seems as if he’s been in a bad mood for thirty years, and seems a perpetual outsider. And yet he conceals his true feelings so well that when you finally see his memories unveil his motivation, it’s a catharsis for the character and the audience.
There are a couple of Snape moments through the films that particularly stand out for me. First of course is late in the final film when we see his memories, and we see his heartbreak as he holds the body of Lily, the only woman he ever loved. Rickman played that moment perfectly, and we feel a sense of compassion and empathy for a man we’ve spent several films booing and hissing at. The other is a much more humourous moment in Harry Potter & The Goblet Of Fire featuring whispered conversations between students working in a study hall. Snape never says so much as a word, merely lingering in the background, glaring at students on occasion. By the scene’s end, he walks up right behind Harry and Ron (Rupert Grint), adjusts his sleeves while they’re continuing to prattle on... and cuffs them both. It’s a hilarious moment, something that always gets a grin out of me.
Through a lot of his feature work, he could always come across as gruff, cranky, and not the sort of person you’d want to get annoyed at you, but those were the characters more than anything else; many have been paying tribute to him in the last couple of days and talking about his sense of humour, warmth, and his creative spirit. He died in the company of his family and friends after a battle with cancer, but has left a rich legacy behind. I think Emma Thompson’s remark about him is most fitting: “he was, above all things, a rare and unique human being and we shall not see his like again.”
A life well lived. Thank you, Alan, for giving us wonderful performances and characters. You’re one of a kind.