In Memoriam: Alan Rickman (1946-2016)

01/14/2016  By  Joseph Wade     No comments

“And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.” The benefits of a classical education…

The first two weeks of 2016 have not been kind. Monday we were dealt the blow of losing rock icon David Bowie to cancer. Then, this morning, news came down that Alan Rickman had passed away after losing his own battle with the disease. Like Bowie, he was 69.

A classically-trained actor, Alan Rickman had made numerous appearances on TV screens and theatre stages, but he didn’t break into movies until the age of 42. His feature debut came in 1988, playing the instantly iconic Hans Gruber in John McTiernan’s Die Hard. From there, Rickman was quick to carve a name for himself as a versatile actor comfortable in any genre, playing everything from arch villains like the manic sleazeball Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves to more genial types in films such as Love, Actually and Ang Lee’s Sense & Sensibility.

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Also Quigley Down Under.

Alan Rickman no doubt had a go-to type: That of the exasperated Brit with an enormous chip on his shoulder. In the back half of his film career, he would time and again play variations of that character, but the actor’s genius was in his ability to always spin that character in new and entertaining ways. (That archetype spiraled to new heights over the course of eight Harry Potter films.) For proof of his range within a single type, you need only look back to 1999 and the two films he appeared in that year: Dogma and Galaxy Quest.

Dogma is Kevin Smith’s treatise on faith, fart jokes and Ben Affleck desperately trying to squeeze blood from a stone. Here, Rickman plays Metatron, the all-encompassing voice of God (a role he no doubt has already taken over). It’s a no-brainer casting choice; who better to deliver divine proclamations from on high? Incidentally, it’s also a role that fits him like a glove. His domineering voice provides an immediate and undeniable presence in every scene; a necessity when every scene also includes feature-length skidmarks Jay and Silent Bob. Still, he’s able to shift gears and deliver Smith’s winking, machine-gun dialogue with remarkable ease. As grandiose as Smith writes Metatron, Rickman breathes his familiar shades of exasperation into the character to bring him back down to Earth.

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Pictured: Alan Rickman, today.

Similarly, Rickman plays a loving goof on that same pompous type in Galaxy Quest. Here, he plays Alexander Dane, a classically-trained actor like himself, forever stuck in a Spock-like role on a fictional takeoff of Star Trek. (“I was an actor once, dammit!”) When he and his castmates are mistaken for the real deal by a group of space aliens, Dane is forced to take on the role of his TV alter ego Dr. Lazarus. Among his castmates he’s a fussy prima donna, but among the Thermians he’s every bit the stoic, honorable persona they know from TV, and he switches between the two roles as circumstances demand. Once again, you can see Alan Rickman employ his trademark disdain for other characters, only here he’s no longer the most dominating presence in the room. (It must have been tough playing second banana to Tim Allen.) Still, while Dane’s psyche slowly melts down and his costume rips apart, Rickman is a consummate professional, garnering respect and adulation even with his hair poking through his torn latex headpiece.

Like Metatron and Alexander Dane, Alan Rickman was the image of professionalism in the face of abject lunacy. The same can be said of his performance in Die Hard. Hans Gruber can command a room through sheer charisma without actually uttering a word. His introduction finds him acting almost like a minister delivering a twisted sermon to a flock of fearful churchgoers. He’s a calm, collected kind of terrorist, refusing to lose his cool even when that fly in the ointment keeps screwing up his plans. When Gruber finally snaps, though, Rickman seems to turn on the crazy with the flip of a switch. He could be every bit as manic as he could be mannered, and his power as an actor led us into not knowing which direction he would point Gruber next.

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To some, Alan Rickman will always be the bitter, irascible voice of Severus Snape in the Harry Potter series, a secret protector forever draped in black linens and long, flowing hair. Others will remember him as the snooty Eurotrash menace that is Hans Gruber. Any actor would be thrilled to have even one of those career-defining role. Rickman had the privilege of not only making an indelible mark on cinema as Snape and Gruber, but in vastly different roles such Metatron, Dr. Lazarus, Sweeney Todd’s Judge Turpin, Marvin the Paranoid Android and a whole host of others. On top of that, what other actor can claim to have portrayed such diverse historical figures as Louis XIV, Grigori Rasputin AND Ronald Reagan?

Alan Rickman truly contained multitudes. Requiescat in pace.

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About Joseph Wade

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Joseph Wade is secretly three bulldogs in a trenchcoat. Their favorite movie is Turner & Hooch.

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