An Alan Rickman Appreciation
One of things I adored about Alan Rickman was his self-awareness. That can often be misunderstood as self-consciousness which is an altogether different thing for an actor. Being self-conscious connotes insecurity or being worried about your perception in the world. Alan Rickman exuded none of that unless the role dictated as such. No, Alan and thusly his characters often seemed keenly aware of who they were and the role they played in any given story. Sometimes so much so they seemed to be railing against the very conventions they were stuck in.
Since I grew up in a small town in the Midwest, I didn't have access to the much heralded stage productions he cut his teeth on in the West End and New York (Most notably Valmont in 'Les Liasons Dangereus' by Christopher Hampton). No, like everyone else, I came to Alan Rickman by way of 'Die Hard' (1988) when I was a teenager and couldn't take my eyes off him.
His break-through as the hyper-keen Hans Gruber in that film changed cinematic villainy for years to come. It wasn't simply that Hans was so smart and calculated though he was certainly that. It was that there was a certain zeal in the playing out of his devious actions that made him enormously appealing. He was enjoying himself. Alan's depiction of his antagonist seemed as though he understand the very theatrical conventions he was stranded in and subverted them at every turn. So much so he even seemed to be flabbergasted when those very conventions forced him to fail. Each defiance brought an eye-roll or fatigued, comic confusion on the preposterous notion he could possibly be losing.
The now famous 'Yippee ki-yay motherfuck" line was his character's last gasp at admonishing the very cliché he was railing against. The cowboy would in the end win but he would deride it until that stunning shock on his face as he dropped those endless stories from Nakatomi Plaza. Only then would Alan's Gruber show us his true defeat as he released his grasp on the struggle and gave us our desire for tidy endings.
Yet he never winked. Not once. He was always within the confines and context of the piece. Just stretching the role to its very limits. This self-awareness of his role in things would continue in iconic roles to come. Playing characters too smart to be in the situations there were forced to play.
In 1991, Alan would be asked to return to the master villain again in 'Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves' as the Sheriff of Nottigham to Kevin Costner's eponymous hero. Leery of repetition, Alan made some stipulations that would allow him some freedom within the very restrictions of the genre he was hell-bent to subvert. What emerged was a sort of Wily Coyote "super-genius" being again thwarted and surrounded by fools. Each failure erupts him into a maniacal and hysterical routine of exasperated futility. It was as if Alan and his Sheriff had a deal with the universe. "If I am going to lose, I am going to enjoy myself along the way." In one scene he actually cancels Christmas.
Villains are often referred to as "the heavies". Meaning they are dire and serious bad guys that are joyless in their execution of awfulness. After Alan began popping the screen with these portrayals there was a sudden parlance in acting circles that you have to enjoy yourself as a villain. That was Alan. He had changed screen acting and other actors knew it.
But before 'Robin Hood' and those antics came two roles that are perhaps closer to my heart than any others. The first of the two was the movie 'Truly, Madly, Deeply' (1990) by the late, great Anthony Minghella. This was before I knew of and later adored Minghella. No, I watched because of Alan and the buzz that it was the thinking person's 'Ghost'. This was Minghella's first feature after his sad outing with 'Mr. Wonderful' that led him back to Britain licking his wounds. Gathering up a few of his dearest friends for this personal film, Alan reported that on the first day Minghella had one word for them. "Help". If help is what you needed then Alan was your man. His performance as the returned lover of his musician partner Nina (Julliette Stephenson) was of uncanny complexity. That same quality of correcting the very genre he was within brought a gentle musing and sadness to the occasion. This wasn't Hallmark or a Hollywood love story. He was there to remind Nina that death does not make one a saint. That there were problems, that he was human and those flaws could be incredibly frustrating, endearing and most of all funny.
The second of the two was an even lesser known film titled 'Closet Land' (1991) by Radha Bharadwaj where Alan would once again play a bad guy simply known as 'The Interrogator'. Opposite Madeline Stowe this two-hander all takes place in a single room. In an un-named fascist police state, Stowe's 'Victim' is a children's author accused of embedding political messages in her writing.
The result is an anguishing and heart-breaking confrontation between two troubled souls. Again, while Alan performs his heinous acts upon his victim he is entirely tortured himself and convolutes the perception of an easy villain. No longer relishing his role as captor he subverts her and our expectations to the point we wonder who is the worse for enacting these things upon another person. Alan is so vulnerable and yet cruel I can only imagine the distress of this shooting. A film that still resonates today with our troubled history with detainees.
Rickman's cinematic contributions are so plentiful one cannot regale them without simply listing them with accreditation. Poignant turns in 'Sense and Sensibility' (1995) and 'Michael Collins' (1996) were among many notables. Perhaps it was being on 'Star Trek' or just being a kid that grew up digesting all things science fiction that I must stop upon the now classic 'Galaxy Quest' (1999) directed by Dean Parisot and written by David Howard. Even more so because Alan was finally not just playing someone better than his surroundings but because he was an actor doing so.
Playing the role of 'Alexander Dane/ Dr. Lazarus' he was a classically trained actor jammed inside a prosthetic head playing an obvious Spock stand-in for the long-ago cancelled tv series of the title. Unemployed, he is forced to regurgitate catch-phrases at conventions and store openings while suffering underneath the perception he is better than the fate he has been dealt. Swallowing a heaping mass of pride on each elocution, one can practically hear the bile hit his throat as he mutters "By Grabthar's hammer...what a savings!".
Much has been made of the sonorous tones of Alan's voice. It was indeed seductive, mysterious and mischievous all at once. But another aspect of his vocal dynamic was his technique. And by technique I am referring to his timing. He had an almost supernatural ear for the not just his dialogue but by the cadence of others around him. He knew the tempo of a scene and when it came to him he was perfection in slowing or speeding up his delivery to bring poignancy. 'Galaxy Quest' is worth re-viewing for many reasons as it an under-rated and excellent movie. Perhaps even perfect. But just watch the slowest of slow burns by Rickman's Dane and it is a master class in comic timing.
That very same quality would become a signature of perhaps now his most famous role as Severus Snape in the 'Harry Potter' series. On the occasion I go back and watch this series it is always on Alan that I seem to hit the pause button for examination and amusement. Hand-picked by Rawling for the role one cannot doubt that he was the perfect casting. That self-aware villain is once again on display but always, til the very end, waiting to subvert your expectations.
Alan made a meal of this role and the vocal pauses and lengthened vowels become an entire sideshow all of themselves without distracting from the earnest story beneath them. One could easily imagine some bet he had with Maggie Smith on how long he could elongate a word. Any other actor would crumble under the weight of those films to pull something like that off but instead it only rewarded him more and more as the series went on. It was like his vocal characterizations were in defiance of being edited down.
Snape was perfectly aware he had been ordained an envisioned bad guy. So much so there was a talking hat that let you know that if you were in 'Slitherin' you were kind of a dick. Alan toyed with that perception in every scene with a sly look, a stretched word and a constant secret in his entire composure that perhaps there was something we were missing. That, as always, he knew something more than everyone around him. As it turned out, he did, but once again it would not save him.
To Alan's credit, I knew nothing of his personal life nor was there some desire to seek it out. His work spoke for itself. But by all accounts he was as generous, kind and funny as you would want him to be. Since the announcement of his passing there have been many heart-felt tributes and many fan reactions. That speaks to the transparency of Alan's heart in his work and the affect he had on so many people for so many years.
It can seem like such a strange thing feeling remorse for the loss of someone you didn't know personally. So much so you can read or hear the confusion from fans on how to respond and whether you should or should not feel said remorse. Whether it is appropriate or some sign of dysfunction? In recalling an interview Alan did a few years ago he was speaking about advice for young actors. He advised getting some culture, history and perspective in your veins so that the audience had a full person to watch on-screen. But he also advised having "courage". Asked why he said because it takes courage to look inside yourself and face reality and then be willing to share that with the entire world.
Alan did that. We felt it. He was a courageous artist. It's okay to miss him. I already do.