Damn. I really didn’t expect to put Bowie Week on hold, and definitely not to write about the death of another singular artist. The news of Alan Rickman’s death was just as shocking as David Bowie’s, and as upsetting. As profound as the response to Bowie’s passing was, Rickman’s will arguably have a greater effect on the younger generations, given the proliferation of Harry Potter titles in his filmography over the last decade-plus. Rickman was more than Severus Snape, however, earning more than 30 nominations of various types over the years and winning nine (and only some of those victories were for portraying a wizard).
Regardless, Rickman’s lasting legacy will probably be the less-than-heroic characters that he brought to life over the course of his career. His villainous turn as Hans Gruber, John McClane’s faux-terrorist adversary in Die Hard, was the turning point for his career, launching him from British television to international recognition. And for good reason – Gruber is just so mean. And sharp. The perfect foil for Bruce Willis’s put-upon-but-well-meaning cop. It’s almost a shame when their tête-à-tête reaches its inevitable conclusion.
The man was capable of so much more than conveying sinister intent, though. He had the ability to be riotously funny, as in Galaxy Quest where he plays Alexander Dane, a thinly veiled Leonard Nimoy homage, forever relegated to living off of his most iconic character from a Star Trek-inspired television show. Rickman plays a couple levels here, bringing the famous British commitment to even the most absurd aspects, while also commenting on that very same idea. And then contrast that with Love Actually, a romantic comedy on the surface, though containing plenty of gloomy moments – more than a few of which are the result of actions taken by Rickman’s Harry, a probably-good man who begins looking outside of his marriage for satisfaction. Again we see nuance in that Harry isn’t a bad guy, but he is weak in many ways; Rickman makes this dilemma so relatable.
He was always a bright spot, even in otherwise average movies such as Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd and Lee Daniels’ The Butler; his turn as Ronald Reagan in the latter is surprisingly good. He was invested no matter what – Alexander Dane would have been proud.
It was that inimitable screen presence. The Harry Potter films were a huge cultural event, full of vibrant actors (besides the kids), but Rickman always seemed to stand above the rest. I aged with Harry – I was eleven when the first movie was released and 17 when the final book was published. J.K. Rowling’s prose grew with her main character, as did his and the reader’s perception of Severus Snape as a character. The quality of each film is variable, but Rickman was a constant, even on the rare occasions that he was not given much to do.
Or maybe it was the voice. Goodness knows it was distinctive and recognizable, as in the 2005 adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to which lent his talent as the voice of Marvin, a severely depressed robot. Filmmaker Kevin Smith even went so far as to cast Rickman as the literal voice of god in his 1999 film Dogma. And it makes sense – you buy it. It’s almost too perfect. Neither picture is incredible, but I have a soft spot for both; Dogma played nearly on repeat throughout the early 2000’s on Comedy Central, so how could I not love it?
But more than his voice or his acting skill or his nuance, Alan Rickman was a man. The art is not the artist. It’s impossible to say whether Rickman was really an evil man, an unfulfilled actor, a poor husband or anything else. Probably he was just a regular guy. The public knew the performer mostly for the roles he played, so perhaps it is foolish to feel too affected by his end. I haven’t seen as many posts in tribute to Rickman as I did when David Bowie died – maybe my Facebook friends are generally more connected to Bowie’s music than to Rickman’s oeuvre – but there’s no denying that both men were incredibly relevant in the lives that they’ve touched. The lack of personal connection does not negate one’s influence.
The good news it that much like Bowie’s undiscovered depths, there’s still plenty to explore with Alan Rickman’s work. The man is gone, but his legacy remains. Having said that, I’ll probably spend the evening rewatching Galaxy Quest. Because it’s amazing. And so was Rickman. Not that it even needs to be said, but here are five out of five soul-penetrating glares: