Today is the birthday of Alan Rickman (1946-2016). He passed away a little over a month ago and so I hope it is no longer “too soon” to proffer a thought (kind of a mild one, don’t worry) that I withheld earlier when everyone while everyone was so enthusiastically eulogizing. Let’s accept as a given that he was a terrific actor — always compelling, always riveting, risky and daring. And he was a RADA graduate and a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. These institutions aren’t given to sponsoring slouches.
Still, all that may be true, and yet not alter the fact that somehow I was never able to take him seriously. I don’t mean I slighted or doubted his ability. I mean that, on those occasions when his character was intended to be straight or non-comical, I was unable to perceive him as such. Now, don’t blame me! I attribute this tendency on my part to a couple of objective, real-life factors.
First, I was primed to do so. I feel like I was conditioned to laugh at him, given the large number of prominent films in which he played either funny heinous people or people so deliciously heinous that they’re funny. There’s his breakthrough Hollywood role, the German villain Hans Gruber in Die Hard (1988), where he got guffaws by shooting a man in the head. The campy Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), very much in the sniveling tradition of Melville Cooper. The reptilian campaign manager in Bob Roberts (1992). He played Franz Mesmer (1994) and Rasputin (1996). He’s in the tongue-in-cheek Dogma (1999) and Galaxy Quest (1999) and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (2005). In Love Actually (2003) he’s an untrustworthy cheater. He’s Snape in the Harry Potter movies. And he’s in some bad and unintentionally campy movies like Lee Daniels’The Butler, where he plays Ronald Reagan, and CBGB, where he plays Hilly Kristal (these are both 2013.)
So I feel like I have been conditioned to hiss him or laugh at him one way or another, so that when he played roles that weren’t in that vein, it creates a kind of confusion, a disconnect. One example is his Eamon de Valera in Michael Collins (1996). He gave quite a good performance — but I thought he was burdened with the baggage of being Alan Rickman. Was the casting meant to signal that Valera was evil, treacherous, the sort of man who sticks pins in voodoo dolls? Whether or not it was the case, it was an unintended consequence.
The second reason for the way we read Rickman the way we do informs the first: his facial equipment. He had those cold, piercing, mocking eyes. I would call them inscrutable except we KNOW that he intends nothing wholesome. They looked down that Hanoverian schnoz much as one might look through the sights of a hunting rifle. He didn’t so much look at people as size them up, and calculate how he might dispose of them. And the shape of his mouth, turned up at the sides, suggested a smirk or a sneer even when he wasn’t making one. Yet his forehead seemed perpetually cast in a quizzical frown, as though to say, “I don’t know what your game is, but I intend to figure it out before I neutralize you.” And that voice! Superior, menacing, dismissive, cutting, luxurious. It was a perfect apparatus for playing Kings and courtiers, ideal for Restoration comedy. He was a man made for stroking cats.
Which made him perfect for Louis XIV, whom he played in A Little Chaos (2015), which he also directed and co-wrote. And yet, we cannot find him sympathetic in such roles, even when he wants us to be, or at least I can’t. He seemed to dislike being placed in that box, which is unfortunate, because if he had embraced it — think of some of the glorious stuff we might have enjoyed that he would have knocked out of the park. Richard III! Nazis! Roman Emperors! Professor Moriarity! Ming the Merciless! Dracula!
Which I think all goes to say that he was taken way too soon, because, despite his impressive body of work, I wanted many more characters from him. With his talent and his gifts, the sky was the limit for him. There can be no higher praise for an actor, can there?