There are and always have been Movie Stars – people whose name opens movies and wallets, names that go up in lights and bedazzle.
There are and always have been Movie Helpers – people who can give a movie a boost and someone interesting to watch, even if the plot doesn’t exactly grip the audience.
Then there are people like Alan Rickman. Alan Rickman was an amalgam of both things – a name who opened movies for intellectuals and those ‘in the know’ about his talents even before he came to the attention of the mainstream, and who made everything he was in better, simply by being in it. More than a Movie Helper, Rickman was a Movie Maker. The kind of person who, if you were in two minds about whether to see a movie, could make you sigh with relief when you saw his name. You’d be all right – Rickman was on board.
Alan Rickman was of course much more than any particular tribute can encompass – while his heart was in the theatre, he nevertheless burned the screen with his powerful presence. While he was most famous for playing dour intellectuals, his comic sensibilities still made him the funniest thing in some very funny movies, and as will surprise no-one, he was one of the warmest-hearted, most supportive people in the world of A List showbusiness. While best known for his ‘villains,’ he also had a great capacity to show ordinary people reacting to extraordinary situations, and to make them quietly shine, or bring a tear from their unsentimental realities. Rickman was that amazing thing – a complete actor, able to do whatever was required to bring something special, something extra to a performance. That’s why the world is currently full of tributes to him, and why he deserves them all. As Rickman himself said, he didn’t play ‘villains,’ ever. He played people, always.
Rickman, for an actor of such undoubted quality, also gave a remarkable legacy to the world of geekery. Whether this is fair or not, some of his best known and most widely appreciated roles were firmly rooted in the geek world.
Ironically, we missed out on what could have been one of Rickman’s best scheming intellectual villains – he lit up the West End and Broadway with his Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, but was unable to take the role when the movie version was produced, being already signed to a breakout vehicle for Moonlighting star Bruce Willis. Die Hard became not only a runaway success, spawning a handful of sequels, it established the first bulwark in the ‘Brits as villains’ tradition in Hollywood blockbusters – perhaps perversely, given that Rickman uses a German accent throughout much of the movie and plays a character called Hans Gruber. Nevertheless, Rickman carved that niche by making Gruber that specifically Rickman thing – a real human being who, from a certain perspective, you could actually root for, even when he was being appallingly ruthless.
It would be a lie to say that Truly Madly Deeply is an easy watch. It absolutely isn’t – Anthony Minghella’s opus on grief and recovery is heartbreaking in its premise, and Juliet Stevenson’s weeping near the start will tear your world open like a wound. But Rickman as the first love of her life, the cello-playing Jamie, is the active force in the movie, his unsentimental presence puncturing any maudlin notes that threaten to intrude. He makes Jamie a real person despite being a ghost, and that message ends up being much of the point of the movie. When people die, it can feel like we die too, our mind switching to see only the positive sides of them. Rickman’s Jamie reminds Stevenson’s Nina that while their love will always define them both, he was a real person, with as many flaws as anyone else, and eventually he steers her to and through the point where she’s ready to let someone else into her heart. For all its indie appeal and its real-world messages, Truly Madly Deeply is a geek film as much as any other, and Rickman’s ghost of Jamie remains one of the most tender and real ‘spirits’ ever rendered on film. That was Rickman’s gift through and through – to bring the reality of a person across in all its shades.
Having said which, his next geeky role, as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, was Rickman in full-on comedy mode, proving that he wasn’t just interested in indie weepies or Hollywood terrorists. In a movie that frankly never entirely knows what it is – comedy, love story, swashbuckling bad history – Rickman is utterly electric, and one of the things you wait to come on screen. Ironically, he didn’t want to play the role, and turned it down twice before being given complete freedom of interpretation. Rickman’s Sheriff is wonderful, a kind of Blackadder of Sherwood Forest, revealing a side to his skillset that moviegoers hadn’t previously known was there. It would be a side no-one ever forgot again.
Again, to focus merely on his geeky films does the man a disservice. He built on his growing reputation, and kept exploring different angles – his Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility is pitch perfect, and never since Tom Baker was a man more born to play Rasputin than Alan Rickman, as he did in 1996. But in terms of his beloved geeky roles, it was Kevin Smith who gave Rickman his next smash, and again, the role of Metatron (the voice of God) in the movie Dogma highlighted Rickman the comedic actor with more beneath the laughs.
Tell a person that you're the Metatron and they stare at you blankly. Mention something out of a Charlton Heston movie and suddenly everybody’s a theology scholar.In a movie with some high-class turns and some heavy ideas, it’s Rickman and Chris Rock who most define the tone (and who do most of the expositional heavy lifting that make the movie work). Rickman’s developing skill of using ‘grumpiness’ to comic effect comes to the fore in Dogma, but he gives the character what he gave to everyone he ever played – the fully-rounded underpinnings that allowed you to see past their role in the particular slice of entertainment you were watching, and believe they were people (or creatures) with lives that you simply happened to be tuning into.
Perhaps to push home the comedy of a highly respected British actor doing geeky work, his role as Alexander Dane in Galaxy Guest (a thinly disguised Star Trek TV show, with Rickman in the role of the respectable actor typecast as alien Dr Lazarus, and unable to escape from the demands of fandom, no matter what else he does), allowed Rickman both to embrace elements of his career, to wring comedy from deadpan, and to continue filling in the humanity of characters beyond their most notable characterisation. Rickman is responsible for one of the most touching moments in the movie, when Dane, despite despising his Lazarus character and his ‘By Grabthar’s Hammer…’ catchphrase, gives a dying alien a wonderful gift by playing the role as if for real, a simple act for the actor, a world-defining moment of heroism for the alien.
As with Rasputin, there is perhaps no actor more born to play the role of Marvin, the Paranoid Android in Douglas Adams’ Hitch-Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy than Alan Rickman was. His ability to deliver drollery and deadpan gave new dimensions to Adams’ original, and to the character created on radio and TV by Stephen Moore. Many other great roles followed in films as diverse as Perfume and The Butler (where Rickman played perhaps the least likely role of his career – Ronald Reagan – with a quiet aplomb that never sought to overbalance the heart of the movie’s story), and from Alice In Wonderland to a singing role in Sweeney Todd as Judge Turpin. But by then, he was becoming known, beloved and, to be fair, terrifying the life out of, a whole new generation of fans. It’s no secret that JK Rowling, in creating Potions Master Severus Snape, had Alan Rickman in mind when she wrote him, and Rickman embodied the role in the movie versions of the books with everything Rowling imagined, and arguably more – a combination of stillness, silence, a hissing disregard and that sense of a man with enormous potential, crushed by something unnamed into following a dark path. Everybody identified with Rickman’s Snape as their most vindictive teacher, but there was more to the character than that.
Rowling paid Rickman the ultimate compliment – she told him, very early on, the secrets of Severus Snape, his love of Lily Potter, his divided self, sworn to protect his Lily’s son, but seeing so much of the man she preferred to him in the boy. Rowling said she told Rickman because he needed to know, to embody the full complexity of the man she’d written. It was a move that showed an understanding of and a respect for the genius of Alan Rickman, who made his career playing ‘not villains, but interesting people.’ And it was a decision that meant that when the secrets were eventually revealed to us, they felt absolutely right, because Rickman, more even than Rowling herself in the books, had seeded that duality, that complexity in our understanding of Snape. It was a decision which means we can now look back on the whole Potter series convinced that those who were essential to its sense were able to do right by the characters, the story and by the audience.
Alan Rickman was far more than an actor and director (of 2014’s A Little Chaos), and so very much more than his roles in geek projects will ever convey. But by seeking always to find the interesting parts of the people he played, to lift them off the page and making them live in three dimensions, he left a legacy that elevated him in life and will remain untouchable. A consummate craftsman, bringing the human being (or whatever else he determined to play) to life in all its dimensions, Alan Rickman’s body of work is glorious, and the geek world, as the wider world beyond, has been forever enriched by it.
Alan Rickman, we thank you.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk