Monday, 5 December 2016

2016 Memoriams: Alan Rickman

 Alan Rickman, aged 69

 (Justin Hoch [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

“Rickman was one of those actors who brought something special to every film he did — you never got the sense that he was trying to merely get the job done. My usual trick when interviewing actors was to go out of my way to take them seriously — even if the movie or show wasn't all that great, you had to respect their professionalism. Rickman was the only case in which this didn't work for me. Not to take anything away from the other actors, but it was clear with Rickman that he expected quite a bit more. And of course I walked out of the hotel with miles and miles of respect for the man, whose reputation, at that point already massive, only grew.”
Matthew DeBord, Alan Rickman was the toughest actor I ever interviewed – and the smartest, UK Business Insider, 16 January 2016 

I remember the first time I ever saw Alan Rickman in anything. It was during Christmas week in Primary Four, so 1994. The school had reached their annual “oh god, another few days to go, just get out the video tapes” stage of the year, and on this occasion, we eight year old's were getting to enjoy Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.

The heavily edited school version, I hasten to add.

Well, I say enjoy...

Trying to pass the time, we laughed at things in the hope they’d get funnier, but the entire movie seemed to drag endlessly. 

And then, Alan Rickman shows up.

“Speaking on stage, he told the audience that one conversation in the "terrible" script with two women was actually the work of his friends Ruby Wax and Peter Barnes. Rickman said he met Barnes in a branch of Pizza Express, according to The Times. “I said, ‘Will you have a look at this script because it’s terrible, and I need some good lines.’ So he did, and, you know, with kind of pizza and bacon and egg going all over the script.””
Heather Saul, Alan Rickman admits editing “terrible” script with friends in Pizza Hut behind backs of writers on Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Independent 17 April 2015 

Well, I mean, he’s in it a fair bit, as the main villain, The Sheriff of Nottingham. In the midst of this joyless, continually dull film, Rickman appears as a slightly manic, evil because he can be evil villain. His crowning moment is the “no more merciful beheadings, and call off Christmas!” line which got a genuine roar of laughter from the class. 

Then the scene shifted back to Kevin Costner, and everyone went back to sleep. 

Alan Rickman won a BAFTA for his performance in Robin Hood, which just goes to show that one actor on top of his game can lift even the worst films. "This goes to show me that subtly isn't everything" he cracked, on winning the award. Roger Ebert claimed the performance was detrimental to the film itself, though that misses the point, somewhat, for me: without Rickman, there is no film.

He appeared in better stuff, however. 

“However, it would be wrong to typecast Rickman as a villain. He was an outstanding Hamlet at the Riverside Studios and on tour in 1992, a mature student whose rampant morbidity masked an intense, albeit perverse, zest for life. And in Antony and Cleopatra at the National Theatre in 1998, he was fabulous opposite Helen Mirren’s voluptuous serpent of old Nile – shambolic, charismatic, a spineless poet of a warrior. It was his misfortune to have both these great classic performances displayed in productions that met with considerable critical hostility and public indifference. Tall, commanding, extremely funny when required, he was never above sending himself up either on stage or in the movies. He had talent to burn, a glorious voice that sometimes blurred in slack-jawed articulation, if only because everything he did seemed to come so easily to him. He was a central figure in the life of the little Bush theatre on the London fringe, at the Royal Court in the Max Stafford-Clark era of the 80s, as well as at Trevor Nunn and Terry Hands’s RSC, and he was a continual source of inspiration, and practical support, to his colleagues. He proved also to be a fine stage director, and directed two films. In the second of them, A Little Chaos (2014), a handsome 17th-century costume drama of love among the landscape artists at the newly constructed palace of Versailles, Rickman himself presided in his bewigged pomp as Louis XIV, the Sun King.”
Michael Coveney, Guardian obit 14 January 2016 

Galaxy Quest is genius. It casually takes the piss out of William Shatner, but in a loving, nostalgic way. 

It’s about a washed up cast of a cult Sci-Fi show who are jettisoned into space and wind up having to win an intergalactic war, because the TV transmissions were sent into space and mistaken for documentary. In the midst of all this, Alan Rickman plays the Spock character, Dr Lazarus. Or to be more specific, he plays Alexander Dane, a Shakespearean actor who had worked with the RSC, but was stuck typecast as friendly aliens, and so has become an embittered, alcoholic mess. 

It’s a wonderful role in a daft, enjoyable film, which gives Alan Rickman the chance to go through his entire range from repressed rage to fury to a quiet dignity, and of all the characters in the film, his journey is the most believable. 

Alan Rickman was already one of my favourite actors by the time he was announced as Snape in the Harry Potter films. My timeline is a bit fuzzy on what else I’d seen him by that point, though mum no doubt sat us through the Barchester Chronicles, Smiley’s People and Sense and Sensibility growing up. 

There’s a thing, though. Rarely does actor and character match up that well. We can list off dozens from the top of our heads, but then, think of the ratio between that and the millions of characters in film history. 

There I was, reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, aged ten, one of the first readers in the country in fact, as I’d been selected to give an early copy a read by the Scholastic Book Club for feedback. (I gave it a mediocre review too, showing that ten year old me did not have his finger on the pulse of pop culture back then either!) But back then, as I read it, and even then I knew Snape wasn’t the big bad guy in the first book because it was made too obvious, he was clearly an antagonist instead... Even then, as I read his lines, they were being spoken by Alan Rickman. The role was as Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber or the Sheriff of Nottingham, so when it was announced that Alan Rickman was going to be playing Severus Snape in the film franchise, my immediate reaction was: well, of course he was.

I suspect I wasn’t alone in that. Alan Rickman had been narrating the character in my head for far longer than that. (And yes, I grew into the series – Chamber of Secrets really grabbed me on first release, and The Prisoner of Azkaban remains my favourite of the entire series. Can’t go wrong with a good kids book, I say, and a good kids book is a book which gets kids to read, but that’s another story...)

“He picked up an armful of awards for HBO’s “Rasputin” —  he took home an Emmy, a Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award for playing the “mad monk” of old Russia — and he has also stepped into a different spotlight as the director of “The Winter Guest,” both on stage in London’s West End and for the feature-film version starring future “Potter” c0star Thompson back in 1997. “You try to find things that are challenging and interesting and hopefully it will be the same to the audience,” Rickman said. “It’s interest in drifting on the one hand but it’s also a question of what people decide to offer you. Right now with this play, for instance, I hear unbelievable laughter every night and that’s a huge treasure chest. At the same time sometimes there’s dead silence, and that’s a great pack of cards to be given.” When years to come people reflect on Rickman’s career, Snape will likely be considered the ace card and the eight “Potter” movies his winning hand – and that will be the case no matter what happens this Oscar season. For the actor, the acceptance speech that matter most is his thank you to Rowling for creating the complex tapestry of a huge wizard epic where Snape was the most mysterious thread.”
Geoff Boucher, “Harry Potter”: Alan Rickman looks back on decade of dark magic, LA Times Hero Complex, 30 December 2011

So Rickman stepped into the role, just as the role had stepped into him some time before. While some of the casting in the Potter universe took some time to get used to, Rickman and Snape were a symbiotic one with his first words on screen. It’s Alexander Dane, the Sheriff and Hans Gruber all merged into one dangerous man who likes to think he’s the hero of the entire series, and might have been a great one if it weren’t for all those character flaws. 

Indeed, one of the great shames of the franchise is that they cut down most of the Snape scenes in the first five films to try and fit in everything else. Though one might argue that, while the Goblet of Fire might fit into a single 2 and a half hour film, the pacing of the cut was entirely wrong, and this was symptomatic of a flawed filming experience across the entire series, where the films, whilst highly successful, didn’t achieve the wonder of the books. The entire series would do better suited as a TV adaptation, only then we wouldn’t have the perfect Snape. 

 But we can't discuss Alan Rickman without going back to his big break. 

“At the time, I kind of thought, "What the fuck am I doing?" That gave me an innocence that was good. And it was exciting just to be in that world. But at the same time, it was a bit of,"I honestly don’t know where this fits into any sort of shape. But, oh well, just better go with it." All I knew was that I could only take my theatre experience to the job, and John McTiernan (the director) said fairly early on, "I’ve learned with you I’ve gotta be ready for the first take." I didn’t know what take two, three, four and five and six were all about. We’ve just done it! But of course, he hadn’t got his lights right or he hadn’t got his camera moves right, or whatever. I knew nothing about any of that.”
Alan Rickman, to Nev Pierce, Empire magazine April 2015, republished 14 January 2016  

I came to Die Hard late. By late, I mean a few weeks ago. It is great, though. One of those films in which not a single word of dialogue, or even action by a character, is wasted. Every single thing is central to the moving of the plot. I was taken by how underrated Bruce Willis is, actually, as he is fantastic in this film. As are the entire cast. But of course, one man casually steals every scene he’s in, even if he’s only humming Beethoven. 

“When you remember Alan Rickman, the voice comes first. It has to. Everything else about him – his prowling presence, befuddling charm, and extraordinary career – just seemed to effortlessly uncoil from it. Rickman’s voice fell at the precise midpoint between purr and burr: honey-smooth and homely, but flecked with threat. Its lack of obvious signifiers of time or class was an honest reflection of his own background: a working-class upbringing in Acton, followed by a spell at public school and a single season with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Implacable as it might have been, its power was beyond dispute – and a single wisp could enchant any room, office, castle, or school of witchcraft and wizardry through which he swept. It’s impossible to think of another actor who could have been simultaneously exactly right to play Hans Gruber, the German terrorist kingpin from Die Hard, and also Colonel Brandon, the crumpled heartthrob of Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility – let alone Snape, Slope, the Sheriff of Nottingham, and the many other roles that made him instantly recognisable to generations of cinema-goers.”
Robbie Collin, Alan Rickman: so long, you silver-tongued villain, The Telegraph 14 January 2016 

Hans Gruber is a cultured thief, in another world he could have been Raffles or the Scarlet Pimpernel, but he’s stuck in the world of the 1980s blockbuster, and so acts accordingly. A German educated at Oxford – giving Rickman an excuse to drop the accent – Gruber is a trigger happy villain who thinks of himself as a genius. He reminds me of the late Theodore Bikel’s villain in Colombo, a man capable of great violence who wants to be known for his intellect. So, even as he executes hostages, he tries to be the cultured gentleman. That he is a walking hypocrite, who plays his scheme as though he were a chess master playing seventeen grand-masters at once, is the contradiction at the heart of the beast it refuses to contemplate.

In other words, a highly conflicted character which only the best actors could successfully pull off. 

All the more incredible then, that Alan Rickman had doubts himself as to if he could do it. 

Of course he did. Gruber wouldn’t have become one of the most memorable, most meme inducing, villains in modern film history by being played by a merely adequate actor. 

“Rickman later recalled his his disdain when he was first offered the role, his movie debut, just two days after arriving in Los Angeles in 1987. “I didn’t know anything about LA. I didn’t know anything about the film business … I’d never made a film before, but I was extremely cheap,” he said. After reading the script, he thought: “What the hell is this? I’m not doing an action movie.” The actor, then 41, said he was won over by the script and by the fact that "every single black character in that film is positive and highly intelligent”.”
 Martin Chilton, Die Hard, film review: “brilliant”, The Telegraph 29 April 2016  

And Alan Rickman gets all the best lines in Die Hard. “I wanted this to be professional. Efficient, adult, cooperative, not a lot to ask. Alas, your Mr. Takagi did not see it that way, so he won't be joining us for the rest of his life”, “you wanted a miracle and I give you the F.B.I.”, and of course, the finest line in the entire film. As the entire plot unravels before his eyes, John McClane’s wife, Holly, the entire reason Bruce Willis is at the skyscraper in the first place, hits him between the eyes with the line: “after all your posturing, all your little speeches, you’re nothing but a common thief!”

To which Gruber casually replies, bristling with that trademark Rickman repressed rage: “I am an exceptional thief, Mrs McClane. And since I’m moving up to kidnapping, you should be more polite.”

There’s the character in a nutshell, the Sideshow Bob if you will, the man who wants to look cultured while planning mass murder, all in the name of a profit. 

Alan Rickman had other roles. He was Eamon de Valera in Michael Collins, Metatron in Galaxy Quest, the evil Judge in Sweeney Todd, and voices in the Alice films. There’d have been more roles too, had pancreatic cancer, the worst of all the cancers, not knocked at his door. 

Which is what makes the loss all the more galling. He had only finished work on the Potter films five years ago, which took up a lot of all the cast’s time this century. He was about to turn seventy, a fine age for actors, and his portrayals increasingly showed an actor at ease with his own abilities (to the point of performance I mean, Rickman famously never watched his own films), a far cry from the nervous energy filled by doubt of Hans Gruber. (Grubers misgivings work because they are the actors own in portraying the role, we can compare that to the ease of Snape’s betrayal twenty years later..)

The genuine belief, looking at Alan Rickman’s career, is that he, as an actor, was still to peak. Or if he had peaked, he still had greater triumphs ahead. Greater triumphs which are nothing nowt but the echo of a promise on the wind, lost with the greater avarice of time. 

Alan Rickman took stock characters and made them living, breathing people. In a world where too many take the varied and distil them down to binary points, that was a rarity, and a welcome exception to the rule at that. 

“I don't think anybody ever feels particularly settled if you choose to be an actor or a director because you're always having to look in the mirror. All the stuff you've done was "then," and now you've got to think "now what?" You've got to keep moving forward. Cate Blanchett said the thing about the horizon is that as you move toward it, it gets farther away. I'm lucky to be still working, and I'm aware of the fact that I'm at the mercy of writers and directors and their imaginations. You always want to be surprised and not settled.”
Alan Rickman, to Jeff Baker, Alan Rickman on Harry Potter, Louis XIV and Alice in Wonderland, The Oregonian/Oregon Live 26 June 2015 

“On my first day before the camera, he didn’t like the patronising, bullying tone of a note which the director gave me. Alan, seeing I was a little crestfallen, delivered a quiet, concise resumé of my career and loudly demanded that the director up his game. Behind his starry insouciance and careless elegance, behind that mournful face, which was just as beautiful when wracked with mirth, there was a super-active spirit, questing and achieving, a superhero, unassuming but deadly effective. I so wish he’d played King Lear and a few other classical challenges but that’s to be greedy. He leaves a multitude of fans and friends, grateful and bereft.”
Ian McKellen, to Chris Wiegand, Nancy Groves and Ben Beaumont-Thomas, Alan Rickman tributes: “Behind his careless elegance...there was a superhero”, The Guardian 15 January 2016