Alan Rickman’s death, from cancer, at the age of 69, came as a shock. Not least because I was just going on air on BBC News to talk about the Oscar nominations and had to change tack in under a minute.
Luckily, Rickman was such a huge talent that his roles are indelibly etched and the roll off the tongue like one of his own sneeringly delivered speeches.
What a loss. I had no idea he was ill when I met him last year when his film A Little Chaos came out. It wasn’t great, let’s be honest, but I think he knew it and didn’t want to do many interviews around it even though he had directed Kate Winslet and Matthias Schoenaerts in it. And, guess what, he even stole his own movie with his supporting role as the Sun King, Louis XIV in this odd tale of landscape gardening at Versailles.
Rickman was a master a stealing movies. He nicked Die Hard from under Bruce Willis as Hans Gruber; he made off with Prince of Thieves from the earnest Kevin Costner whose Robin Hood was upstaged by Alan’s Sheriff of Nottingham, unforgettable in this clip.
It was the villain roles which Hollywood sought him for and after Alan, it seemed almost every Hollywood movie wanted a Brit to be the baddie. Many actors owe him a favour or two for work they got by just having British accents as villains in every American movie for years after – think Rufus Sewell, Jeremy Irons, Jason Isaacs, Alfred Molina, Sean Bean…
Rickman of course carried it on marvellously as Severus Snape throughout the Harry Potter series, being outdone in evil eventually by Ralph Fiennes’ Voldemort, of course.
But Rickman was very good as an everyman in Truly, Madly, Deeply for Anthony Minghella as well as in Love Actually, when he even sneered at himself for the pain he caused Emma Thompson’s character through his reckless office affair with she-devil Mia, played by German actress Heike Makatsch.
Rickman was a great sneerer. He seemed to spend most of his screen life looking down that fine nose, peering over spectacles, his face in a Rickman rictus of disgust, withering self-loathing, like someone who’d stepped in dog-do and couldn’t get rid of the smell…
I loved him in Sense and Sensibility, working again with Emma Thompson who won an Oscar for her Screenplay. Ang Lee, that film’s director, read out the Oscar nominations yesterday and one couldn’t help think of Rickman and how connected he was.
I saw him first on the stage, in Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons, in which Rickman’s Valmont stole the show from Lindsay Duncan and Jane Asher – I think it was 1988 when I saw it, while studying Laclos’ original in my first term at Oxford. When Stephen Frears made the film version, it was John Malkovich who got the Valmont part – and I tell you he was nowhere near as witty and snake-like as Rickman who writhed and slithered around the stage, charmingly dangerous, funny yet deadly, seducing with his relish for phrases and the contortions of language.
He could roll a sentence, a word, around that tongue and spew it out. He knew the beats of comedy and the power of enunciating every letter. He was an actor’s actor, perhaps not acknowledged as a great. But he was.