Earlier today, news broke that we had lost another British talent, the great Alan Rickman, who died at the age of 69 after a long battle with cancer. Shortly thereafter, actress Emma Thompson released a statement mourning the death of her longtime friend and collaborator.
“Alan was my friend and so this is hard to write because I have just kissed him goodbye,” Thompson said in the statement. “What I remember most in this moment of painful leave-taking is his humor, intelligence, wisdom and kindness. His capacity to fell you with a look or lift you with a word. The intransigence which made him the great artist he was – his ineffable and cynical wit, the clarity with which he saw most things, including me, and the fact that he never spared me the view. I learned a lot from him.”
It’s tough to choose a starting point when we lose one of our generation’s most influential actors, so perhaps it’s better to ask how Alan Rickman would want us to remember him. Would it be Die Hard, the pinnacle of action filmmaking and the role that would cement his popularity as a Hollywood heavy for the rest of his career? Would it be the Harry Potter series, with Rickman guiding an entire generation from childhood to adulthood through his tragic portrayal of Severus Snape? Would he want us to remember his good performances in middling fare, films like Quigley Down Under or Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves that were elevated by his very presence? Or would he want us to remember him not for his movie roles but for his stage work, where he spent decades as first and actor and then a writer director in England and America?
It’s surprising how small and select Rickman’s filmography came to be in the second-half of his career. The actor struck while the iron was hot in the late eighties and early nineties, but for the past twenty years, he has used the freedom afforded him by a sterling reputation and moved between the theater and the movie projects that he found interesting. It is also true that Rickman made an inordinate number of films that inspire true passion in their fans. There are plenty of actors with talent, plenty still that make good movies, but in a culture obsessed with looking forward, many of Rickman’s films have become something of a cultural touchpoint. You mention Galaxy Quest or Dogma, Love Actually and Sense and Sensibility, and people will tell you that one of them is a mandatory movie, a film that helped frame their developing taste. One person told me on Twitter today that it was Robin Hood – yes, that Robin Hood — that made him want to become a professional filmmaker. His influence on the most recent generation of movie fans cannot be denied.
And he did so without calling undue attention to himself. When we name our favorite movies of the nineties, it is a safe bet that at least one of these movies will include Alan Rickman; when asked to think of our favorite actors, however, we would rarely think to include him on the list. “I don’t play villains, I play interesting people,” Rickman famously once said, and perhaps that distinction, so often the sign of an actor determined to protect his reputation, was in this case quite the opposite. Alan Rickman did play interesting people, and many of those people were villains, but for the actor, the types of roles that he took on mattered less than his direct engagement and the contributions he could make to the overall quality of the film. A villain is larger-than-life, breathed into life through sheer force of will; an interesting character, on the other hand, requires intelligence, attention to detail, and a shared commitment with the rest of the cast onscreen.
The idea that a single performance can elevate a movie is an old one, and one that has probably been used to describe so many actors and so many movies that it has lost some meaning. It’s worth taking a moment, then, to appreciate that talent for what it is. Alan Rickman was a gifted actor who played great characters, but most importantly, he made his movies better than they ever could have been without him. And he will be dearly missed in the years to come.