(c) Silver Pictures / Gordon Company / 20th Century Fox
I’ve been suffering from death exhaustion recently. During the last few months the death-toll among the great and the good – Lemmy, David Bowie, etc. – has been appallingly high and when actor Alan Rickman also popped his clogs on January 14th, I simply hadn’t the energy to write and post yet another tribute on this blog. However, I thought now, a fortnight after the event, I’d pen a few belated words in his memory.
Rickman was an acclaimed theatrical actor whose CV included Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, Antony and Cleopatra), Chekov (The Seagull), Ibsen (John Gabriel Borkman), Noel Coward (Private Lives), Christopher Hampton (Les Liaisons Dangereuses) and Theresa Rebeck (Seminar). But because I’ve lived for most of my life out in the sticks and away from the world’s great theatrical hubs, my only exposure to Rickman’s acting talents was through his movies. Where, of course, he was fantastically good at being despicably bad.
Yes, Rickman may have found it a pain in the arse but for many people he was the greatest purveyor of cinematic villainy in the last 30 years. Fiendishly dapper-looking in a suit but way too intelligent-sounding to make a regulation Hollywood leading man, and blessed with the ability (in the words of John Sessions) “to talk without actually letting his lips touch his teeth”, he was an inspired choice for the role of criminal mastermind Hans Gruber in Die Hard, the influential high-octane action / disaster movie of 1988.
(c) Silver Pictures / Gordon Company / 20th Century Fox
Gruber and his henchmen spoil Christmas for policeman John McClane (Bruce Willis) and his missus (Bonnie Bedelia) by turning up and hijacking the corporate skyscraper in which Mrs McClane and her colleagues are holding their festive works party. And while the audience-members are officially on the side of Willis as he worms his way through the building’s ventilation shafts trying to foil Gruber’s plan – to pinch $640 million’s worth of bearer’s bonds from the building’s vault – I’m sure quite a few of them are secretly hoping that the vilely charming and entertaining Gruber will win. He certainly gets the best lines. When he takes Bedelia hostage and she accuses him of being “nothing but a common thief,” he retorts, “I am an exceptional thief, Mrs McClane. And since I’m moving up to kidnapping, you should be more polite.”
In fact, Rickman is so good in Die Hard that you really miss him in the sequel, 1990’s Die Hard 2. His absence leaves a hole in the second film that’s so big you could fly one of its Boeing 747 jets through it. Die Hard 2’s main baddie is played by William Sadler, an actor whom I like but who can muster only about 2½ on the Rickman Villainy Scale. No wonder that for the series’ third episode, 1995’s Die Hard with a Vengeance, they brought in Jeremy Irons to play Hans Gruber’s equally evil kid brother, Simon Peter. Wow, those Grubers must have been one dysfunctional family from hell.
Irons, by the way, was just one of many English thespians who must have thanked Rickman for the work he sent their way. Once Rickman had set the trend for hiring highbrow English actors to play European (or Arab) scumbag villains in blockbusting Hollywood action movies, they were all at it: Charles Dance (in 1993’s The Last Action Hero), Art Malik (in 1994’s True Lies), David Suchet (in 1996’s Executive Decision) Gary Oldman (in 1997’s Air Force One), etc. Things got so extreme that in the 1993 Sylvester Stallone movie Cliffhanger, the evil baddie was played by an American actor, John Lithgow, but the filmmakers got him to sound English.
Happily, Die Hard wasn’t Rickman’s only foray into screen villainy for, three years later, he appeared in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves as the Sheriff of Nottingham. Rickman was dubious about accepting the part and told the playwright, scriptwriter and director Stephen Poliakoff beforehand, “I’m about to ruin my career!” In particular, he had a low opinion of the script and later confessed to rewriting his dialogue away from the set, in a Pizza Hut, with some friends (one of them the comedienne Ruby Wax).
(c) Morgan Creek / Warner Brothers
Now on paper Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves should be dire. It has the twin handicaps of a flat, leaden (and all-American) performance by Kevin Costner in the title role; and a theme song, Bryan Adams’ Everything I do, I do it for You, which was so shite it spent 16 consecutive weeks at number one in the UK singles chart and, even today, is commonly played at the weddings of people with no taste in music whatsoever. However, Rickman was a great actor and, like all great actors, he could appear in a piece of crap and make it entertaining. Which Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is, at least for as long as he’s onscreen.
Once again, Rickman gets the best lines – well, he would do if he had Ruby Wax secretly doctoring them. When he threatens to cut out Robin Hood’s heart “with a spoon” and Sir Guy of Gisborne asks him why a spoon and not an axe, he retorts: “Because it’s dull, you twit! It’ll hurt more.” (Later, after he stabs Gisborne to death, he comments, “At least I didn’t use a spoon.”) And he’s truly horrid when he loses his temper: “Cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans, no more merciful beheadings!” And there’s worse: “Cancel Christmas!” It’s a barnstorming performance that would scarcely look out of place in a pantomime, but audiences loved him for it. It even netted him a BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1992. Accepting the award from Helen Mirren, Rickman noted wryly, “This will be a healthy reminder that subtlety isn’t everything.”
When J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels started getting the film treatment in the early noughties, there was of course only one man the producers could turn to when it came to casting Hogwarts’ evilest schoolmaster, Professor Snape – though later Harry Potter instalments suggest that Snape might not be as rotten as he appears to be. I like the books but don’t think much of the films. I find them convoluted and stodgy; and in trying to be faithful to the myriad twists and turns of Rowling’s plots, they paradoxically don’t leave much space onscreen for her characters to come to life. That said, Rickman is one of the best things in them.
(c) Heyday Films / 1492 Productions / Warner Brothers
Elsewhere, Rickman essayed further villainy in Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007). And he was sort-of-villainous as Éamon de Valera in Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins (1996); where, to quote the critic Roger Ebert, de Valera, the dominant figure of 20th-century Irish politics, is portrayed as a “weak, mannered, snivelling prima donna whose grandstanding led to decades of unnecessary bloodshed in, and over, Ireland.” Rickman also excelled at science fiction, playing a Mr Spock-type figure in the amusing Star Trek piss-take, Galaxy Quest (1999) and providing suitably lugubrious vocals for Marvin the Paranoid Android in the movie version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005).
His death two weeks ago was greeted with dismay by many actors and actresses who’d worked with him: Emma Thompson, Ralph Fiennes, Daniel Radcliffe, Kate Winslet, Brian Cox, Colin Firth and so on. I could understand their sense of loss – he seemed like a great bloke. Though especially when he was playing a shit.