Sunday, October 13, 2013

Sunday Best: Actors of All Time #17 - Alan Rickman

photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Bottle Shock
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Love Actually
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Galaxy Quest
Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves
Closet Land
Die Hard

Alan Rickman entered the acting profession very late in life. And yet he has given some of the most memorable performances that the silver screen has seen.

Let's start with his first and, arguably, his most iconic role: Hans Gruber in Die Hard. I think people often forget what a surprise Die Hard was in its day. It was a big action film with the star of Moonlighting. What could have easily been a direct-to-HBO movie was instead an action masterpiece. And Rickman's villain is a huge part of that. Rickman conveys raw ruthlessness and intelligence. You have no trouble believing that he could kill a whole building full of innocent people but he there was a part of you that kind of pulled for him. When he gets the vault open, you get a little happy for him because he sees his plan come to fruition. He charms you by his skill and makes you want to be him a little bit.

But above all he showed great restraint and I will speak more about this later. First, it should be noted that he can turn up the volume on a performance in a way that few actors can. Watch his deliciously over-the-top turn as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. He has none of Gruber's silent menace. He is all puffed-up bluster. The character is written in a very one-dimensional way, but Rickman makes his horrid personality so big and lively that cannot take your eyes off of him. He just chews the scenery up and it is fun.

And he can also bring the volume way down. I loved his performance as Steven Spurrier in Bottle Shock. A frustrated, small man, he seems well worn from living. There is a hang-dog melancholy to his character, but his absolute love of wine makes him endearing. He loves the beauty of wine and wants other people to see it too. He does all this while maintaining his deflated tone and stature.

He can disappear into roles like few others. His alternately sympathetic and sadistic interrogator in Closet Land is riveting. He is also the only good thing in Kevin Smith's blasphemous movie Dogma. His Eeyore-voiced Marvin in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the galaxy provided the film's biggest laughs.   He even brings both gravitas and goofiness to his frustrated tv-star in Galaxy Quest

But his most amazing work was his role as Severus Snape from the Harry Potter movies.


On the surface, he appears to be only playing the “mean teacher” stereotype from so many school stories; he's a wizard-world Assistant Principal Vernon. Look at some of his deliveries in Sorcerer's Stone and Goblet of Fire and it could seem that he's simply rolling out lines dripping with venom and condescension

But the brilliance of casting Rickman was his restraint. Severus Snape is a character who must constantly be in control of every thought, word, and action. He cannot give away what he is really thinking or feeling. He needs to be inscrutable. It would me much simpler and easier to play the character as a blank slate. But when you watch what Rickman does, you feel his hand on the brakes, keeping the torrent of feeling from coming through. This leads to that signature Snape style of slowly speaking out each word so that every syllable lands a punch with either dramatic weight or comedic flair.  And only on the rarest of occasions do you see the weight of it behind the words.  The last line he ever delivers in the series is one word: "Always."  And that one word spoken by Rickman is more eloquent than pages and pages of heart-felt dialogue.

Rickman uses every acting tool at his disposal and none of them are wasted. His change in voice inflection or subtle shift in eye contact do more to convey his character than what most actors could do. He seamlessly transitions from comedy to drama, knowing the exact right tone to take with his characters and he disappears into them in order to create something truly great on screen.

1 comment:

  1. No mention of Alan Rickman as Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility?!?! Gasp.