State of the Art

Alan Rickman’s death stills a distinctive voice

Severus Snape was Alan Rickman’s best-known role, though the Harry Potter movies didn’t show the full range of his skill.
Severus Snape was Alan Rickman’s best-known role, though the Harry Potter movies didn’t show the full range of his skill. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

If you never saw Alan Rickman live, you never saw all that Alan Rickman could do.

When the British actor broke through onscreen in “Die Hard” in 1988, playing one of the great villains in film history – infuriatingly smart terrorist Hans Gruber – people asked, “Where has this guy been?” Those of us who had come across him on Broadway the previous year were lucky enough to know.

He often played introverted characters onscreen, from the romantic cellist of “Truly, Madly, Deeply” to his multiple appearances in the Harry Potter movies. (No one in that series was better cast than Rickman as enigmatic Severus Snape.)

But onstage, in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, he played a monstrous egotist who thinks the world belongs to him. As good as John Malkovich was in the film “Dangerous Liaisons,” Rickman was better, because he didn’t give a damn what happened: He moved people around like chess pieces, a bored god in a gilded heaven, until he suddenly realized that even gods can feel remorse.

He died Thursday at 69, having explored only a fraction of his talent as an actor onscreen. (As with David Bowie, who died four days earlier at the same age, cancer killed him.)

Rickman had just begun to direct again in 2014. He made the underrated “The Winter Guest” in 1997, with the real-life mother-daughter team of Phyllida Law and Emma Thompson as an estranged parent and child. Then he waited 17 years to direct “A Little Chaos,” starring Kate Winslet and Matthias Schoenaerts as landscape artists who fall in love while designing the gardens at Versailles. Rickman, of course, played King Louis XIV.

According to his page at the Internet Movie Data Base, he has one movie still in production: “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” where he reprises the animated role he played in “Alice in Wonderland” six years ago.

I can hear the gingery baritone voice of that Blue Caterpillar now: supercilious, lazily judgmental, convinced he sits smugly at the center of the universe. Rickman’s perfect for that part. But if that kind of performance is all we remember about him – however often he was beautifully cast in that haughty kind of role – we’ve missed a lot.

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