I was 11 years old when I first met someone I truly hated. Everything about him was nasty, despicable, cruel, and inspired in me the sort of wrath I reserved for little else.
I am speaking, of course, about Alan Rickman.
I’d read Books 1-4 of the Harry Potter series when I first arrived in the US, about 18 months prior to the release of the first film adaptation. My brother and I became rabid fans, discussing for hours our loathing for Professor Snape, and how kind and goofy Hagrid was, and when on Earth would the next book come out. We were more than eager for the release of the first film, scheduled for Nov. 1, 2001.
To my pre-teen eyes and ears, Christopher Columbus’s adaptation seemed wonderful, twinkly in a come-all-ye-faithful sort of way. The young man playing Harry Potter was adorable (I began a crush almost immediately), and the film stayed very true to the book. Including the part where I latched onto my first visual of Professor Snape. I did not separate the actor from the part. I simply knew that I hated the man who played Snape. He was cruel in class, he snarled softly, he was mean to Harry, and he was clearly on Draco Malfoy’s side: all unforgivable crimes in my book.
I was standing single-file in line for PE one day, a few months after I’d seen the film, chatting with my friend Chamberlaine, an equally devoted Harry Potter fan.
“I couldn’t stand him,” I said, referring to Rickman, anger coloring my face. “I hate that guy so much.”
“Yeah, but,” Chamberlaine paused thoughtfully, “his job was to make you hate Snape. We hate him in the books. So, as an actor he did a great job.”
That’s when I first realized what it meant for an actor to succeed. Had it not been for Chamberlaine and our conversation I could’ve easily gone on thinking the guy who played Snape was, at the very least, a horrible human being. But no. It was Alan Rickman the actor’s job to portray Snape as such, and he succeeded beyond measure.
In college I took a year off from school, and lived with a roommate who was the older sister I’d always wanted. Amanda was in the PhD program in the English department at NYU, and we’d met while working at the same bookshop in the West Village. Our tastes in pop culture were quite similar, so she was surprised when I said I’d never seen Sense and Sensibility. I’d read the book, like any other English major, but nope, hadn’t seen the Emma Thompson-Kate Winslet adaptation. We sat down in front of our television right away, and she slid in the DVD.
Colonel Brandon is a reserved man, in all matters: speech, action, affection. Rickman had the gift of imbuing his performances with sincerity that was neither forced nor off-putting. His effort to woo the dramatic and over-emotional Marianne (Winslet) brought tears to my eyes. Realizing his shortcomings in comparison to the handsome young Willoughby, Brandon withdraws with no less dignity than when he’d first fallen for Marianne.
There is a moment in the film when a helpless sob rose in my chest, though I held back a full-blown crying jag because I wanted to pay attention to the film. Marianne falls ill at the home of Mr. Palmer (Hugh Laurie), and her survival depends on her fever breaking before dawn. Colonel Brandon, Marianne’s rescuer during a thunderstorm, paces the halls of Mr. Palmer’s home as Elinor (Thompson) tends to her sister.
“What can I do?” he asks Elinor. He is leaning on a door, his own body wracked with heartsick.
“Colonel, you have done so much already…”
“Give me an occupation, or I shall go mad.” The normally neatly groomed Colonel Brandon is disheveled, his hair limp, his clothes unchanged. He has not moved from his station. Rickman maintains the same level of silent devotion throughout the film; only here, Brandon’s fears have wrought heretofore unseen helplessness in his demeanor. More than any other sequence in the film, this plea for a task conveys the depths of Rickman’s abilities. He never has to say anything resembling “I love you” in order to state his affection. Try getting that deal from Hugh Grant.
I probably did cry about this scene later. The man buys her a piano, for god’s sake.
Tonight I paid YouTube $2.99 so I could watch Die Hard for the first time. (I have a large blindspot when it comes to 80s action films: Top Gun, et al.) Friends and coworkers and certainly my brother—a joyful proponent of action films—have recommended it to me for years, and I’m only sorry it took Rickman’s passing for me to finally sit down and pay attention.
We don’t meet Hans Gruber for the first 20 minutes of the film. When we do, it is clear as day that he’s in charge: his stride reminded me quite a bit of Professor Snape’s assured gait. He also doesn’t speak until about five minutes after we first meet him, but when he does, to my great delight he is consummately polite. Hans also strikes the pose of a reverend in that first panicked scene at the Christmas party: dark suit, standing a bit above the others, a small black datebook in his hands from which he reads as though it was the New Testament.
Once more I was in awe of Rickman’s diction. Not a single errant syllable dares escape his lips. What a boon to the screenwriters, to have Rickman utter the following zingers with both ruthlessness and the ease of a warm knife slicing through butter:
“Mr. Takagi, I will count to three. There will not be a four.”
And then, given the results: “I wanted this to be professional, efficient, adult, cooperative. Not a lot to ask. Alas, your Mr. Takagi did not see it that way, so he won’t be joining us for the rest of his life.”
I checked for the exact dialogue on IMDb, and I must say I disagree with their placement of an ellipsis after “Mr. Takagi did not see it that way.” Hans Gruber is not a man fond of pauses for effect, or dramatic flourishes. Even when hurried his movements are unflustered. I laughed out loud when the hostages react, appropriately horrified, to the nonchalant news that Mr. Takagi has left the party—and life on Earth—a bit early.
If I’m being completely honest, I wanted Gruber to win. Just to see what he could do. Sitting on a beach and earning 20%, while the feds try and figure out what happened? Oof! Proper villainy.
It is my avowed hope that somewhere, an entire cohort of late, great British actors are welcoming Alan Rickman to their ranks. Richard Burton will pour him a gin and tonic, and Laurence Olivier will tell Rickman just how much he loved his portrayal of Professor Snape. Then David Bowie will drop by the party with Freddie Mercury, and they’ll sing “Under Pressure” together for the very first time.
As it is in my mind, so shall it be in heaven.