For reasons I won’t get into, because who really cares, this past December, ordinarily my favorite month, I was fairly absent the joyfulness typical of my mindset that time of year, and so I kept saying to myself, over and over, in my head and occasionally out loud, “It’s Christmas, Theo. It’s the time of miracles. So be of good cheer.” That’s a line Hans Gruber says in “Die Hard”, the quintessential contemporary Christmas movie, and Hans Gruber was played by Alan Rickman, and Rickman’s spin on that line was everything. He dialed up the faux-Christmas-y cheer on the first two lines, like he was overseeing the Nakatomi holiday party rather than taking it hostage, and then dialing back to disinterested thief and deliberately ridding his “So be of good cheer” of any cheer whatsoever. Fuck, it’s brilliant, and epitomizing what he does with virtually every line in that movie (“Ho-ho-ho”).
And while it might be obvious to open an emotionalized account of Alan Rickman’s career with “Die Hard”, well, there’s a reason my Facebook feed in December kept popping up with memes about it wasn’t really the season until they saw Hans fall off the Nakatomi building. Mr. Rickman took a stock role and wrested something grand from it, emblemized in that fall, where even as he dangles from a building by his finger-tips, his demise imminent, he remains so cool, so calm, rendered in John McTiernan’s unforgettable slow-mo.
Rickman didn’t land that iconic role until he was 41, a reminder that it’s never too late, and a signifier that he was rock solid in who he was, of working class stock and extensively trained in the theatre, by the time his star rose. He expressed hesitancy at taking the part, unsure if that’s what he wanted his career to become, and yet he did anyway, the better for him and for all the rest of us. And even if he still went on to play movie villains, he found different ways into the parts, expanding rather than duplicating.
His Sheriff of Nottingham, stranded in a strange, dreary take on “Robin Hood”, was all exasperation, as if he had earned his way, fair and square, to being the bad guy and he couldn’t believe this white knight kept interfering. Even in “Love Actually”, where love was otherwise all around, Rickman was the one grumpy bugger, made to cheat on Emma Thompson, which was ridiculous, and, I swear, Rickman knew it was ridiculousness and seemed to play his philandering by resisting it, as his own inherent maleness pulled him toward adultery like a tractor beam.
Ah, Emma Thompson, his “ultimate ally.” That’s how she put it in a tribute to her friend and colleague yesterday after Rickman passed away at the age of 69 that I’m not ashamed to say wrung tears. “His capacity to fell you with a look or lift you with a word,” she said in describing his infinite qualities, and God is it ever true. Even in something as frivolous as “Bottle Shock” he kept finding ways to surprise you, making a mere appraisal of wine with his eyes at once imperious and earnest. Rickman and Thompson worked together in “Sense and Sensibility”, though Rickman primarily played opposite a young Kate Winslet as Colonel Brandon. If we often think of romance in a grand scale, Rickman internalized it, reserved and therefore of the era, chivalrous to a fault, and playing like a Georgian Era version of Colin Firth’s Mark Darcy, imbued with a amorousness that just sort of seeps out of his being, and then eventually politely explodes.
All of Rickman’s characteristics congealed in “Galaxy Quest”, which might sound absurd, since the film is something of a comic trifle, the actors of “Star Trek”-ish show forced to live out their days cashing in on their fame who are summoned, “Three Amigos”-style, by actual aliens to help save their planet. The film is unabashedly funny, especially Rickman as a Shakespearean trained actor struggling to come to grips with the fanboy circuit his life has become, only to re-find the essence of himself in having to live up to the part he plays. He begins as a character too aware he’s wearing prosthetic headgear; he ends it by forgetting he ever had prosthetic headgear in the first place.
Still, for all the incredible work Rickman committed to film, and I assume that includes the “Harry Potter” series which I confess to having never seen, for me, it all comes back to “Die Hard”, one of the first movie performances that made me sit up, pay attention and ask “Hey, who is that?” . I thought about that yesterday, Oscar nomination day, where bellyaching, as it always does, rose to a fever pitch and so many social media hands were wrung, and not wrongly, over who wasn’t nominated and who was. Mr. Rickman was never nominated for an Oscar. Yet there we were, here we are, commemorating him with tears in our eyes and such fond memories in our hearts. He didn’t need an Oscar; he had Hans, or whatever part was most representative for you, and that, as it always is, was more than enough.