Critic's Notebook: Alan Rickman, Reluctant Villain

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Alan Rickman Still - H 2016
Courtesy of Photofest

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Alan Rickman Still - H 2016

The star of the Harry Potter films, 'Die Hard' and the original stage incarnation of 'Les Liaisons Dangereuses' refuted the common perception that he relished the sinister roles most.

When Alan Rickman first appeared as Severus Snape in 2001's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, he kicked off a decade-long fan debate as to whether the dour potions master was malevolent to the core, or a secret man of honor.

More than a dozen years earlier, he had already cemented a deliciously nefarious screen persona in Die Hard, playing the erudite international terrorist Hans Gruber, who casually discussed the finer points of men's tailoring before popping a bullet in a hapless Japanese business tycoon.

But that first Hollywood role might never have happened if Rickman hadn't previously made such an indelible impression onstage as the Vicomte de Valmont, the serial lothario who becomes a victim of his own amoral games in Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

Adapted by Christopher Hampton from the 1782 French epistolary novel, the play premiered in 1985 at the Royal Shakespeare Company's home base in Stratford-upon-Avon, before transferring to London's West End and from there to Broadway. It became a trans-Atlantic sensation, earning Tony nominations both for Rickman and his equally commanding co-star, Lindsay Duncan, who originated the role of La Marquise de Merteuil.

Those of us who had savored every evil, unforgettably sexy moment of the duel to the death between Rickman and Duncan wanted to take to the streets with pitchforks when it was announced that John Malkovich and Glenn Close had been cast as the leads in Stephen Frears' film adaptation. The fact that the movie turned out to be good was beside the point. The irrefutable crime was that Rickman and Duncan held the patent on those roles, and for anyone who saw them, they still do.

But for an actor so closely identified with his mastery of the dark arts, Rickman could be surprisingly ambivalent about his reputation as a specialist in villains.

"Oh, it's going to be one of those articles is it?" he said when the "V" word came up while I was interviewing him for a 2011 New York Times profile. Sitting across from me in his dressing room at the Golden Theatre before a performance of his final Broadway show, Seminar, Rickman narrowed his gaze and widened his manspread. The adversarial moment said, "All right. War," to quote his old playmate, the Marquise.

We quickly found more affable ground for conversation in our shared love of a film often considered a throwaway job among Rickman's output, Galaxy Quest. In that sublime 1999 sci-fi comedy, he plays Alexander Dane, a self-regarding British thespian forced to suffer the lifelong indignity of being recognized solely as the alien crewmember on a Star Trek-type TV series.

As someone who clearly had issues about reductive perceptions of his own career based on a handful of roles, Rickman perhaps could relate. He went to great lengths to point out that for every wicked character he had played, there was another good-hearted, principled man.

Among the latter were the devoted ghost boyfriend Jamie in Anthony Minghella's Truly Madly Deeply, and the gentle Colonel Brandon in Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility, adapted by Rickman's frequent collaborator Emma Thompson.

But what we loved to love about Rickman onscreen and onstage was his air of withering superiority — those arched eyebrows, that disdainful hint of a sneer, the penetrating gaze that suffered no fool, and most of all, the deep, slinky snarl of that voice. Who wouldn't want to be held hostage by his Hans Gruber or seduced by his Valmont?

The fact that the icy exteriors of his characters — among them the ultimately noble Snape — often concealed a more vulnerable, emotionally complex inner life was a large part of what made Rickman such a distinctive actor.

Some of his screen work suggests unimaginative type casting, notably his outrageously evil Sheriff of Nottingham in 1991's forgettable Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. And while Tim Burton's 2007 take on Sweeney Todd was a serviceable screen version of the Stephen Sondheim musical, the creepy Judge Turpin was a role Rickman could have played in his sleep. I had little time for the synthetic sentiment of the wildly popular 2003 ensemble piece, Love Actually, though Rickman's scenes as the philandering husband to Thompson were among the most dramatically compelling moments. And his Ronald Reagan in the enjoyable 2013 historical pageant, Lee Daniels' The Butler, got somewhat lost in the scramble, becoming one more famous face in an overpopulated gallery. 

But whatever the overall merits of any individual project, Rickman was a class act who brought integrity to every part.

He directed two films, casting Thompson and her mother Phyllida Law in 1997's The Winter Guest, a sensitively handled play adaptation that didn't quite escape its theatrical origins. Seventeen years later, he made A Little Chaos, an uneven period drama about a nonconformist female gardener in the court of King Louis XIV. The film's high point was a lovely central interlude between Rickman as the Sun King and Kate Winslet as the gardener, in which he luxuriated in a moment of quiet anonymity among the shrubs.

As much as for his screen work, Rickman will be remembered as a theater actor whose steely magnetism had no trouble reaching the back row. He reteamed with Duncan on Broadway in 2002 to play the sparring divorced couple in Noel Coward's Private Lives, bringing fresh blood and peerless wit to that barbed romantic comedy.

Rickman and Duncan again appeared together, alongside Fiona Shaw, in 2011 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in Henrik Ibsen's John Gabriel Borkman, about the disgrace of a late 19th century banker and its corrosive fallout on his family. The previous year, BAM also imported Rickman's acclaimed production of August Strindberg's Creditors, about the destruction of a marriage, while he also directed, developed and co-wrote the Israel-set political solo piece My Name is Rachel Corrie, which ran off-Broadway in 2006.

His Broadway farewell, Seminar, was a comedy by Theresa Rebeck with an invigorating glint of cruelty, above all in the imperious writing teacher played by Rickman with a protective outer layer of ferocity and a well of hidden sorrow.

As his quartet of private students huddled together while Rickman's character prowled and passed blistering judgment from on high, it was impossible not to consider the parallels of this famously intransigent artist, who held everyone to the same exacting standards that he held himself.