One of the most memorable aspects of 2016 will always be the losses of so many beloved celebrities, including George Michael, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Gene Wilder, Carrie Fisher, and many others. The one that hit me hardest was probably the loss of the brilliant English actor Alan Rickman to cancer, at age 69, on January 14, 2016.
He was, without a doubt, a consummate professional and a legend. He was also one of my all-time favorite actors and, by all accounts, an amazing human being: a humanitarian and a kind and loyal friend.
One of my strongest impressions of Rickman comes not from one of his onscreen roles but from the play “My Name is Rachel Corrie.”
A little background: I was in my early years as a homeschooler. We’d been a homeschooling family for about four years — my kids were 13, 9, and 4 — and I was part of a secular homeschooling group called Natural Learners of the Shenandoah Valley and a co-op: Funschool. Megan, a member of our group, was directing this play in a small theater in the city where I live.
We were told that Rickman (“the guy who plays Snape in the Harry Potter movies”) was one of the creators of the play. He had learned about Rachel, a 23-year-old college student killed trying to help Palestinians being ousted from their homes in Israel. He had been moved by her story and agreed to write and direct a play based on her journals and e-mails.
Rachel Corrie was affiliated with the International Solidarity Movement, which traveled to the Gaza Strip during the second Palestinian uprising against Israel to do humanitarian work. Putting politics aside, she got to know some Palestinian families and empathized deeply with their plight as their homes were razed to make way for Israeli settlements. She stood in front of a Caterpillar D9R-armored bulldozer operated by the Israeli Defense Forces, acting as a human shield to protect a family’s home, but the bulldozer didn’t stop. Her death was eventually ruled an accident.
Rickman collaborated with Rachel’s family and journalist Katharine Viner to create this play, which premiered in London in 2005. I saw it with a group of homeschooling moms in April, 2008. It was definitely unforgettable for me, and I think it helped clarify my sense of purpose as a parent: to raise kids with an eclectic awareness of the world around them who will live with courage and compassion.
Rickman’s 6 Most Memorable Film Roles (For Me):
6. The Harry Potter films — I may get some grief for putting this last on the list, but I am not a tremendous fan of the Harry Potter franchise. I dearly love Rowling’s wildly popular series and devoured them as they were published. The movies are faithful to the stories and solidly entertaining, but much of the books’ charm was lost in translation.
On the other hand, this series introduced a generation of American kids to a bevy of top-notch British actors. And for me Rickman’s performance as Severus Snape, the dark, brooding potions professor and unforgettable antihero, was among the highlights. His lifelong love for and devotion to Lily Evans, the beautiful, compassionate girl he lost to a bully who had tormented him, is arguably the most compelling aspect of the story. And portraying Snape’s tangled mix of hatred, bitterness, loneliness, love, courage, and fierce loyalty required nothing less that an actor of Rickman’s caliber. I will always deeply love this character, on both page and screen. Always.
5. Snow Cake (2006) — I watched this with one of my daughters. She is on the autism spectrum and, by the time she was in her teens, she had a passionate interest in people with autism and others seen as outsiders in society. This film tried to move past the conventional stereotypes about autism, using it–in part–as a metaphor for the isolation that grief and regret form around us.
Sigourney Weaver portrayed a mother with autism. Rickman’s character is a quiet, acerbic, emotionally repressed man, jarred out of his comfort zone by the sudden, tragic death of a young woman he’d just met. This film, while a bit uneven, is a lovely exploration of grief and the tentative bonds we form with others to break out of our lonely private worlds.
4. Something the Lord Made — I love historical movies, and I found this one fascinating. It focuses on the work of Dr. Alfred Blalock (Rickman) and Vivien Thomas (Mos Def), who pioneered heart surgery to save the lives of “blue babies,” infants with congenital heart defects.
Blalock was a bit ahead of his time in collaborating with Thomas in a time when Black citizens were expected to use the back door, but he was stingy about treating his colleague as a peer or sharing the credit for their work. Another interesting, morally ambiguous character.
3. Die Hard — It’s no secret that I am, on the whole, not a fan of action flicks. It’s a gaping cinematic schism between The Hubby and me. What can I say? In some ways, I’m such a chick. But Die Hard is an exception. I genuinely like this movie — for many reasons — and Rickman’s iconic villain, Hans Gruber, is my favorite part.
He’s brilliantly cold, narcissistic, somewhat mesmerizing, and — though we know little about him — fully three-dimensional. And virtually every moment of his performance is flawless. From the moment he arrives on the scene we know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this isn’t “just an action movie.”
2. Love Actually — I learned about this film in an unusual way. I heard about it for the first time at a funeral.
My stepmother had died after a short, savagely brutal battle with cancer. One of her colleagues, speaking at the funeral, was talking about the time they’d spent together, shortly before Karen’s death, watching a movie called Love Actually.
After I’d finally seen it, I found this movie surprisingly addictive. Each of these intertwined stories of budding passion, love, and faltering communication reveals just a little about its protagonists, yet somehow we feel we know them. And this movie has so much heart.
My favorite couple is Karen (Emma Thompson) and Harry (Alan Rickman). Although neither of these characters is the type to express feelings freely and effortlessly, and the vicissitudes of raising kids and middle age are taking their toll, we sense a warm, enduring bond between these two. But that doesn’t keep Harry from straying. As we see Karen — in her own quiet, tongue-in-cheek way — struggle with the physical changes of midlife and her self-doubts as a woman who’s dedicated her life to raising a family, we realize the depth of his thoughtless cruelty. And when their marriage abruptly unravels, it’s shown with beautiful restraint, which makes it all the more devastating.
Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman worked so beautifully together, and every look, word, and gesture speaks volumes. With just a handful of scenes, they tell a story that has stuck with me persistently for many years.
1 .Sense and Sensibility — Anyone who knows me well will not be surprised by my #1 pick. And I’m sure I am not alone in this. I do love me some Jane Austen! And Sense and Sensibility is my very favorite Austen novel.
There are several adaptations of this novel that I like, but this one has an edge. It takes a brilliant actor to play Colonel Brandon, a quiet, circumspect man with deep feeling. Despite his flawless restraint, every time he is onscreen Rickman makes me feel his abiding love for Marianne Dashwood.
It is a popular opinion that a film adaptation can’t hold a candle to a brilliant novel. I disagree. This is one of those times when a movie not only brings a great story to life, but it adds depth and breadth, making a beloved character even richer and more unforgettable.