This morning’s big Oscar nominations announcement had to contend with an even more major and affecting piece of breaking news. A few days after David Bowie passed into the next dimension, cancer has taken another sixty-nine-year-old Brit from us: esteemed actor Alan Rickman. Flip to the word “arch” in the newest editions of the Oxford Goes To Hollywood dictionary, and there you’ll find a photo of Rickman, single eyebrow raised, his tone of dour bemusement audible even from the printed page. The man gained the most international recognition from a choice role in a certain franchise about a boy wizard, but he was an actor of boundless versatility who gifted audiences plenty of fond moviegoing memories.
Below, we’ve looked back on six of Rickman’s most fondly remembered performances, because when the body turns to dust, that’s really all that’s left: the work. It’s a fine legacy to leave behind, too. The work is forever.
Severus Snape, Harry Potter films
This is the big, morally ambiguous elephant in the room of Rickman’s filmography; years from now, the questionably villainous Severus Snape will be the performance that this fine actor will be most frequently remembered for. It might be a little frustrating to think that in such a rich and varied career, Rickman became analogous to Snape to innumerable viewers, but to complain would be as futile and unproductive as complaining about people who only know Radiohead by “Creep.” Snape is a welcoming point of entry to the actor’s body of work for young viewers who spend hours entranced by his lyrical line-readings and domineering screen presence. It made him super-famous, and rightfully so, but what’s most important is that it opened his heavy backlog of film work up to a new generation. And, let’s be honest — who among us can honestly say we haven’t carefully croaked the words “be-witch the mind and en-snare the senses” in the mirror?
Harry, Love Actually
This ensemble rom-com attempts to cram too many presents under the tree, but Alan Rickman stakes out his own territory by finding notes of tragedy and self-effacement in an otherwise despicable character. Families flock to this film every Christmas season for the warming holiday delights, but Rickman’s strand of plot travels a far tougher path. He plays a scummy director from a haute design agency with the hots for his new secretary and a wife not quite raising his temperature like she used to. We’ve all heard this one a million times, but the ending still redeems him without excusing him. It’s rare that an infidelity narrative (and even rarer that an actual infidelity) leads to honesty, an appreciation of the finer things in life, and more open communication.
The Metatron, Dogma
Kevin Smith’s religious satire — four incredibly dangerous words when placed next to one another — wouldn’t have turned out nearly as well as it did without a wealth of excellent performances, from George Carlin’s hip-with-the-kids cardinal to Chris Rock’s motormouthed forgotten apostle to Alanis Morissette’s weirdly perfect casting as God. Rickman holds his own against them all as the Metatron, a winged servant of the Lord and her personal messenger, sent to Earth to let Linda Fiorentino’s abortionist Bethany know that she’s the last remaining relative of Jesus Christ, and she’s got work to do. Metatron functions as the script’s exposition machine, but Rickman keeps it entertaining by communicating just how tiresome all of this is. He knows millennia of arcane mythology like the back of his hand; it’s a real nuisance that Bethany (and, by proxy, the audience) have to be so damn slow on the uptake.
Hans Gruber, Die Hard
Die Hard is a perfect movie (all those who disagree may kindly show themselves to the e-door), but it wouldn’t be without a sublime performance from Rickman as Eurotrash ubervillain Hans Gruber. For his first featured role in a film, Rickman not only mastered a thick German accent — and pulled off an American accent for the brief bit wherein Gruber plays hostage for an unwitting Bruce Willis — but pinpointed the sweet spot between evil and charming to create one of those timeless baddies that audiences love to hate. The image of terror on Rickman’s face as he tumbles into oblivion, however, goes beyond good acting; the stunt coordinators told Rickman they’d give him a 3-2-1 countdown before dropping him, but director John McTiernan told them to release him on 1 for a genuine surprise. It worked.
Jamie, Truly Madly Deeply
Just how talented was Rickman? The man was so good, he could take a diet-Ghost premise like “specter of deceased lover returns to treat his widow like a prick so that she doesn’t get hung up on him and finds someone new” and turn it into a mature, even-handed statement about self-sacrifice and the difficult compromise required by adult relationships. Rickman’s mustache in the film is heinous, yes, but he overpowers it to deliver a brilliant performance-within-a-performance, assuming a double role for the duration of the film until the final scene, when he sheds the first of two masks and reveals to the audience the depths of his devotion.
Alexander Dane/Dr. Lazarus, Galaxy Quest
Another double performance, though of a decidedly different sort. This marvelously high-concept sci-fi comedy (imagine a version of Pixels that doesn’t make you want to crush your skull in a shop-class wood vice) cast Rickman as Alexander Dane, and then the identically titled show-within-the-film cast him as alien science officer Dr. Lazarus. A classically trained Shakespearean, Dane rues the day he ever agreed to take the role after 18 years of getting pigeonholed as the mutant-headed extraterrestrial. This could’ve been foreshadowing for a future of being identified as Snape, but like Dane, Rickman always recognized the precious value of popular entertainment making people laugh, cry, thrill and smile. All together now: By Grabthar's hammer, by the suns of Warvan, you shall be avenged!