I never saw the first installment of Die Hard, 1988, so I didn’t get a chance to see Alan Rickman as Hans Gruber. A quick note before I continue. Didn’t realize how the role of John McClane fell into Bruce Willis’ lap.
It is based on Roderick Thorp‘s 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever, the sequel to 1966’s The Detective, which was adapted into a 1968 film of the same name that starred Frank Sinatra. Fox was contractually obliged to offer Sinatra the lead role in Die Hard, but he turned it down. The studio then pitched the film to Arnold Schwarzenegger as a sequel to his 1985 action film Commando; he turned it down, as did a host of the era’s action stars, and the studio finally and reluctantly gave it to Willis, then known primarily as a comedic television actor.
Made for $28 million, Die Hard grossed over $140 million theatrically worldwide, and was given a positive reception from critics. The film turned Willis into an action star, became a metonym for an action film in which a lone hero fights overwhelming odds, and is now widely considered one of the greatest action movies ever made. The film’s success spawned the Die Hard franchise, which includes four sequels, video games, and a comic book.
But I did see him in Sense and Sensibility, and that is where I thought he shined along side Emma Thompson. Tim Carmody points out his brilliance in that piece and I am really, really glad I found it since it was where I too thought that Rickman performed beautifully. In my humble opinion, I thought that Rickman commanded dignity in all his roles. And in such roles as Colonel Brandon, that command made his sincerity all the more dignified. It wasn’t a mawkish sincerity. It was the thing that made the man. And perhaps as a Colonel, his dignified manner helped elevate the station of women as gossiping harpies to business partners embarking on lifelong, legacy relationships that are not to be trifled with. (I love ending sentences with prepositions.)
Die Hard and Galaxy Quest are my favorite Alan Rickman movies, and Snape in Harry Potter is iconic, but my favorite of his performances (if it isn’t Hans Gruber) is his perfect turn as Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility. Which, like Die Hard, is nearly a perfect movie. Gruber in Die Hard is the career-defining, do-everything change-everything part. But Colonel Brandon is the revelation. It’s a performance that seems much closer to who Alan Rickman really was.
He’d played this perfect villain in Die Hard, then followed it with truly deranged parodies in Quigley, Down Under and Robin Hood. (Yes, he’d doneTruly, Madly, Deeply, but I didn’t see that until later, and you probably didn’t either.) We thought we knew who Alan Rickman was.
Then he’s this quiet man on a horse. A figure in the distance who says enigmatic things at the side of a drawing room or a garden party before bursting away. The hero who has no need for you to know or to recognize everything he’s done. The only thing he needs is an occupation.
He’s playing against type, not just as a non-villain, but in how he approaches the part. He’s chipping away at this character so subtly and minutely, with so much warmth and grace. By the end of the film, you think ALL of the sisters should marry him.
Theatrically, he murders Hugh Grant in that movie. Not that Hugh’s performance is bad! (Okay, it’s kind of bad.) Neither is Kate Winslet’s. But only Emma Thompson can keep up with him. He should have won an Oscar. (Kevin Spacey won Best Supporting for The Usual Suspects that year, and that’s bullshit, because Spacey is 100 percent the lead in that movie. Rickman didn’t even get nominated, and Braveheart swept the big awards. Forgive me if I remain eternally skeptical about the Oscars.)
Next to Grant’s Edward Ferrars, Rickman’s performance as Colonel Brandon is like Jerry Lee Lewis setting the piano on fire before Chuck Berry closes the show. And he does it with a whisper.
Ugh. Go watch that movie.
Alan Rickman grew up in a council estate in West London. Public housing. His father was a factory worker who died when Alan was eight, leaving him, his mother, two brothers and a sister. (Alan was the second child, the middle of the three boys; his sister was the youngest.) He got a scholarship to a prestigious prep school, Latymer. He basically got into Hogwarts. He meets his first girlfriend, Rima Horton, in 1965, when he’s 19, and they live together from 1977 until his death. She’s been a Labour Party councillor and an economics lecturer. They married in New York City in 2012.
He goes into graphic design, is successful in it, then decides he loves acting too much and returns to school at 26. He works his way up through bigger stages and bigger roles, hits Broadway playing Valmont in Dangerous Liaisonsat 40, only to have Malkovich steal his part for the movie. So instead, Alan Rickman’s film debut is this weird heist movie with a TV actor, playing some German terrorist. He’s 41, and Die Hard’s his first movie. (Dave Chensky had agood joke about this: that’s like if the Sistine Chapel were Michelangelo’s first painting.)
Everything Alan Rickman did, everything he was, every part he played and every idea we had of him, was a thing achieved. What a life.