Alan Rickman: A face, and a voice, known by millions

In Photo: Alan Rickman as Professor Snape in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

By Michael Phillips / Chicago tribune

CULTURALLY, this has been an awful week of loss for Britain, and for a world connected by our love of entertainers who—if the gods smile—become indelible popular artists.

First David Bowie, dead at 69. Now comes news of the great actor Alan Rickman, who was also 69. His seductive feline purr of a voice brought out a witty langor in so many performances over the years, on-screen and onstage. Rickman died from complications brought on by cancer. He spent his last hours in London, surrounded by family and friends. The reports on Thursday morning cast a shadow on the announcement of the 88th Academy Awards nominations—upstaged them, even. This was grim poetic justice incarnate. Rickman, best known for Hans Gruber in Die Hard and Severus Snape in all eight Harry Potter pictures, never received a single Oscar nomination himself.

That fact reminds us that from the beginning, in 1929, the history of the Academy Awards contains a parallel history of excellence unrecognized, yet appreciated by millions.

Rickman was born Alan Sidney Patrick Rickman to Welsh and Irish parents on a west London council estate. His career-making success came in 1985, in the irresistible role of the cold-blooded rake Valmont in the Royal Shakespeare Company staging of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. He and his costar Lindsay Duncan reunited with their director, Howard Davies, for a Private Lives revival that, like Liaisons, traveled to Broadway. Hearing and seeing Rickman in action truly was an occasion, starting with the sheer joy he took (as did audiences) in his wry vocal flourishes, those astoundingly sharp final consonants, those…trademark…legendary…very nearly self-parodic… pauses.

The Rickman pause, usually pregnant with sinister or at least withering meaning, became a stealth component of the Harry Potter universe on-screen. And as Professor Snape, Rickman’s doleful, gloriously understated performance opened up to reveal unexpected reserves of feeling.

He could ham it up, too, God knows. “This will be a healthy reminder to me that subtlety isn’t everything,” he said when he picked up his Bafta award for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, in which he played an outrageously villainous Sheriff of Nottingham.

Always, in comedy, drama, classical work and contemporary diversions, Rickman’s voice was his strongest instrument and his greatest performance ally. See Truly, Madly, Deeply for Rickman in a confidential key, and for proof of his ability to seduce us into a realm of comforting supernatural romance. In 2008, as The Guardian’s Catherine Shoard noted in her Rickman appreciation, linguistic professors conducted a research study to find the “perfect male voice,” British division. The conclusion: the most appealing male voice would ideally combine elements of Jeremy Irons, Michael Gambon and—first-billed—Alan Rickman. He’ll be missed by so, so many.


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