More or less exactly thirty years ago, I saw Alan Rickman in the role that made his name - as the Vicomte de Valmont in Christopher Hampton's Les Liaisons Dangereuses at the Royal Shakespeare Company's Barbican Pit. Theatre critics are overly fond of the phrase "a commanding performance", but I've rarely seen anything as commanding as Rickman on stage that night: he was a very palpable flesh-and-blood embodiment of the title. From about 20 minutes after his entrance, you could feel all around you that approximately 90 per cent of the female audience and 30 per cent of the male were just longing to be taken by him. I made the mistake of inviting a young lady along, and at supper afterwards she did her best not to make it too obvious that she found me wanting by comparison.
A year later, Rickman and Lindsay Duncan reprised their roles on Broadway and were the toast of the town. Another year later, Hollywood anglicized the title - Dangerous Liaisons - and Americanized the cast - Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer. Like Julie Andrews getting passed over for Audrey Hepburn in the film of My Fair Lady, it must have distressed Rickman. But his Mary Poppins came along in the form of Die Hard, and from then until his death a few days ago he was always in demand.
Ruining Bruce Willis' Christmas, he more or less inaugurated what ought to be an Oscar category - Best Brit Villain in a Hollywood Blockbuster. Hans Gruber is a German terrorist but played by Rickman with an icy Englishness so irresistible that, as political correctness scared the studios off any too obviously ethnic bad guys, he paved the way for a decade of supercilious sneering anglo-psychos - Jeremy Irons, Gary Oldman, Charles Dance... Rickman himself was hard to beat on this turf: indeed, he brought something of his Die Hard English villainy to the ascetic, bespectacled Eamonn de Valera opposite Liam Neeson in the Irish biopic Michael Collins. One wonders whether Kevin Costner had any regrets about letting him steal the show quite so thoroughly as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves - although it's hard to think of anyone else who could pull off lines like, "No more merciful beheadings! And call off Christmas."
It's strange that he became known for his villains - for being dangereux rather than for his liaisons. Women loved Rickman: He wasn't movie-star handsome - not Kevin Costner male-lead handsome - but he oozed both a predatory sensuality and a kind of indifferent hauteur and the combination was irresistible. His mesmeric baritone could sound knee-tremblingly sexy when he was asking if you'd like fries with that. In defiance of movie-star convention, he rarely opened his mouth, and remained across three decades a tight-lipped charmer. In Emma Thompson's adaptation of Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, he played Colonel Brandon, competing with Greg Wise's Willoughby for the affections of a then unknown Kate Winslet as Marianne. As Willoughby, Wise leaves most of the acting to his killer sideburns, their sinister talons extending across his cheeks to ensnare Marianne. She wants him as her suitor not just because he's hirsuter but also because he shares her love of Shakespeare's sonnets. "My favorite is number 116," says Marianne. And, like a good Chinese waiter, he knows which one she means and produces it instantly.
It's Colonel Brandon's misfortune always to turn up at the cottage just when Mariane's expecting Willoughby and to seem boring by comparison. Rickman's mouth is immobile for the entire picture, as if a stoically-borne heartache has seeped into his very bones and frozen his face: no sonnets dance from his tongue. When he thinks he has lost Marianne to Willoughby's sideburns, he looks at Elinor dead-eyed and intones dully, "To your sister, I wish all imaginable happiness." For a moment, you're tempted to respond as the great English comedian Eric Morecambe was wont, and marvel that he said that without moving his lips. Yet, notwithstanding that Miss Winslet was 30 years his junior, their eventual union is what audiences loved, and brought a far bigger smile to moviegoers' faces than ever appeared on Rickman's. His reading of this role was beautifully poised.
As for more contemporary romance, in 1990, Anthony Minghella (pre-The English Patient) made a film called Truly, Madly, Deeply, with Juliet Stevenson mourning her late lover, who turns up in spectral form to haunt her flat. There was a lot of that about at the time: The shorthand review of Truly, Madly, Deeply was "Ghost for grown-ups". One of the things that made it "grown-up" was the music (Rickman's character played the 'cello, and Stevenson's the piano) - and in particular the use it made of "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore". Anthony Minghella told me that he thought numbers in musicals tended to be "transporting", and he wanted this to be the opposite: even as Miss Stevenson is cavorting round her flat as Rickman's ghost sings and holds his cello like a rock guitar, the scene emphasizes just how profound the emptiness in her life is. And that, said Minghella, is why it could only be "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore". It's Miss Stevenson's movie, but Rickman's performance is subtler than 99 per cent of full-time singers.
The following year, he was top-billed in Stephen Poliakoff's Close My Eyes, although again it's the gal's picture - in this case the great Saskia Reeves in a terrific performance as a woman married to Rickman but sexually obsessed by her younger brother, Clive Owen. As in Sense and Sensibility, Rickman has a very difficult balancing act: a talented, wealthy, charming man who gradually realizes that his talent and wealth and charm can avail him naught. I can't imagine anyone else who could pull it off half so adroitly.
The Irish biopic Michael Collins was the thinking man's Die Hard â€“ Dail Hard maybe, given the protagonists' habit of convening every so often in their make-believe republican parliament. But, those brief interruptions aside, the film has as many explosions and killings and thrilling escapes as any Bruce Willis vehicle. Liam Neeson does what he can with the title role, but, with comparatively limited screen time, Rickman manages to suggest that his ascetic, bespectacled de Valera would have made a much more interesting subject.
Then came Harry Potter. Unlike Les Liaisons, there were none of the usual concessions. The British English was left intact - the boarding-school children wait eagerly for the "post" - and the cast looked like a Bafta awards ceremony where none of the American winners have turned up, leaving only the British presenters to accept on their behalf: Robbie Coltrane, Fiona Shaw, Richard Griffiths, Richard Harris, Zoe Wanamaker, John Cleese, John Hurt all pass by for five minutes apiece, wreathed in beards, shrouded in cloaks or bearing severed heads; if the film doesn't have a formal credit saying "No Americans Were Utilized In The Making Of This Motion Picture", it might as well have. Three or four films on, with Jarvis Cocker turning up to front the house band at the Hogwarts ball, you start to feel cameo-ed out: Miranda Richardson as a tarty tabloid hackette, Ralph Fiennes as a baldemort Voldemort looking like the English Patient unbandaged... Is there anyone who hasn't done a walk-on in Harry Potter? Was that Tony Blair pogo-ing with Prince Edward in the rave sequence? Granted that there's an episode or two where he's reduced to little more than the occasional lip-purse and eyebrow-arch, Rickman as the chilly Severus Snape was one of the few really to make his role land. He will be Snape for a generation of children as long as they live.
What else? Love Actually is crap actually. I say that in the spirit of the movie, which begins with clapped out rock geezer Bill Nighy recording his new single, a remake of "Love Is All Around" called "Christmas Is All Around". It is a cynical exercise on his part: he cheerfully tells the disc-jockey and listeners of Radio Watford and the hosts and studio audience of the Ant & Dec yoof TV show that it's "crap". But the great British public takes its transparent cheesiness to heart, and the cynical crap touches a chord.
In the rest of the movie, the crap doesn't have quite the same magic touch. This is Richard Curtis running on pure formula, with what seems like a ragbag of rejected first-draft ideas from Four Weddings And A Funeral and Bridget Jones. There is of course the requisite Curtisian leavening of the contrived and cloyingly sweet with the bitter - in this case, mumsy Emma Thompson confronting her straying hubby Rickman. Miss Thompson is an actress of great subtlety, but Curtis is so unconfident of that that he sticks her in frumpy baggy brown cardigans and long shapeless grey skirts that practically scream "Go on, cheat on me!" It's as if he's forgotten how to write anything but the coarsest shorthand. By contrast, Rickman does more serious lip-acting here than in the previous two decades: The sour downturned contortions of his mouth spend the movie frantically squirming - as if to signal either the joylessness of the affair he's half-having or his self-disgust at agreeing to the picture. But his and Thompson's scenes are the only ones where you feel anything real is at stake.
Finally, a personal favorite of mine: Galaxy Quest (1999), about a cult telly space opera, long canceled, whose cast eke out a living reuniting for conventions of fanatical fans - until one day there shows up a bunch of real-life aliens "from the Klaatu Nebula" whose only knowledge of earth and its ways has been gleaned from the show. The title "Galaxy Quest" makes clear which sci-fi franchise it's meant to evoke, and the cast have a grand time: Sigourney Weaver is the girl, Tim Allen the Kirk character, and Rickman the Spock, as played by Sir Alexander Dane, a great stage actor now known only for playing "Dr Lazarus". The rest of the cast have heard his dressing-room self-loathing shtick so often they can mouth along with it:
RICKMAN: How did I come to this?
DARYL MITCHELL: Not again.
RICKMAN: I played Richard III.
TONY SHALHOUB: Five curtain calls.
RICKMAN: Five curtain calls... I was an actor once, dammit! Now look at me. Look at me! I can't go out there, and I won't say that stupid line one more time...
The stupid line is "By Grabthar's hammer, by the suns of Warvan, you shall be avenged!" Unlike Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen, Rickman did not spend his 21st century lending a bit of RSC gravitas to Marvel Comics long-underwear romps. But I wonder if he ever felt a touch of the Sir Alexanders at being best known for Die Hard, Robin Hood and Harry Potter. What might he have done left to his own devices? Well, I was about to say that, politically, he had the conventional inclinations of a Guardian-reading English actor. But, upon reflection, it was a little more than that: As co-writer and director of My Name is Rachel Corrie at the Royal Court Theatre, he was one of those most responsible for the terrible glamorization and beatification of that young American "activist". (You can read my review of the play here.) If Hollywood distracted him from more of that, we should all be grateful. Rest in peace.