David Bowie, honored in last week’s column, isn’t the only cinematic legend to have left us in recent weeks. Alan Rickman, who died January 14 at the age of 69, is one of those actors held dear by multiple generations of devotees. To millennials, he will always be Severus Snape from the Harry Potter films. To theater aficionados young and (mostly) old, he is remembered fondly for his time in the Royal Shakespeare Company, and on Broadway in shows like Les Liaisons Dangereuses. To an army of tearful 30-somethings, however, it’s very difficult not to equate him with his magnificent, paradigm-shifting turn as the impeccably coiffed Hans Gruber, the German villain of 1988 action classic Die Hard. It may well be reductive to reduce such a storied career to one role but not even the most wide-ranging obituary can really do justice to the man’s actorly textures. If we’re going to wallow in the past, it may as well be over Rickman’s film debut, a performance that altered popular cinema in a way his admittedly excellent work as Snape never did.
Die Hard is about as perfect an action film as is possible to make. John McTiernan’s superlative direction and grasp of pacing, pre-stardom Bruce Willis’ endearing everyman protagonist, Steven de Souza and Jeb Stuart’s clever screenplay…there are a hundred different elements that combine here with a harmony infrequently encountered in the alchemy of storytelling. That said, the philosopher’s stone integral to the process of turning what some consider the base materials of genre cinema into the shiny stuff of legend was Alan Rickman.
Stillness was always Rickman’s default performative mode. Where lesser actors would bluster or try to fill up the physical space, he modulated his voice and centered his chi, dominating the frame not with obvious flourishes but with quiet gravity. As Gruber, that calm is shot through with dispassionate sociopathy bordering almost on boredom, an unlikely mix that went against the grain of the era’s wild-eyed psychos and gave Rickman a chance to add layers to a character that could have been two-dimensional as written. It’s a preternaturally controlled performance that is, depending on the context and the spin Rickman put on it from moment to moment, both unsettling and oddly hilarious. His famous opening speech to his hostages, kicked off with a nasal “Ladies and gentleman…” more suited to a disinterested MC at a corporate event than a megalomaniacal terrorist, is an example of that balance. The deliberateness with which he lays out his complete command of the situation, right down to knowing the biography of the most senior Nakatomi executive present, is terrifying. On the other hand, he’s reading his speech from a little notebook, one of many perfect comedic touches that Rickman puts on the character.
Where lesser actors would bluster or try to fill up the physical space, he modulated his voice and centered his chi, dominating the frame not with obvious flourishes but with quiet gravity.
Another key to Rickman performances is the decidedly non-fictional spark of intelligence that burns behind them, fueling an almost uniformly good-humored understanding of his characters and the creative soil they spring from. I’ve always been of the opinion that it’s difficult for unintelligent actors to play at being smart. Rickman doesn’t have that problem. His erudition comes through in every word and gesture and, in Die Hard, turns the stock foreign villain type that had become a staple in 1980s action films on its head. Gruber is a Euro snob who buys suits from the same tailor who made Yasser Arafat’s wardrobe and drops snide references to his “classical education” but, at the end of the day, he’s a common thief, albeit an “exceptional” one. Both Rickman and, at some meta level, Gruber himself know that he’s a stock type in an 80s action film and neither man cares. If he’s a type then, by God, he’ll have fun being one. Where many of the villains in the decade’s action films were often motivated by ideologies or mental illness, Hans was merely interested in that most American of goals – material wealth. That fact rubs up against the superficial foreignness of Gruber’s character in fascinating ways. Some of that is down to the screenplay but a lot of it comes from Rickman’s sardonic and knowing delivery. The only times Rickman breaks his deadpan monotone is to bust out a toothsome grin and let us know he’s in on the joke. It’s a marvelous high wire act, investing the character with enough seriousness that his villainy feels like an actual threat to those around him while injecting the proceedings with enough self-aware lightheartedness that numbing nastiness doesn’t become the film’s defining aesthetic.
Hans Gruber is the gold standard for how generations of budding movie buffs came to judge cinematic villains, one that endures despite literally hundreds of inferior knockoffs muddying the legacy. He is also the vessel that familiarized a whole lot of us with the distinctive cadence, pointed humor and calming presence (even when shooting people) of a wonderful actor we will never see again. As always, though, the work remains. I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve watched Die Hard more times than I can count, finding some new wrinkle each time in the Machiavellian delight that is Rickman’s Gruber. And I have no doubt that each of his roles hold that kind of weight and meaning to fans, with a similar wealth of layers that will require a lifetime of rewatching to fully unravel. Happy trails, Hans.