Alan Rickman: A star for all ages

By Lucy Mazdon
University of Southampton

As many of us are still reeling from the shock news of David Bowie’s death, it is with enormous sadness that we learn of the death of another great British star, Alan Rickman. Like Bowie, Rickman had been suffering from cancer and has died at the same premature age of 69.

While Bowie’s death was, not surprisingly, mourned by those of us old enough to remember his hits of the 60s, 70s, and 80s, it was noticeable just how many young people seemed deeply touched by his passing, too. It seems he was a star for all ages, whose music transcended generations and changing musical tastes.

I suspect Alan Rickman’s passing will have a similar cross-generational impact. Many young people, who have grown up with Harry Potter, will mourn his passing as the death of Severus Snape.

Rickman had been a movie staple since his iconic role as Hans Gruber opposite Bruce Willis in Die Hard in 1988. The movie villain has of course long provided fertile terrain for British actors in Hollywood. But Rickman was to prove one of the greatest, with subsequent roles as the Sheriff of Nottingham in 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and Rasputin in HBO’s 1995 film of the same title, for which he won a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award for most outstanding performance.

But it was his role as the brooding Snape in the Harry Potter series which was to introduce him to a whole new generation of filmgoers and reinforce his position as one of our most versatile British film actors. His performance as Snape, who starts as a menacing villain but, in the end, proves himself a hero, is remarkable. His unmistakable diction and rather arch performance work perfectly with the nuance demanded by this ambiguous and shifting role.

But personally, I’ll remember his hugely affecting performance opposite Juliet Stephenson in the late Anthony Minghella’s romance Truly Madly Deeply, which helped to make stars of all three.

Much more than a bankable movie star, Rickman was an immensely versatile actor and an acclaimed director. It was his stage work which established his reputation and he returned to the stage throughout his career. Trained at RADA, like many great British actors he honed his skills with the Royal Shakespeare Company. His breakthrough performance in 1986 as Valmont in Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses was met with huge critical acclaim and established him as one of the leading actors of his generation. He was nominated for a Tony award for the role.

Rickman was an unmistakable, unmissable performer. His passing will be felt by many with a love for film and theatre and for the craft of the actor. But I suspect he will be particularly mourned by the legions of Harry Potter fans who followed Snape throughout the series and delighted in his eventual heroism.

In that, like Bowie, he has made himself a star for all ages. A star who will not be forgotten. And we can only hope that knowledge of the enduring legacy of both provides us with some consolation in what has been such a sad week for British culture.


Lucy Mazdon, Head of Film, University of Southampton.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

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