One of the most popular movie quotes in my house is courtesy the late Alan Rickman. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, he’s interrogated by Delores Umbridge.
“You applied first for the Defense Against the Dark Arts post, is that correct?” she asks. “Yes,” he drawls majestically, staring into the distance. “But you were unsuccessful?” she inquires. He hesitates a moment before deigning to answer with a gloriously icy “Obvious.”
Everyone seems to think he’s saying “Obviously,” but I don’t hear the “ly.” And somehow, “Obvious” is just next level shade. I try to say “Obvious” like that twice a week at least. I can’t do it with a fraction of his gravitas, but damn if it doesn’t feel good to try.
Alan Rickman catapulted to fame as tall as Nakatomi Plaza playing the villain in Die Hard, and he never quite escaped bad guy typecasting after that. Even in Love Actually, he’s a guy trying to cheat on Emma Thompson. I wasn’t allowed to watch Die Hard as a kid, so my earliest exposure to him was 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (the granddaddy of all gritty reboots). Rickman leaves toothmarks all over the scenery with lines like, “Cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans, no more merciful beheadings, and call off Christmas.” But he’s also genuinely chilling when he says, “Our union would allow these children to grow up as my allies. You understand… I cannot allow them to grow up as my enemies.” Now that I’m older, I understand that a lot of people could have played Robin Hood in that movie, maybe better than Kevin Costner. But I’m not sure anyone could have made a better Sheriff of Nottingham than Alan Rickman.
If the best thing you can say of an actor is that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing one of their parts, than Exhibit A might be Severus Snape. (Spoiler alert for Harry Potter, in case anyone needs it.) He was cast at J.K. Rowling’s own suggestion, and she told him about Snape’s backstory years before anyone else knew. Snape’s an absolute joy every time he’s onscreen: sometimes great comic relief, sometimes a deadly threat. But it’s impossible to get to the last film and not have your breath taken away by the lifetime of memories in his final tear. He sneaks up on you, but when you rematch the films it’s all there, shades of meaning beneath the broad Snidely Whiplash delivery.
Maybe my favorite Alan Rickman role ever isn’t a piece of sneering villainy. It’s his hilarious turn in Galaxy Quest, as a classically-trained actor who can barely hide his contempt for the Star Trek-esque TV show that made him famous. The cast is unexpectedly transported into space by a group of aliens convinced that the show was real, and Rickman meets one that has patterned his whole life after the character of Dr. Lazarus. At first he’s got nothing but disgust for his groupie. But towards the end of the film, when the kid is dying in his arms, Rickman gives us a remarkable piece of acting. His character delivers the cheesy catchphrase from the TV show, but infuses it with such depth and feeling that it’s goddamn poetry.
I like to think that moment was Rickman reflecting on his legacy, generations of fans that would only ever see him as the bad guy. But that look of rapture on the kid’s face says it all. Maybe it’s worth being typecast if you can touch people so deeply, and find a way to elevate the material to another level. Rickman could take cheese and make it unforgettable, and he could take something outrageously over the top and make it something utterly human.
One word: “Obvious.” When you’re that good, one word is all you need.