He was an actor of elegance and menace. He looked and sounded like nobody else. He hit the Trifecta of perfect screen antagonists: Hans Gruber, the prototypical charming European bad guy of Die Hard; the Sheriff of Nottingham, rock star as pantomime villain, in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves; and Harry Potter’s inscrutable nemesis Severus Snape, that solitary conundrum. After a relatively late start (he was pushing 30 when he was accepted to London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), Alan Rickman forged a distinguished career as a stage actor, movie actor, director, mentor and, finally, a most unlikely member of the gigantically-grossing Harry Potter movie franchise, which he likened to being in the Beatles.
But I’m not here to write Alan Rickman’s obituary. I’m here to tell you a different story. The death of this particular actor has hit a lot of women harder than you can imagine, because Alan Rickman wasn’t just an actor — he was our secret celebrity boyfriend.
The voice, like deep, dark molasses. The gangly, awkward beauty. The forbidding, intriguing hawklike profile. From the moment I saw Alan Rickman on screen as a ghost in Truly, Madly, Deeply, gazing at his leading lady Juliet Stevenson as if there was no one else in the universe, I was a goner. I was pregnant at the time, and I thought, maybe it was my hormonal state. Uh-uh. My Rickman thing stuck, for years. Sometimes it flamed brighter than others, but it was always there, simmering on a low flame. For a while, I thought I was alone, until a friend mentioned Alan Rickman in passing and I thought I detected a little something extra in the way she caressed those four syllables. I was right. She had it too. We passed a VHS tape of Rickman in “Murder, Obliquely,” an HBO film directed by Alfonso Cuaron, back and forth to each other across the country, sharing our celebrity crush like a couple of pre-teens mooning over a copy of Tiger Beat.
There was a name for our affliction, but I didn’t learn it until the Internet came along. It was called “Rickmania,” and women had suffered its pleasures ever since he first slinked onto the stage as the silkily decadent Vicomte de Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses in 1986. Lindsay Duncan, his costar in the play, famously remarked that people were leaving the theater wanting to have sex, “preferably with Alan Rickman.” One British newspaper columnist tagged Alan “the thinking woman’s crumpet,” which was a nice bit of validation and reassurance for us grown-up women with satisfying real-life relationships who nonetheless inexplicably, sheepishly, fancied a bit of Rickman on the side.
Why Alan Rickman? I’ve asked myself that for years. Maybe it was his other-ness. He wasn’t movie-star handsome. His voice and his accent were singular and a bit affected. He wasn’t low-hanging fruit, that’s for sure. You had to appreciate subtlety to appreciate Alan Rickman. And once you did, you found that he was a big, deep Bronte novel of a crush. No other actor could go from utter stillness to pouncing leonine passions like Alan Rickman. Consider the way suave Hans Gruber (really, Valmont with a gun) leaps at Holly McClane near the climax of Die Hard, when she suggests that despite his bespoke suit and political terrorist pretensions, he is just a common thief: “I am an exceptional thief, Mrs. McClane, and since I’m moving up to kidnapping, you should be more polite!” Or the way his refined Colonel Brandon in Sense and Sensibility suddenly betrays the depth of his feelings for the gravely ill Marianne, begging her sister to, “Give me an occupation Miss Dashwood or I shall run mad!”
He was never very effective playing average Joes. That beguiling, larger-than-life presence begged for a waistcoat and breeches, a Goth wig and a cape; period dramas and fantasies were where he looked like he truly fit in. And we wouldn’t want him any other way, really. Imaginary boyfriends shouldn’t be ordinary, and Alan Rickman was decidedly not.
Rickmania was a persistent bugger. It struck without warning and before you knew it, you were bidding for obscure British radio plays on eBay and watching a lot of bad movies, of which Alan was the best thing. I can’t remember how many times I’ve seen Close My Eyes, an impenetrable British indie film in which Rickman has a small role as the husband of a woman who’s having an affair with her brother. (The brother is played by Clive Owen, and I’ve fast-forwarded over him to get to Alan, which is saying a lot.) When you’re a Rickmaniac, you catalogue his movies by shorthand and CME was a “good hair role”. Listen to me: There was no actor more handsome than Alan Rickman was from 1988-1992, preferably in a good hair role.
As a first-wave Rickmaniac, I was fortunate to have been able to see him in his prime, in real time. I got to watch Sense and Sensibility in a movie theater (good hair role, a bit pouffy, lightened to the color of a Palomino’s mane), and gauge the Rickmania intensity level by the low murmurs that bubbled up out of the dark whenever he appeared on screen. I got to read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and imagine him as Snape, before he was even cast as Snape. And Snape is the reason Alan Rickman in middle-age gained his most unlikely Rickmaniacs, adolescent girls who fell under the Potion Master’s spell. Speaking of Snape, I was sure I outed myself as a Rickmaniac when I wrote this tentative little piece about Harry Potter adult fan fiction, of which I was reading a lot. That piece turned into a longer, kinkier essay called “To Sir, with Love” that was collected in the anthology Mapping the World of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which turned into a whole book.
For a long time, Alan Rickman was my secret muse. And I’m not the only one. I met some funny, great, talented women on Alan Rickman fan boards who have become dear friends. We came for the hair porn, we stayed for the companionship. And now we’re virtually holding hands and consoling each other because the crush we shared is gone.
©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2016