FILM JULY 18, 2011
You hear it said, now that the final Harry Potter movie is out, that we will all miss Harry, Ron, and Hermione, along with Daniel, Rupert, and Emma, and it may be that no trio of young actors has ever had such success in a series of pictures. But, fondness aside, I’m not sure how much more of these actors we’ll be seeing. They are no longer children; as young adults, they may find themselves chained to the Rowling franchise in the public mind, and they may seem old-fashioned. The timeless people I’ll miss are Voldemort and Snape, yet the Potter movies have done more than establish Ralph Fiennes and Alan Rickman. They have given these actors a threshold to greatness.
Rickman is 65, and Fiennes nearly 50. Fiennes had a splashy introduction to the screen: He was Heathcliff to Juliette Binoche’s Cathy in a TV version of Wuthering Heights; he was the German officer in Schindler’s List, fully committed to the pathology and vanity of the man; he was a bright young hope with a serious deficiency of character in Robert Redford’s Quiz Show; and he was Almasy, a desert poet, a reckless lover, and on his death-bed much of the time in The English Patient. He was nominated for best actor in both Schindler’s List and The English Patient. There was no doubt about his sensitivity or his skill, but I had a feeling the public wasn’t quite registering or noticing him, and it had to do with his reticence, or a self-effacing uncertainty as to whether he should be doing movies. He seemed reluctant to assert himself—and there is no point in doing Voldemort if people aren’t going to be spooked when they see you.
In the late ’90s and early 2000s, Fiennes’s urge to vanish nearly took over. He did a run of films in which he was more and more subdued or withdrawn: Onegin, directed by his sister; the lover in a listless version of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair; implausible with Jennifer Lopez in Maid in Manhattan (why be on screen with J. Lo
if you’re not very pleased to see her?); and nearly speechless in David Cronenberg’s Spider.
He did his first Voldemort in 2005 with The Goblet of Fire, and his noseless look, his grasp of sinister physical detail, and the imaginative energy of the role seemed to free Fiennes. (Though the monster was still shy somehow.) He is never going to be Bogart or Nicholson, but Bernard and Doris, In Bruges, and The Reader have shown us so much more of the actor. Of course, the idiots in Hollywood now believe he can be locked into grotesque, yet eloquent villainy—always British territory in the mind of Los Angeles. I
doubt that is what Fiennes intends, and, past 50, he will have to be ingenious to get roles that keep him lively and interested. But Rowling has carried him closer to his own self.
Alan Rickman faces other difficulties—not just in being older, but, in having established such a fastidious and slow-burning sardonic attitude, there is a danger that future pictures and lazy directors will simply tell him to “do Alan Rickman.” Whereas Rickman has a reputation (with several women I know) of being one of the most romantic and sexy of actors beneath his disdaining sourness. Remember that he created the part of Valmont in the London and Broadway stage productions of Les Liaisons Dangereuses (the movie role went to John Malkovich), and never forget his deceased Jamie in Anthony Minghella’s Truly, Madly, Deeply ( maybe the director’s best work).
Two years earlier, Rickman’s career had been made (but led astray?) by his Hans Gruber opposite Bruce Willis in Die Hard. Since then, the nasty Rickman has been a Sheriff of Nottingham to Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Rasputin, a sneaky Eamon de Valera in Michael Collins, and the odious Judge Turpin in the film of Sweeney Todd, as well as Severus Snape whenever required.
But he was a very romantic gentleman in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility. Moreover, Rickman remains clear about his first love being the theater, so he won a Tony in Noel Coward’s Private Lives, he has directed several plays, he starred opposite Helen Mirren in Antony and Cleopatra at London’s National Theatre, and, in recent years, he has brought acclaimed productions of Strindberg’s Creditors and Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman to America. In all likelihood, Rickman has greater things ahead in theater, and an old age like that of Claude Rains in the movies—which is to say, urbane cynics and soft-spoken scoundrels.
But there’s the point about both of these careers and the life of the mature English actor. Rains, who had been a stage actor in London, had a dread of having sold out by going to Hollywood. But he was blessed by joining an age of superb supporting actors—Walter Brennan, Thomas Mitchell, Peter Lorre, Thelma Ritter, Mercedes McCambridge, Beulah Bondi. Those players thrived because the movies believed in supporting figures in life. There have been some modern directors who shared that vitality: Altman, Scorsese, Paul Thomas Anderson, the Coen Brothers. But too many over-paid stars hog films, leaving insufficient room for real life. Some of our best character actors—Steve Buscemi, Melissa Leo, James Gandolfini, Anna Paquin—shift over to TV series, which is good for them but a loss to big screen movies. So I hope the world will realize what it has in Fiennes and Rickman.
One last thing: Now that Harry Potter is finished (if the business will really allow that), there’s another valuable career that might get back on track. I’m thinking of Steve Kloves, who has written seven of the Harry Potter scripts. That’s OK, and I’m not challenging the job he did, even if splitting the last book was a rotten trick. But, long ago, Steve Kloves wrote and directed Flesh and Bone, which isn’t perfect but it’s gripping, and something called The Fabulous Baker Boys, which is so enjoyable it doesn’t need to be perfect.
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.