Remembering our fallen Austen actors

Remembering our fallen Austen actors

CB2It is well over a month since the world said goodbye to the fabulous Alan Rickman, but social media posts commemorating his birthday five days ago reignited my sense of loss. This was an actor who not only won my heart as Colonel Brandon in the 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility, but he is also the man who perfectly portrayed my most beloved Harry Potter character, Severus Snape (Luna Lovegood comes in a very close second, but that is a conversation for a different fan site). Anyway, I got to thinking about which other actors who have immortalized Austen’s characters on screen might have died with a lot less fanfare, inspiring many hours of reading IMDd listings. It seems a fitting tribute to Mr. Rickman and those other fallen stars to share my findings here, but please do not think it is my intention to be morbid, dwelling on loss. The actors mentioned below played their roles magnificently and will live forever in my mind and those of countless other Janeites everywhere. This post is intended as a celebration of their Austenian achievements.

Of course, the older the adaptation, the more likely its cast has bit the bucket. Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier, as well the bulk of the cast of the 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice, have been dead for decades (though the lady who played Mary Bennet, Marsha Hunt, is apparently still kicking it at age 99 – you go girl!). About half of the actors were born in the 19th century, so what else is to be expected? But that’s exactly what is so amazing about film: Garson and Olivier continue to spar it out with as much vibrancy as ever, decades after their passing. This first couple to portray Elizabeth and Darcy remain many a Janeite’s favorite. Despite all the old Hollywood trappings of the film (and there are many), both actors shine in their roles. In tribute, here is the first proposal scene. It is a bit genteel by modern standards, but do look at Darcy’s posture when Elizabeth mentions Wickham, as he paces the room and leans against a pillar in agitation. Surely this moment was the inspiration for both the actors who later played Darcy and also countless of writers like myself, who love to pose him staring broodingly out a window or into a fireplace.

Moving into the second half of the 20th century, the heroes and heroines of the BBC mini-series adaptations of Austen’s novels have proved remarkably hale. A few of the supporting actors have died, and I would be remiss not to mention two particular losses amongst the stars of the 1972 version of Emma: Donald Eccles, who I think is the best Mr. Woodhouse EVER, and the fabulous Mollie Sugden, who portrayed Mrs. Goddard, but is best known for her role as Mrs. Slocombe in the British TV comedy Are You Being Served?. Also noteworthy is Anna Massey, who played Aunt Norris in the 1983 Mansfield Park to perfection (you might also recall her as Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest).

Mrs. Norris might be an unhealthy role to portray. Sheila Gish, who played the part in the 1999 version of Mansfield Park, passed away only six years later. In the same cast and of equally villainous status in this particular adaptation, Harold Pinter, the Nobel Prize winning playwright, performed the role of Sir Thomas Bertram. For some of us (me!), his horrifying version of Sir Thomas might be happily forgotten, but his death in 2008 of liver cancer was undoubtedly a blow to the entire literary world.

Particularly hard hit, the cast of Persuasion (1995) has lost three members: Susan Fleetwood (Lady Russell), Corin Redgrave (Vanessa and Lynn’s brother/Sir Walter Elliot), and Roger Hammond (Mr. Musgrove), who gave his final performance in The King’s Speech.

CB1It seems ironic that the only actors playing Austen heroes (since the 1940’s) that have died are those that portrayed Colonel Brandon. Behold the efficacy of the flannel waistcoat! The heroines are all alive and flourishing. Robert Swann, who passed away in 2006, performed the role of the Colonel in the 1981 BBC version of Sense and Sensibility. Born on March 18, 1945, he had a long career, primarily in television. Interestingly, his first performance was in the classic 1960’s film If … staring Malcolm McDowell. Other contributions to the big screen include a small role in The Madness of King George. He appeared fairly regularly on television until two years prior to his death. His one leading man role other than Colonel Brandon was as Levin in the 1977 mini-series version of Anna Karenina. I wish I could find more information on him and make this a more informative eulogy. Rest in peace, Mr. Swann.

Far more plentiful is information on Mr. Rickman, whose resume includes fewer credits than Mr. Swann, but whose memory will be far better preserved in his startlingly diverse and spectacular performances. Born February 21, 1946, he began acting in the theater at the relatively late age of 26. His first Hollywood performance was no bit part but as the villain Hans Gruber in Die Hard. He first came to the attention of my young eyes as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. I don’t think I recognized him as the same actor when I first saw the 1995 version of Sense and Sensibility. His Colonel Brandon is so gentle and romantic: reserved, as he should be, but nonetheless deeply passionate. I love this scene, in which he doesn’t utter a word in his iconic voice, yet conveys so much emotion, all while maintaining a military stoicism so befitting the character.

His abilities transversed genres: from action, to romance, to comedy, and onto musicals with Sweeney Todd. Still, how can he not be best remembered as Severus Snape, the tragic hero of Harry Potter? He was PERFECT as Snape. In a film franchise filled with impeccable casting decisions, his is possibly the very best (runners up: Luna Lovegood, Belatrix Lestrange, and Delores Umbridge – see how easy I get distracted by Potter?) I am eternally grateful he had the opportunity to complete the series, as I am that he finished reprising his role at the caterpillar in the upcoming Alice Through the Looking Glass, his final performance. Mr. Rickman died on January 21, 2016. He was 69 years old. Rest in peace, Mr. Rickman. You were much beloved.

22 Responses to Remembering our fallen Austen actors

  1. I watched the second clip that you have above, and you know how on Youtube, once you’ve watched a video, it pops up a bunch of others that you might want to see. Well, there was one called “Kate Winslet remembers Alan Rickman with a funny story”. It’s hilarious, and I can just hear him saying that punch line that she delivers. You need to check it out!

  2. Thank you for this touching tribute, I liked seeing the first clip with Greer and Oliver. I the past I have cringed at this version but the proposal scene is done very well, I got goose bumps seeing the music room scene with Alan Rickman I think it is time to re watch this version and enjoy!

  3. Such as lovely tribute to all of the actors no longer with us, especially Alan Rickman, Alexa. From what I’ve read since his passing, he was one of the very few people with whom J.K. Rowling had shared Snape’s back story before publication of the Deathly Hallows. Apparently when a dirctor asked why he played a scene a certain way, he told them that he knew something they didn’t. I always hear his voice as Snape when I re-read any Harry Potter book now.

    One of my favourite scenes from Robin Hood is where he says ‘I’m going to dig his heart out with a spoon’. When asked why a spoon not something sharper, he says, as if it’s perfectly obvious ‘It’ll hurt more!’ He showed such wonderful comic timing in that film and also in my personal favourite of his, Galaxy Quest. He was just fantastic in that.

    • It’s a great line! I remember it and the one mentioned by Brenda well, but it has been a while since I saw it. Time for a rewatch. I also loved him in Dogma, but it as Snape that I will always best remember him. It is an amazing performance and so accurate to the book.

      • Yes she was. She is an AMAZING Mrs. Norris. Best ever. You must watch it. I know it used to be available on Netflix. I also adore Angela Pleasance as Lady Bertram. She is the only actress who has captured the comic nature of the character.

  4. In loving tribute…we give our salute and respect to those that we have lost. Their performances caught forever on film as we revisit their work over and over. We see them in their perfect health and youth, their hard work forever making an impression on us…moving us to tears, laughter, shock, fear or even a scream. I have many of the films you have mentioned. I loved the 1940 P&P with Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier; their performances are outstanding. I’ve watched it dozens of times…I love the costumes.

    Alan Rickman was my favorite Colonel Brandon, even though I like the performances of others. He will always be my favorite. I loved him as the Sheriff in Robin Hood, I adored him as the Colonel and I wept during his death scene in Harry Potter. He ripped my heart out during his scene when he discovered that his great love, Lily Potter had died. The grief that he portrayed as he brought her into his arms destroyed me. That was true acting. I never got over that scene and tear up whenever I think of it now.

    Actors enrich our lives; take us on a journey away from our mundane lives for an hour or two. We are transported to another time, place and become part of the story. I am grateful I was able to see them and enjoy what they had to offer and hope they felt our love, adoration and gratitude for their hard work. They will be remembered.

    • Beautiful said, Jeanne! I am rather obsessed with Snape’s character. I always adore a tortured soul, and he is one of the best. My feelings for him are very similar to those of one of my other favorite characters of all time, Inspector Javert from Les Miserables. Totally different, I know, but they stand side by side in my heart. Thank you so much for the comment and tribute to an amazing actor!

  5. I loved Alan Rickman! He was my favorite Colonel Brandon but I thought he stole the show was the Sheriff in Robin Hood! He was a villain but also very very funny. Pointing to a lovely wench: “You be in my room at (If I remember) eight o’clock.” Points at another girl. “and you at nine! And Bring a friend!.”

  6. I’m a huge Alan Rickman fan and I much preferred his Colonel Brandon to any other Austen hero. My favorite scene, another where he doesn’t utter a word, is when Maryanne is sick and he is going mad with worry. He fetches Mrs. Dashwood and once they arrive, he starts to back out of the room. Maryanne thanks him as he’s closing the door – the look on his face portrays his longing, worrying, and shear joy that she’ll survive.

    • That is a wonderful scene. He was a master of his art. I admit part of my reason for choosing this scene is the song. It felt like a fitting way to say goodbye. We will miss him so.

  7. Until his death I hadn’t placed Mr.Rickman as both the Sheriff of Nottingham and Colonel Brandon, the parts he portrayed were so diverse, but equally well acted. Thank you for this post and sharing the video snippets.

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