In death as it was in life, Anne Heche’s story is rife with complications—the kind that makes a ravenous public as eager to tear her down as it might build her up. She reached megastardom early in her career, aided and sabotaged by the hubbub around her high-profile relationship with Ellen Degeneres. And decades after her alienation from the A-list, a car crash that destroyed a woman’s home (potentially, reportedly fueled by drug use) also destroyed her, in painful ways too horrible to contemplate.
It’s a sobering reminder of how Hollywood, and society at large, failed Heche until the very end, just as it failed so many female stars throughout its history. A right shame, too, because behind all the sneering headlines and cracks about “lipstick lesbianism” laid one of our most beguiling, unexpected leading ladies. To be sure, she broke barriers in Hollywood’s expression of public sexuality. But onscreen, she was also magnetic, surprising, packing a quivering intensity under that slight frame.
Even in the beginning, Heche’s life was rife with hardship. As she tells it in her now-impossible-to-find memoir Call Me Crazy, she was sexually abused by her Baptist choir director father, who later died of HIV/AIDS at 45 when Heche was only 13. Mere months later, Heche’s 18-year-old brother Nathan perished in a car crash. She grew estranged from her mother and sister due to her allegations against her father, which they both categorically deny.
But amid this tragedy, Heche still managed to break into show business in a big way, earning a Daytime Emmy for her dual role as twins on the soap opera “Another World.” From there, she climbed through the ranks with smaller roles in “The Adventures of Huck Finn” and “Milk Money” before landing two substantial parts: a co-lead role in Nicole Holofcener’s indie dramedy “Walking and Talking” and as a young woman seeking an abortion in the HBO TV movie “If These Walls Could Talk,” starring Cher and Demi Moore.
In these early glimmers, you can see the fresh-faced potential she’d carry through to the rest of her too-short career. Heche’s Laura in “Walking and Talking”—that rare indie flick from the ‘90s centered around the lives and concerns of two women—is outspoken and largely unapologetic about it, a firebrand who knows what she wants and resents feeling stuck in bad relationships where the other person hasn’t done anything wrong. When she splits with her boyfriend Frank (Todd Field) because he won’t get his mole checked out, he tries to reconcile by inviting her to dinner and offering the removed, biopsied mole in a ring box then and there. Heche is gangbusters here, curiosity rollercoasting into surprise, then disgust: “It’s the most passive-aggressive thing you’ve ever done!” She storms away in a huff, both aggravatingly in the right and quick to judgment. It’s a tightrope Heche could easily walk in so many of her roles.
From there, her star grew, becoming virtually omnipresent in 1997 and 1998 with films like “Donnie Brasco,” “Wag the Dog,” and “Volcano.” Granted, some of this was due to the exposure that came with being Ellen Degeneres’ girlfriend (revealed two months after “Donnie Brasco” came out, eclipsing her beautifully brittle turn there as Johnny Depp’s tough-as-nails wife), one of the first out gay couples in Hollywood.
Despite the headlines, media exposure, and cracks about her sexuality, Heche continued to move mountains as a confident screen presence. Sure, “Volcano” was bad, but Heche moves through the material with bitten-lip confidence, spitting out technobabble with a scientist’s nerve. “Six Days, Seven Nights” may feel like a warmed-over riff on “Romancing the Stone,” but Heche bickers admirably against a grizzled Harrison Ford, her turn as a fast-talking career woman stuck with Ford’s dirtbag pilot not too far removed from Mae West and Claudette Colbert.
And yet, she did feel different from those classic leading ladies and her sweeter, more wholesome contemporaries like Sandra Bullock or Julia Roberts. Her delivery was sharp and deceptively intelligent, a wily smile hidden underneath the short-cropped blonde hair she’d rock through many of her ‘90s roles. She wasn’t there to placate the men around her or serve as eye candy; she had her own designs and was unafraid to enact them.
Heche was most illuminating in roles that carried a hint of danger. Even in Gus Van Sant’s risible, unnecessary remake of “Psycho,” one of his smarter choices was casting Heche in the role of Marion Crane, a desperate woman resolved to escape the world of predatory men and tragically fated to succumb to it. Films like “Wag the Dog” and “Return to Paradise” show the darker edges of Heche’s persona, playing foils and manipulators more than capable of rewriting reality to suit their purposes.
This would be the beginning of Heche’s lifelong stardom in a just world. But her relationship with Ellen was just too tawdry to leave alone, and a never-ending deluge of homophobia and misogyny in the press and pop culture quickly marginalized her. At the premiere for “Volcano,” she was warned that she’d lose her contract with Warner Bros. if she brought DeGeneres as her date; Heche chose to do it anyway because screw the optics, and suddenly a $10 million picture deal went up in flames.
If Hollywood wanted to punish her for being a lesbian, her breakup with DeGeneres and subsequent dating of men after that just made America want to punish her further. As a short-haired lesbian in the public eye, we demonized her as a deviant. Going back to men after that (DeGeneres would be the only woman Heche ever dated) made her not bisexual, but a hypocrite in the eyes of an unforgiving public.
Her career also suffered, moving into a series of supporting roles and television after that. But that marginalization didn’t dull her spark on screen; take Jonathan Glazer’s “Birth,” where she plays a woman who similarly makes herself small in the wake of information that might disrupt the status quo. She begins the film carrying a terrible secret, one she’s desperate to bury in the woods; she ends it confessing that secret, Heche unafraid to share an uncomfortable sexual energy in a room with a ten-year-old, as she explains why he couldn’t possibly be the reincarnated form of her dead lover—because he’d gone to his wife first instead of her. It’s a scene remarkable for its taboo nature as it is Heche’s incredible ability to navigate the murky questions at its center.
To think about Anne Heche’s life and career is to contemplate the predatory nature of celebrity culture—how it consumes even its most willing participants, and eviscerates anyone who doesn’t fit the precise mold expected of them. She was a complicated figure, as capable of inflicting harm as she was of receiving it. Hers was a life marred by abuse, mental health and substance issues, and the all-seeing eye of a pop culture that wasn’t ready to treat her love life as anything more than a sideshow.
And yet, through all those ups and downs, there’s still the work—a career marked by stunning performances that barely scratched the surface of her capabilities. I can only hope we choose that as her legacy: not the demons (some of whom we created), but the angels she created on screen, no matter what judgment we threw at her.