Long before the car accident that resulted in actress Anne Heche being declared brain dead at age 53, her on-screen work was always about to be overshadowed by the tabloids’ interest in her life.
In 1997, she became best known as the girlfriend of comedian Ellen DeGeneres, appearing with her on red carpets at a time when open same-sex relationships were still rare in Hollywood. Her name was the butt of numerous jokes after a ’20/20′ interview with Barbara Walters in 2001, in which she revealed that she had invented a separate world for herself, a ‘fourth dimension’ and a personality called ‘Celestia’. Never mind that she also told Walters about the horrific sexual abuse she endured at the hands of her father. She faced ridicule that haunted her for the rest of her career.
But to moviegoers, Heche was a quirky presence that never seemed to quite fit into cookie-cutter blockbusters. Instead she was brilliantly unnerving and often very funny, her angular face a disarming mix of intelligence and cunning that made her the perfect choice to play competent women in extreme situations.
In some ways, she operated in the most mainstream arenas of the entertainment industry. She got her start as a soap opera star on “Another World” and starred in network dramas such as “Ally McBeal” and sitcoms such as “Save Me” and “The Michael J. Fox Show.” And yet there was a subversive attitude from Heche that ran through her best performances, as well as the ability to laugh at herself that undermined her reputation in the culture at large.
Early in her career, director Nicole Holofcener identified Heche’s ability for honesty in 1996’s “Walking and Talking” (available to rent on Prime Video). Heche plays Laura, a therapist in training and the best friend of Catherine Keener’s Amelia. Laura is, in theory, the more together of the two. While Amelia dabbles, Laura is on a straight-forward path, engaged to be married to her sweet jewelry designer boyfriend (Todd Field).
But when Amelia becomes jealous of the certainty in Laura’s life, doubt creeps into Laura’s psyche. In Heche you can see Laura struggling with the limitations that come with the comfort of a close friendship and a good relationship. While trying on wedding dresses, Heche’s skin turns red between the layers of tulle. Laura struggles with the fabric as Amelia lightly clawed at it, not helping much, as she describes her date with a man they had both mocked. Laura doesn’t say it, but you can tell she’s totally overwhelmed. She grabs her behind. “I’m farting,” she says resignedly. In that small gesture, Heche admits that her body is betraying her before her mind will allow her to.
Holofcener’s screenplay allows for this easy intimacy between women who have known each other for decades, but in Heche’s hands, Laura’s search for the soul becomes something hilariously palpable. When she and Amelia finally work it out, Heche never lets her character’s annoyance turn into bitterness. Instead, she finds all the wonderful nuances of a disagreement with a confidante, love still the dominant emotion.
In the following year, Hollywood struggled to fit Heche into its formulas. She appeared in four films in 1997, in roles ranging from the frustrated wife of an undercover cop in “Donnie Brasco,” opposite Johnny Depp, to a presidential aide trying to bury a scandal in “Wag the Dog,” opposite Robert De Niro. In the teen movie ‘I Know What You Did Last Summer’ she is the sister of a murder victim. Oddly enough, she gets swept up in the crazy suspense of the disaster movie “Volcano,” in which she plays the seismologist who finds out that Los Angeles is about to be overtaken by lava. And yet, even in the silliest of blockbusters, she brings ridiculous expositions of how this geological event takes place in a major American city, an easy truth about the conditions that most artists would struggle with. (“Donnie Brasco” is available on Netflix; “I Know What You Did” is on HBO Max; and “Wag” and “Volcano” are on most major platforms.)
She never stopped working, but the off-screen Anne Heche soon began to overshadow the Anne Heche. Still, there were artists, like Jonathan Glazer, who saw what she could bring to a project. He tapped her for a pivotal role in his 2004 surreal film, “Birth” (HBO Max), in which Nicole Kidman plays an Upper East Side bride-to-be who is visited by a young boy who claims to be her late husband who has been reincarnated. During one of the opening scenes, Heche is disturbingly tense, hesitates before entering a party and instead goes to bury her gift in the woods and rushes to a store to replace what she was hiding, eyes flooded with guilt. Her character hovers around the action like a threat, until she comes into view, the true purpose of her existence hovering in her intense gaze.
“Birth” is an otherworldly piece, and it’s almost as if Glazer is using Heche to upset the audience even more, a task she takes on with vigor. More than 10 years later, Onur Tukel tapped into Heche’s anger in “Catfight” (Netflix), a comedy that cast her as a performer who enters a vicious fight with a college friend (Sandra Oh) over resentment and class conflict.
There was a chance Heche was on the cusp of yet another career revival. She had a part in the upcoming HBO series “The Idol”, created by the musician The Weeknd, Sam Levinson of “Euphoria” and Reza Fahim. For any questions about what opportunities she might not have been given — because of homophobia or ridicule or mental health stigmas — she explained in an interview with Los Angeles magazine around the time of the “Birth” release: “It’s funny, it’s not necessarily the career I had before, but it’s the life I want.”
It would be easy to have the memory of her artistry clouded by the circumstances of her crash, but it’s just as easy to imagine her as Laura in ‘Walking and Talking’, hair full of flowers and a heart full of nerves, on off to her wedding with her best friend.