Anne Heche onscreen: Wily and funny but also unnerving

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Anne Heche onscreen: Wily and funny but also unnerving
Alec Baldwin and Anne Heche rehearsing the play "Twentieth Century" in Manhattan, Feb. 4, 2004. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Esther Zuckerman

NEW YORK, NY.- Long before the car crash that led to actor Anne Heche being declared brain-dead at the age of 53, her work onscreen was always on the verge of being overshadowed by tabloid 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 countless jokes after a “20/20” interview with Barbara Walters in 2001 in which she revealed that she had concocted a separate world for herself called a “fourth dimension” and a personality named “Celestia.” Never mind the fact that she also told Walters about the horrific sexual abuse she had endured at the hands of her father. She was faced with mockery that followed her for the rest of her career.

But to filmgoers, Heche was an idiosyncratic presence who never quite seemed to fit into cookie-cutter blockbusters. Instead, she was brilliantly unnerving and frequently funny, her angular face a disarming mix of intelligence and wiliness 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 did stints on network dramas like “Ally McBeal” and sitcoms like “Save Me” and “The Michael J. Fox Show.” And yet there was a subversiveness to Heche that threaded through her best performances, as well as an ability to laugh at herself that undermined her reputation in the culture at large.

Early in her career, director Nicole Holofcener identified Heche’s capacity for honesty in the 1996 “Walking and Talking” (available to rent on Prime Video). Heche plays Laura, a therapist-in-training and the longtime best friend of Catherine Keener’s Amelia. Laura is, theoretically, the more together of the two. While Amelia flounders, Laura is on a direct path, engaged to be married to her sweet jewelry-designer boyfriend (Todd Field).

But as Amelia becomes jealous of the certainty in Laura’s life, doubt creeps into Laura’s psyche. In Heche, you can see Laura bristling at the restraints that come with the comforts of a close friendship and good relationship. As she tries on wedding dresses, Heche’s skin turns flushed amid the layers of tulle. Laura wrestles with the fabric as Amelia lightly paws 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 thoroughly overwhelmed. She grabs her rear end. “I’m farting,” she says, with resignation. In that little gesture, Heche admits that her body is betraying her before her mind will allow her to say so.

Holofcener’s screenplay allows this easy intimacy between women who have known each other for decades, but in Heche’s hands, Laura’s soul-searching becomes something hilariously palpable. When she and Amelia finally have it out, Heche never allows her character’s exasperation to fade into bitterness. Instead she finds all the wonderful nuances of a disagreement with a confidant, love still the dominant emotion.

In the following year, Hollywood wrestled with how 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 teen slasher “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” she’s the sister of a murder victim. She is oddly slotted into the goofy thrills of disaster flick “Volcano,” in which she plays the seismologist who figures out that Los Angeles is about to be overtaken by lava. And yet even in the silliest of blockbusters, spouting ludicrous exposition about just how this geological event is taking place in a major American city, she brings an easy truth to the circumstances that most performers would struggle to achieve. (“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 Anne Heche offscreen soon started to overshadow the Anne Heche on. Still, there were artists, like Jonathan Glazer, who recognized what she could bring to a project. He tapped her for a pivotal role in his surreal 2004 film, “Birth” (HBO Max), in which Nicole Kidman plays an Upper East Side bride-to-be visited by a young boy who claims to be her dead husband reincarnated. During one of the opening scenes, Heche is disconcertingly on edge, balking before entering a party and instead going to bury her gift in the woods, then rushing to a store to replace what she hid, eyes flooded with guilt. Her character hovers around the action like a threat, until she snaps into focus, the true purpose of her existence floating into her intense gaze.

“Birth” is an otherworldly piece, and it’s almost as if Glazer uses Heche to further unsettle the audience, a task she takes on with vigor. More than 10 years later, Onur Tukel tapped into Heche’s rage in “Catfight” (Netflix), a comedy that cast her as an artist who gets into a vicious punching match with a college friend (Sandra Oh) over resentment and class conflict.

There was a chance that Heche was on the verge of yet another career revival. She had finished a role in the forthcoming HBO series “The Idol,” created by musician the Weeknd, Sam Levinson of “Euphoria” and Reza Fahim. For all the questions about what opportunities she may not have gotten — because of homophobia or ridicule or mental health stigmas — in an interview with Los Angeles magazine around the time of the release of “Birth” she explained, “It’s funny, it’s not necessarily the career I had before, but it’s the life I want.”

It would be easy to let the circumstances of her crash cloud the memory of her artistry, but it’s just as easy to picture her as Laura in “Walking and Talking,” hair full of flowers and heart full of nerves, heading to her wedding with her best friend.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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