The Jagged Life of Anne Heche

She lived and died like an early Hollywood star who imploded before a grande dame period could get under way. Photo: Universal Pictures/Getty Images

The legend of Anne Heche begins with a 2-year old girl in Aurora, Ohio willing herself to jump from the top of the stairs of her house. “I stood at the top of the staircase,” she wrote in the opening chapter of her 2001 memoir, Call Me Crazy. “My breath was silent as I inhaled, closed my eyes, held out my arms, and leapt … No trouble, no pain. Sweet. Bliss.” It ended when she drove her blue Mini Cooper through the front wall of a stranger’s home in the Mar Vista neighborhood of Los Angeles at high speed, igniting a fire so intense that it took 60 firefighters to extract her from the wreckage. Miraculously, no one living in the house was seriously harmed, but Heche suffered third-degree burns and was declared brain-dead shortly after being hospitalized.

In between was five decades of struggle with a misogynist, homophobic public, mental illness, and substance-abuse problems. TMZ reported that a toxicologist found cocaine in her system before her death, and it’s true that Heche struggled with addiction throughout her adult life. In 2000, she abandoned her SUV near Cantua Creek and walked a mile to a random house, where she told the occupant that God was coming to take everyone to heaven in a spaceship. Authorities said her behavior was the result of an overdose. “I was told to go to a place where I would meet a spaceship,” she told ABC News in an interview the following year. “I was told in order to get on the spaceship that I would have to take a hit of ecstasy.”

In between was also 35 years of television, theater, and film roles — a career that stretched from Another World (playing twins and winning an Emmy) through Donnie Brasco; Wag the Dog; Six Days, Seven Nights; and numerous independent films, including Walking and Talking (with Catherine Keener); Wild Side (opposite Christopher Walken and Joan Chen); and Catfight (co-starring Sandra Oh). She was a perfect fit for a light romantic comedy who could just as well plumb the lower depths in legal thrillers like The Juror. She was superb in two very different made-for-HBO anthology films, Subway Stories and If These Walls Could Talk — playing pregnant women in both — and hit just the right note of ominous distress as the sister of the murder victim in I Know What You Did Last Summer. 

But the bigger the movie budgets got, the less Heche generally got to do. Her talent was so elastic, her stare so piercing, that Hollywood never knew quite what to do with her. Volcano let her survive collapsing buildings and rivers of lava and banter with Tommy Lee Jones, yet the film was mainly about showing what still-developing CGI technology could do. She got only a few scenes in Donnie Brasco (playing the dutiful wife of Johnny Depp’s undercover FBI agent), and while she had a few more in Wag the Dog, the thrill of seeing Heche cast opposite Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, and Willie Nelson is quickly dimmed by the realization that she is playing a stick-in-the-mud presidential adviser whose function is to ask obvious questions that give the film’s screenwriter, David Mamet, a chance to clarify plot points. (In the Wikipedia summary of the film’s plot, Heche’s character’s name, Winifred Ames, is not mentioned.)

In Six Days, Seven Nights, an adventure-comedy about a New York fashion-magazine editor trying to survive a plane wreck on a Pacific Island alongside Harrison Ford’s grizzled pilot, Heche gives a whip-smart performance in an Old Hollywood, pampered-city-dame-in-the-wilderness mode. But the film is middling and ultimately belongs to Ford, playing the stalwart action hero entrusted with protecting a woman out of her element. Six Days was about to begin production in April 1997, when Heche went public as Ellen DeGeneres’s lover by inviting her to be her date at a premiere. According to Heche, the studio was horrified, warned of publicity and box-office blowback, and might have fired her and recast the part if not for the loyalty of Ford, who told her in an answering-machine message, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn who you’re sleeping with. We have a romantic-comedy to make.”

In many ways, Heche never recovered from the career blow she suffered when she went public with her relationship with DeGeneres. The disclosure happened around the same time that DeGeneres made history by coming out as a lesbian and having her character on Ellen do the same. DeGeneres made the cover of Time and went on to land a daytime talk show. Heche, on the other hand, was God’s gift to hack monologue writers, and the butt of endless industry insiders’ jokes. Take Steve Martin, who dated Heche before DeGeneres and wrote the 1998 Hollywood satire Bowfinger, featuring a character named Daisy, a dumb but ambitious blonde from Ohio who sleeps her way up the ladder of an indie film set run by Martin’s eponymous director. The punchline to Daisy’s story is “Now she’s dating Hollywood’s most famous lesbian.” And if she wasn’t being mocked for having dated DeGeneres, she was being ridiculed for her substance-abuse issues and mental illness. Even media coverage that tried to seem sympathetic bought into a noxious line. “Heche was pilloried as both publicity hound and career opportunist,” Alex Witchel wrote in a 2001 New York Times Magazine profile, “though in retrospect, given her experience with her duplicitous father and homophobic mother, it could seem that her attraction to DeGeneres had less to do with acting than acting out.”

“Anne, are you crazy?” is how ABC News anchor Barbara Walters opened her 2001 interview with Heche about her memoir. Remember, the last time Heche had been in the national news was when she knocked on a stranger’s door in search of a spaceship. Here she was a year later, selling a memoir that was as much a reassurance to potential employers as a confessional autobiography.

“No, I’m not crazy,” Heche said. “I’ve lived a crazy life. I grew up in a crazy family. And it took me 31 years to get the crazy out of me.”

“You wrote in your book that you were insane,” Walters followed up. “In-SANE. For 31 years.”

“I had another personality,” Heche said. “I had a fantasy world. That I escaped to. I called my other personality Celestia. I called the other world that I created for myself the fourth dimension. I believed I was from that world. I believed I was from another planet. I think I was insane.”

Heche dreamed of stardom from an early age, and in later interviews she wondered if it wasn’t a reaction to her fundamentalist upbringing. “Knowing that my mother’s only purpose was to love Jesus made me understand that unless I was Jesus, I wouldn’t receive her love,” she wrote in Call Me Crazy. “My dad loved movie stars and my mother loved Jesus … Jesus or movie star? Jesus or movie star? After careful and unconscious debate, I tackled the easier challenge first.” When Heche came out, her mother cut her off, calling the relationship “a betrayal of an unspoken vow: We will never have anything to do with homosexuals.” (Nancy Heche would go on to join James Dobson’s reactionary Focus on the Family and lecture about how homosexuality was a condition that could be “overcome.”)

Heche’s was a miserable upbringing, defined by loss, deprivation, and violation, starting with the death of the family’s first daughter months after her birth from a heart defect. Heche’s father, Donald, gave up being a pastor to get into the oil-and-gas business, though Heche said many decades later that she saw no evidence her father actually held a job in that industry. He moved the family from Aurora, Ohio, to Ocean City, New Jersey, and then Chicago, losing three homes to foreclosure in the process. When Heche got her first showbiz gig working at a dinner theater in Swainton at age 12, the family was living at a friend’s house. Heche said that her father raped her regularly from infancy through age 12. In 1983, he died of complications from AIDS, which Heche assumed he contracted from one of the male partners Nancy denied his ever having. “He was a very promiscuous man, and we knew his lifestyle then,” Heche told Larry King. Heche’s brother Nathan, then 18, died three months after their father, when the car he was driving struck a tree. The death was ruled an accident, but Heche always wondered if it was suicide. The wounds she carried were deep.

If ever there was a part that let an actor “use” their traumatic experiences and deepest fears as fuel for art, it was Heche’s performance as Marion Crane in Gus Van Sant’s almost shot–for-shot 1998 remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho — in color. Crane is a working woman who has been ground down by a country that treats women as objects or prey. When Marion sees the chance to alter her fortunes by stealing some of the boss’s money, she takes it and spends the first part of the tale running from the consequences of that choice. The majority of her story occurs on desolate highways and in the shabby motel where she’s fated to die.

The cast was filled with charismatic actors trying to slip into the mind-set of old movie performers. Heche was one of the standouts, tasked with the impossible assignment of personalizing one of the most iconic lead female roles in film history while at the same time evoking its original inhabitant, Janet Leigh. Heche managed to do both — and not just because her rounded features and short blonde hair evoked her predecessor. Her work felt contemporary, but you could also picture it being magically lifted out of the movie, desaturated, and dropped into Hitchcock’s original without unraveling the tapestry. Heche makes you feel Marion’s paranoia and desperation but also appreciate her boldness in flouting American norms. Her most dazzling achievement is owning the shower scene, perhaps the most widely imitated death in film history. Heche’s terror and incredulity is so unaffected and overwhelming that you don’t watch Marion’s death thinking, She’s as good as Janet Leigh here, but rather, What a horrible way to die — poor Marion.

Three years later, after the release of her memoir, Heche did a seven-episode arc on Ally McBeal as a woman accused of killing her ex-boyfriend by running him over with her car. She was electrifying in the role, and it capped a period of experimentation. Heche directed a segment of the 2001 anthology On the Edge, about a couple played by Andie McDowell and Paul Rudd who discover that they can read each other’s minds. (She’d already directed If These Walls Could Talk 2, starring DeGeneres and Sharon Stone as a couple, and Ellen DeGeneres: American Summer, an account of the comedian’s 2000 tour.) She was sneakily great back in front of the camera in Jonathan Glazer’s supernatural thriller Birth in 2004; in the 2009 HBO drama Hung, as the ex-wife co-parenting twins with Thomas Jane’s aging college-baseball star turned gigolo; as Melissa Macklin in the 2011 Lifetime movie Girlfight, playing the crusading mother of an unpopular girl whose beating is posted online; and as the mother of a serial killer in 2017’s My Friend Dahmer. As Patricia Campbell, deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency on NBC’s 2017 show The Brave, she spent most of her time dressing down subordinates, rifling through dossiers, saying things like, “This one’s dubbed the Mark 10. It has stealth capabilities beyond any I’ve ever seen.”

Tragedy once again struck the Heche family in 2006, however, when her sister Susan, from whom she was estranged, died of brain cancer. Disasters and triumphs continued to be intertwined at every stage of Heche’s life, and the disasters kept eclipsing the triumphs. But the best of the latter was Onur Tukel’s 2016 film Catfight, which is built around three bloody brawls with Sandra Oh and is even more disturbing in its portrayal of emotional violence — like the moment when Oh’s character, the trophy wife of a Wall Street slimeball, encounters Heche’s struggling artist, a former college friend, at a fancy party where the latter is on the catering crew, struggles to remember why they stopped being friends, and cheerily blurts out that it happened around the same time that Heche’s character came out as a lesbian. Heche’s wordless reaction is perfect: a slowly forming toothless smile that mingles sadness at the memory of rejection, disgust at the speaker, and vindication at having her suspicions confirmed. Once again, here she was, transforming her pain into art.

Catfight could have been the start of a full-fledged comeback. It’s not hard to picture a middle-aged Heche clicking in one or two zeitgeist parts and easing into a succession of bigger-than-life scene-stealers that would carry her through the autumn of a long career — a feat that firebrand actresses like Jessica Lange and Shirley MacLaine have achieved. But it wasn’t in the cards. She continued to work, but nothing landed with as much force. Her split from Men in Trees co-star James Tupper, with whom she had her second son, Atlas (she also has a son, Homer, with cameraman Coleman “Coley” Laffoon), resulted in her being ordered to pay significant child support. In a New York Post interview last fall to promote the disaster film 13 Minutes, she was asked to name her favorite project and said they were all her favorite because the money let her support Homer and Atlas.

“My brother Atlas and I lost our Mom,” her son Homer told People magazine. “Hopefully my mom is free from pain and beginning to explore what I like to imagine as her eternal freedom.”

Heche lived a jagged life. The pieces never fit. She did the best she could.

The Jagged Life of Anne Heche