On Friday, August 5, actress Anne Heche crashed her Mini Cooper into a private residence in Los Angeles’ Mar Vista neighborhood. The vehicle erupted in flames and destroyed the occupant’s rented home and a lifetime’s worth of possessions. Extricated from the wreck, Heche was taken to the Grossman Burn Center at West Hills Hospital, where she was initially stated to have suffered severe burns and was intubated but was thought to be in stable condition.
The days ahead featured rampant speculation about the events leading up to the crash and what its fallout would be: Was Heche drunk or on narcotics? (A blood test taken post-accident indicated the presence of cocaine.) Would she face felony DUI? (The LAPD was indeed investigating this with that charge in mind.) Less frequently discussed was Heche’s current condition: How severe were her injuries? Would she survive? What would the impact be on her two sons, ages 13 and 20?
Late on Thursday August 11, reps for Heche announced that a lack of oxygen to her brain during the fire had catastrophic impact and they were making end-of-life preparations. On Friday, August 12, she was declared legally dead in the state of California, her brain function ceasing but body kept on life support to preserve her organs for donation, as was her longtime wish.
Her suffering has met as much condemnation as empathy, which is par for the course for her fraught Hollywood career. Executive managing editor Christian Blauvelt and associate editor Jude Dry discuss the mix of homophobia, misogyny, and mental-health mockery that defined much of the media’s coverage of Heche since she broke out in the ‘90s — and celebrate the distinctive work she leaves behind.
CHRISTIAN BLAUVELT: People dismissed and marginalized Heche her entire career, but let’s start with the inherently radical place she holds in American movie history: She started dating Ellen DeGeneres in 1997, at the moment she had just appeared onscreen opposite Al Pacino and Johnny Depp in “Donnie Brasco;” was cast as the third lead opposite Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman in “Wag the Dog;” and was going into production on the adventure rom-com “Six Days, Seven Nights” as the love interest of Harrison Ford. An out queer woman still appearing in a movie in a straight role in a heteronormative rom-com? In 1998? There’s nothing comparable in American cinema. Hollywood was not pleased, and she claims she was denied acting opportunities for 10 years.
©New Line Cinema/Courtesy Everett Collection
But those movies were in the works, if not already completed and released as in the case of “Donnie Brasco,” when Heche’s relationship with DeGeneres became public. And they were out and proud, even showing up together at the 1997 White House Correspondents Dinner.
After she appeared as Marion Crane in Gus Van Sant’s misbegotten remake of “Psycho” in December 1998, roles were scarce for most of the next decade. The fact that she broke up with DeGeneres, and has only been in relationships with men since, resulted in her not really being embraced by the LGBTQ community. To be clear, she was with DeGeneres for three years. DeGeneres even talked about plans to enter a civil union with Heche in Vermont in late 1999. This was no stunt on Heche’s part. But, as always, it’s hard to be bi.
JUDE DRY: Not only is it hard to be bi, Christian, but if one were to believe mainstream American media at the time, bisexuality simply did not exist. Even this simplest of concepts — that sexuality is fluid — still meets some resistance today. The fact that Heche subsequently partnered and had children with men only served to prove the harmful notion that all bi women will eventually “end up” with a man. (Bi men must fight the reverse assumption, that they’re just making a pit stop on the way to gay, the common denominator being that men are always the preferred option.)
It may be hard for young people to imagine, but there was once a time when an out queer celebrity was unimaginable. (George Michael, Nathan Lane, and Rosie O’Donnell weren’t out in the mid-‘90s!) Years before “The L Word” introduced the world to “lesbian chic,” Heche was a femme-presenting, typical Hollywood starlet proclaiming her love for a woman.
Courtesy Everett Collection
While DeGeneres certainly felt her share of fallout for her historic coming out, she landed “The Ellen Show” by 2003, bouncing back with a vengeance and becoming more successful than even she could have predicted. Heche, by contrast, never reached the heights of her mid-’90s peak, which also included the blockbuster horror hit “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and Nicole Holofcener’s debut indie charmer “Walking and Talking.”
While she landed a 7-episode stint on “Ally McBeal” in 2001, prestige TV was still in its nascent stages. It wasn’t until landing a lead role in HBO’s little-seen gem of a gigolo comedy “Hung” (2009-2011) that she re-emerged in anything resembling a hit. From then on, she was more recognized for her comedic talents, and a leading role in Miguel Arteta’s well-received “Cedar Rapids” paved the way for more movie roles. The fact that she pivoted from dramatic romantic lead to quirky comedic one speaks to her charisma and range. What are your favorite roles of hers?
CHRISTIAN BLAUVELT: I would also praise her ABC sitcom “Men in Trees” (2006-2008), a kind of quirky “Northern Exposure” meets “Desperate Housewives” series that really helped to define her as a comic talent. At least for those who hadn’t already been tickled by her in “Six Days, Seven Nights.” Of which I was certainly one.
You know, Jude, each of us probably has a movie that we like more than literally anyone else on the planet. For me, it’s undoubtedly “Six Days, Seven Nights,” a movie I watch each year to kick off my summer and on VHS no less. (I have two VCRs.) Just recently, I suggested to our David Ehrlich that he fire up Randy Edelman’s soundtrack to inspire his writing. This movie is the kind of adventure rom-com in a tropical locale that used to be almost a sub-genre, pioneered by “Romancing the Stone.”
And she is electric in “Six Days” as an entertainment journalist who goes on vacation to the Polynesian isle of Makatea with her boyfriend, David Schwimmer, before crashing on a desert isle with irascible pilot Harrison Ford (and obviously, falling in love with him). Heche and Ford bring genuine screwball comedy spark to this. You believe they hate each other for much of the movie — “You’re a big laugher, huh?” is one of my all-time favorite put-downs — and in no way is she just there to be Ford’s conquest. His name may be above the title before hers, but she is the true protagonist. It’s about the evolution of her mindset from snowy New York City to the South Seas, and Ford is basically just along for the ride. If you loved, say, Kristen Stewart’s line readings in “Crimes of the Future,” they have nothing on Heche’s delivery on lines that, out of context, read like AI-generated non sequitur art (“The plane? Where’s its Mommy?” “Pirates? As in ‘Arrgh’?” “Two. Boats. Ow!” “Who stole the peninsula?!”). Trust me, you have to hear these to see how much she makes of them. Heche grew up in Ohio, Ocean City, New Jersey, and Chicago, but she nails the rapid-fire demeanor of a New York City entertainment journo as well as anyone I’ve ever seen. It’s some of the best comic timing you’ll find in any rom-com of the last 30 years.
“Six Days, Seven Nights” received mixed to negative reviews upon release but was a moderate box office success. It’s also a film in which Heche took an obvious amount of pride: The one time I met her, at the Toronto Film Festival premiere party for “Catfight” in 2016, and told her how much I love “Six Days” she wanted to have a 45-minute conversation with me about it right there as the party circulated around us. More on that in a moment, but first — like me, you are also a big fan of “Catfight,” right?
JUDE DRY: Oh, how I loved “Catfight.” From the insane mind of IndieWire favorite Onur Tukel, the nutty satire saw Heche and Sandra Oh beating the living daylights out of each other not one, but three harrowing times. Tukel’s bizarre, dystopian universe was a prescient precursor to the Trump era, and his riff on the buddy comedy gave two wonderful actresses a worthy challenge to sink their teeth into. Heche plays an eccentric artist who doesn’t want to work, and instead mooches off her professional girlfriend, played by Alicia Silverstone. It was not only refreshing to see Heche play a queer character, but she really has fun playing a self-absorbed artist as well. She takes “unlikable female protagonist” to a whole new level.
“It’s a comedy, so it really makes it funny when you have someone who doesn’t see themselves. It’s so self-indulgent. These women being very unlikable is what does that,” Heche told me in 2017. She was charming and open and real, more so than most stars at her level allow themselves to be in a typical phoner. During the dual interview, she and Oh seemed to be having so much fun playfully ribbing each other over some of their more questionable credits. (Oh: “What was the one in the plane?”) After taking so much heat from the media for so long, Heche seemed content with her place in the Hollywood landscape.
Courtesy Everett Collection
“You start to be in a kind of universal understanding of what you should be doing and what gets offered to you, because you’ve laid a foundation for who you are,” she said. “For better or worse! Some people like me, some people don’t. I’m about 50/50, and that’s okay, I’m okay with 50/50. But that 50 percent starts being how I shape my career.”
I feel like if she saw the way the media was covering her accident, she’d just flip them right off. We have such a different understanding of mental health struggles and addiction today than we did back then, but none of that seems present in the way this tragedy is being discussed. Why do you think that is?
CHRISTIAN BLAUVELT: A lot of people’s conception of mental health still doesn’t acknowledge that other people often get hurt as a result of mental illness. True empathy can recognize both parties: for the victims of the actions of someone with mental illness and also for the circumstances that may have put the person with mental illness on their path. Empathy is not a zero-sum game, but that’s not something easily understood by, say, social media.
DUI is rightly a crime. That doesn’t mean that addiction isn’t an illness and shouldn’t be treated with care and sensitivity. Social media has been full of people calling for Heche to be jailed and accusing those empathizing with her of not caring about the woman whose house she destroyed. We can care for both.
Heche was a victim of sexual abuse from her father almost from infancy. Her mother, a “Christian therapist” who’s advocated for “overcoming homosexuality,” shunned her — a mutual decision. When her mental illness first made headlines in 2000, it was because she wandered into someone’s house. After receiving treatment, she turned her experiences into the 2001 memoir “Call Me Crazy,” a title that shows self-deprecation and public self-flagellation were the only acceptable way to discuss one’s own struggles with mental illness for a very long time. Rosie O’Donnell, who apologized this week, made fun of her then. In fact, Jay Leno decided that making fun of Anne Heche was the balm that America needed to comfort itself on the monologue for his first broadcast back on “The Tonight Show” after 9/11: “To think that all we had to worry about two weeks ago was that Anne Heche is crazy,” he joked.
All of that has to have a cumulative effect on a person. At that premiere party for “Catfight,” despite being one of the two stars of the film, she seemed noticeably alone. When I spoke to her and said how much I enjoyed her work and that “Six Days, Seven Nights” was a huge part of my life, she wanted to stop and talk about that period of her life in Hollywood before the industry had deemed her persona non grata. She had the highest regard for Harrison Ford and her director on that film, Ivan Reitman. She then set about grilling me for over a half hour about why exactly it is that I liked her work and found her appealing. Imagine a non-threatening but equally insistent version of Joe Pesci in “Goodfellas” asking “Why do you find me funny?” I performed one of the most elaborate verbal tap-dances I’ve ever managed in response, jumping from one thing I liked about her and her career to another. She needed this. And it was my duty in that moment to provide that attention she needed from an industry that had shown her little but indifference and scorn. And so, with the increasing flattery worthy of a turn-of-the-last-century Parisian boulevardier, I kept flattering her until saying the magic words that made her happy: that I felt her persona was such that “she made people feel welcome” onscreen. That was exactly what she wanted to hear — maybe because she’d so rarely felt welcome in this industry herself.