Anne Heche’s best roles: A great actor, even in bad movies

One of Anne Heche’s greatest performances is in ‘Birth’ (2004), Jonathan Glazer’s beautifully eerie drama about love, heartbreak and the insidious power of suggestion. She enters the film early, with long brown hair – a departure from the short blonde haircuts that had become a signature look – and a face that looks tighter, more angular than usual. Her character, Clara, is cool and reserved, someone you might not immediately notice in a room full of other demure, beige-coated Manhattanites. But then you meet her gaze and Heche shows you a quiet, unsettling glimpse of who Clara is: a bereaved lover, a blatant rival, a determined and vindictive agent of chaos.

It’s not immediately clear what connection Clara has to this riddle of a story, about a woman (Nicole Kidman) whose life is rocked by the apparent reincarnation of her late husband as a 10-year-old boy. Heche teases the answer beautifully; she only appears in a handful of scenes, but she accuses each of them of mischief and threat, and the performance turns into a kick of quivering erotic perversity: “I would have explored that,” Clara whispers in the funniest and most disturbing line in the film.

The greatness (some would say the madness) of “Birth” is that it treats an absurd, often inexplicable situation with the utmost seriousness and seriousness, a goal both reinforced and slyly challenged by Heche’s performance. More than the other characters, Clara is willing to take seriously — and yes, explore — the story’s outrageous premise. But she’s also the one who ultimately firmly rejects him, with a jaw-dropping skepticism that Heche could do better than almost any other actor.

Dustin Hoffman, Anne Heche and Robert De Niro in the movie “Wag the Dog”.

(PV Caruso/New Line Cinema)

The movies themselves weren’t always sure what to do with Heche, who died Friday at the age of 53, so it was exciting to meet those who did. Another example, and still one of the best, was “Walking and Talking” (1996), the first of writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s many films about smart, sharp, wonderfully uncooperative women. As Laura, a newly hired therapist and self-described “total mess,” Heche makes a first-rate, if not prototypical, Holofcener specimen. She lusts after a client, flirts with a waiter, and complains to her fiancé about their boring sex life. She passes gas while trying on a wedding dress. She embodies half of a completely believable friendship (with a terrific Catherine Keener). And she calls Heche the kind of lived-in, messy human performance that American actors, especially women, too rarely encounter outside of the indie realm.

But Hollywood opportunities soon presented themselves, at least for a time. 1997 was a huge year for Heche: she walked through ash clouds in the disaster movie “Volcano”, gutted fish in the teen thriller “I Know What You Did Last Summer and teamed up with Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman. in the shrewd media satire “Wag the Dog.” She was particularly lively opposite Johnny Depp in the mob drama “Donnie Brasco,” bringing unusual emotional power to the otherwise standard role of a long-suffering wife and mother. Heche could outclass his gear without condescending to it; she could also start an indifferently written scene by dint of her own ironic wit and bristling energy.

Anne Heche and Harrison Ford in an inflatable raft, her holding binoculars and him paddling.

Anne Heche and Harrison Ford in the movie “Six Days Seven Nights”.

(Bruce McBroom/Touchstone Images)

In 1998, Heche headlined her first major studio vehicle, the “Six Days Seven Nights” wilderness survival hug, in which she was able to land a plane, attack pirates with a stick, and kick boots. in the waves with Harrison Ford. Directed by Ivan Reitman (who himself died earlier this year), the film was likeable if soft, but Heche was by far the best thing about it, throwing in his lines with winning conviction and throwing every muscle. of its slim, bird-like frame in physically demanding survival scenes. Although widely criticized, the film fared better commercially than his two other big releases of 1998, the prison drama “Return to Paradise” and Gus Van Sant’s much-maligned “Psycho” (which, in this case , co-starred Vince Vaughn).

As a Hitchcock-loving teenager, I eagerly sought out Van Sant’s “Psycho” in theaters, my curiosity for a shot-for-shot remake of one of my favorite films overpowering my suspicion that the result would be as appalling as its critics would suggest. It was pretty much, though I haven’t forgotten the eerie, prickly intensity of Heche’s performance as the doomed Marion Crane, which was all the more fascinating for short-circuiting our easy sympathy for the one of the most heartbreaking characters in the history of cinema. Marion de Heche is a particularly cooler customer than Janet Leigh and, as befits the updated ’90s era, a decidedly more modern creature. She is less easily rattled by the police, more direct about her sexual desires. She cracks jokes, rolls her eyes, and occasionally holds the viewer at a glassy distance, which doesn’t entirely melt away until that soon-to-be-bloody shower curtain is pushed aside.

Close-up of a woman taking a shower.

Anne Heche as Marion Crane in Gus Van Sant’s remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho.”

(Suzanne Tenner/Universal City Studios)

Van Sant’s film is an odd, barely-successful experiment, but Heche’s unwavering performance might be the key to enjoying it. His steely intelligence compels us to see this “Psycho” in terms beyond simple audience identification, to approach the film on the more distanced and formalistic terms that Van Sant, for better or worse, had always in the lead. This underlines one of Heche’s main strengths as an actor, namely his refusal of the obvious, his willingness to dig into the hidden and unrealized possibilities of a scene.

Simply put, she was never destined to be well served by a mainstream film industry known for its committee-equipped vehicles and one-size-fits-all career trajectories. It’s no surprise that her most emotionally satisfying work of this period was in “The Third Miracle” (1999), Agnieszka Holland’s deeply moving, rigorously thoughtful and woefully underseen drama about the spiritual crisis of a priest. As Roxane, an atheist who seriously doubts her beloved mother’s candidacy for Catholic sainthood, a fabulously styled Heche sweeps through the film’s cloistered settings like a welcome burst of gross energy. (Skepticism, again, was his forte.)

A man and a woman on the ground covered in ash.

Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche in the movie “Volcano”.

(Lorey Sebastian/20th Century Fox)

Sometime after the big star vehicles stopped coming at her, Heche claimed in interviews that her high-profile relationship with Ellen DeGeneres torpedoed her chances as a viable frontman. Given the still rampant Hollywood homophobia of the early 2000s, it was and still is difficult to refute the veracity of his claim. It wasn’t the last time she opened up about her often tumultuous personal life (much of it detailed in her 2003 memoir, “Call Me Crazy”), with a touching candor that often left her open to tabloid ridicule. It was also not the last time the uproar would be swept into the open, as evidenced last week by online speculation about the fiery car crash that led to his untimely death. Like all useless gossip, it threatens to flatten the deeper truth of a human life and obscure the work of a remarkable career.

Heche continued to work in films, sometimes to remarkable effect; she was terrifically moving in the indie comedy “Cedar Rapids” and the tense thriller “Rampart.” But the movies gave her less and less of what she gave them, and she found a more receptive audience in theater and television. She earned a Tony Award nomination for her lead performance in the 2004 Broadway production of “Twentieth Century.” She has appeared in numerous television series, including “Nip/Tuck” and “The Michael J. Fox Show”; landed major roles in ‘Men in Trees’, ‘Hung’, ‘Aftermath’ and ‘The Brave’; and took part in a season of “Dancing With the Stars”. “The Idol,” an upcoming HBO Max series, will mark its final screen appearance.

Two women, one of them in a wedding dress, are seated and lean their heads against each other.

Catherine Kenner and Anne Heche in the movie “Walking and Talking”.


TV had always been good for Heche. She made her acting debut on NBC’s “Another World,” playing twin sisters Vicky and Marley, two of the show’s most enduring heroines. In fact, “Another World” was one of the few semi-regular home-run soap operas when I was growing up, back when Heche’s stellar performance won a 1991 Daytime Emmy for Young Leading Actress in a Drama Series. She wasn’t in Los Angeles to accept the award; as she recounted in an Associated Press video interview years later, she watched the show from a hotel room in Nebraska, where she and Jessica Lange were filming the made-for-TV movie “O Pioneers !”

Shocked to have won, Heche asked her agent, “Does that mean I’m an actress?” He did, and she was – far more than the industry realized or deserved.

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