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Celebrating Anne Heche at 50

by Mark Brinkerhoff

Today we celebrate the 50th birthday of one of the best, most criminally-underrated actresses in Hollywood/by Hollywood: Anne Celestia Heche. 

Born not far from Cleveland, Ohio on this date, Heche had an unfortunately troubled family life and a hardscrabble upbringing that have been well-chronicled, including in her own 2001 memoir. And while her much-publicized relationship with Ellen Degeneres is surely the first (if not only) thing many think of when thinking of her, this is a tribute to Heche as an actress—not a re-litigation of an awfully quaint, pre-social media public spectacle surrounding a 20-plus-year-old relationship. Call her crazy if you will, call her untalented you may not.

When did you (if you did) first take notice of her? For me, a noted stan, it must’ve been around 1989...

as twins on "Another World"

Yep, my eyes have been fixed to the screen, big and small, when she’s on it, ever since Heche doubled up on the then-long-running soap opera, Another World

Yes, in one of the most enduring daytime soap tropes, a teenage Heche played twins, “bad” Vicky and “good” Marley, deliciously chewing scenery and winning an Emmy in the process. After four taxing years of doing five episodes a week, she set off for bigger, better opportunities in Hollywood.

The early ‘90s saw Heche toil in a series of one-off guest spots (Murphy BrownThe Young Indiana Jones Chronicles) and small parts in made-for-TV movies (Against the WallO Pioneers!). Not until 1994 did I next take real notice of her, namely, as the villain’s daffy sidekick, in the movie, Milk Money; followed by her supporting role opposite John Goodman in the (very good) TV movie, Kingfish: A Story of Huey P. Long.

While Heche had appeared in a film or two—I don’t remember her in I’ll Do Anything, but does anybody remember I’ll Do Anything?—it wasn’t really until 1995/96 that she emerged in impactful roles, in memorable ways. There was the banker-by-day/hooker-by-night (with a lesbian twist) in the ill-fated Wild Side; an early-ish incarnation of the “manic pixie dream girl” in the independent film, Pie in the Sky; Demi Moore’s character’s sacrificial friend in The Juror—all culminating in the one-two punch of Walking and Talking, Nicole Holofcener’s winning feature-film debut, and the provocative (for its time—and ours?), Cher-directed If These Walls Could Talk for HBO. She’s excellent in each, and purportedly got cast in her big breakthrough (hang tight) on the strength of Walking and Talking, which premiered at Sundance. It was clear this lady was going places.

Anne Heche in Donnie Brasco (1997)

1997 would be the Year of Anne Heche, so to speak. She dazzled in that winter’s Donnie Brasco (seriously, so good), graduated to leading lady in the big-budget Volcano (cheesy, but fun), and closed out the year in a much-lauded role opposite heavyweights, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro, in Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog. In the midst of it all Heche got cast in her biggest role yet, opposite the biggest movie star in the world. Meanwhile, her personal life began to take center stage when she became one half of the most famous gay couple in America/the world. Needless to say, Heche was, by that point, a household name.

with Harrison Ford in Six Days Seven Nights (1998)

Six Days, Seven Nights arrived on a sea of publicity—and a fair amount of will-this-work curiosity—in mid-’98. Despite being in many ways middling, full of hoary clichés (opposites attract) and tired tropes (pirates, really?), this deserted-island romcom swims rather than sinks on the moxie of Heche, who sparks an easy, enviable chemistry with the not-always-on-fire Harrison Ford. You can see why he endorsed her casting over the likes of bigger stars like Meg Ryan and Uma Thurman. Heche is sassy and sexy, sensible yet spunky. That the film ultimately didn’t connect with (most) critics or audiences is no fault of hers. (Hell, I even own it on DVD.) 

Heche hit a high-water mark later that summer in Return to Paradise (sadly, the end of her leading-lady days), which she chased with the frankly impossible task of recreating Marion Crane. Which leads me to a recurring theme throughout her career: that she is the best thing about many, many (too many) films—from the misbegotten, shot-for-shot remake of Psycho, to the sausage fest that is Cedar Rapids.

Anne Heche in Psycho (1998)

Heche has a face made for film: a wide-eyed, expressive and, you could say,  expressionist face. Combined with her under-tapped flair for romcom, physical comedy (see: her multi-episode arc on Ally McBeal), it’s easy to imagine her as a movie star in the silent era—perhaps more so than in any other period of cinematic history.

Unlike several contemporaries, such as fellow newly 50-somethings, Cate Blanchett and Renée Zellweger, Heche is oft-overlooked and has gotten short shrift despite over-delivering time and time again. In between stints on TV dramas (EverwoodNip/Tuck) and headlining short-lived series (Men in TreesSave Me), she elevated the already-amazing Birth, scored an Emmy nod for Gracie’s Choice, and did a Tony-nominated star turn on Broadway in the recently revived Twentieth Century. Heche was typically excellent in the HBO series, Hung, and, more recently, in Catfight, opposite Sandra Oh. (P.S. Where is her Killing Eve?)

Of course there was never any guarantee, with or without her tabloid relationship(s) or brief late ‘90s heyday, that Heche would’ve gotten more A-list, higher-caliber roles. (Hollywood, after all, so rarely knows what to do with an idiosyncratic talent like hers.) But it is poignant to think of the kind of career she could have, should have, and hopefully still may have. 

Anne Heche in My Friend Dahmer (2017)

Although lately seemingly consigned to procedural dramas on NBC, Heche does pop up occasionally in independent films, most notably last year’s My Friend Dahmer and, as the wife of Sam Rockwell’s character, in this spring’s The Best of Enemies. Is there, in our current age of Peak TV, with its endless well for creative content, better/more in store for Heche? Who knows. As she enters her 50s, we can hope though that the parts, the characters, rise to the level of one of our finest character actresses working today.

Catfight is streaming on NetflixCedar Rapids is now on CinemaxHung is streaming on Amazon Prime and, along with My Friend DahmerPsycho (1998), and Volcano, also available on HBO.

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Reader Comments (21)

I actually liked her in Psycho, despite the film’s obvious problems. And she really made me despise her character in Catfight. Good actress, hopefully an overdue Oscar nom is in her future.

May 26, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterkris01

I have to admit I bought into the dominant narrative about her when she first came on the scene, so didn't notice how great she is for too long.

I think 'Cedar Rapids' was the first of her modest comeback that I really appreciated how good she was. I still think that movie is a modest gem.

May 26, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

Donnie Brasco was the first time I saw her And she is REALLY good in that movie!

She is also great in Birth, in a supporting role. Though Kidman was incredible, I have thought what Heche could have done in that leading role

Anne Heche is really talented

May 26, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterManuel

That collective punch of PSYCHO (which i *love*), 6 Days 7 Nights and Wag the Dog predominantly is what introduced her to me. I've loved her ever since. Even in stuff that's way beneath her like that Men in Trees series (which was enjoyable pap). The recent CATFIGHT was hilarious so I definitely reckon people should check it out.

May 26, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

I became an undying fan as a kid watching her on Another World and rooting for her in most of her films. It's unfortunate her personal life seemed to derail her momentum. I would argue that she is equal to Care Blanchett or Meryl Streep and so much better than many other leading ladies we are often spoon fed- making it evident that Hollywood isn't focused on talent.

May 26, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterErin Downey

CATFIGHT was such an odd movie. I enjoyed the performances of Heche, Sandra Oh, and a surprisingly hilarious Alicia Silverstone much more than I did the actual film.

May 26, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJakey

Easily the most talented actress of her generation; I can't think of a more visceral and versatile actress. She's the perfect combination of fire and ice. Her Vicky and Marley during her final two years on Another World is astonishing. Marley confronting Jake about raping her and eviscerating him in the hospital bed takes my breath away every time. She deserved every inch of her Emmy. Hollywood and the media should burn for the way it treated her.

May 26, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterHoneybee

Mark, really lovely article and a great tribute to a talented actress. My favorite of hers is Walking and Talking (an absolutely perfect film, and she and Catherine Keener are sublime together), but she's wonderful in Donnie Brasco and I thought she did terrific work in Hung with Thomas Jane. Agreed it'd be fantastic to see her get a real role again.

May 26, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEricB

Thanks for the great write-up and for TFE for continually championing unheralded/ underappreciated actresses. I shouldn't have doubted the 'actressexual' label of this site -- well done, mon amis!

I don't remember when I first saw Anne Heche in films. Must be Donnie Brasco because I love that movie a lot. I do remember seeing her in Wag the Dog, Six Days, Seven Nights and Psycho. Always loved her, a bit of a crush too. Someone said she combines fire and ice and I think that is such a perfect description of her screen presence, her performances. Recently saw her in Best of Enemies -- she managed to do more in that supporting role: the gestures, her 'rightness' in the role, and the scintillating way she walked towards Taraji P. Henson's door with a gift in tow.

Oh, and Parasite won the Palme d'Or -- wow!

May 26, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterOwl

Noticed her more at the Harrison Ford time when she was Ellen’s high profile girlfriend. At the time, it was hard to accept any chemistry between that pair knowing the offscreen truth. It was even harder to accept any type of Psycho remake thinking she could fill Janet Leigh’s shoes. Liked her in Wag The Dog.

May 26, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTOM

I thought I Know What You Did Last Summer was a fairly good movie when I saw it (I specifically recall thinking the killer chasing Sarah Michelle Gellar was very well done and suspenseful as hell), but when Anne Heche showed up, I assumed she was going to end up being the killer or something. She's such a talented actress, and to me, at least, such a well known actress, that I was stunned to realize she basically had nothing more than a cameo in the movie. What a waste of talent!

Like many, I felt very angry at her for hurting Ellen, but I know absolutely nothing about what actually happened between them, so that particular piece of history no longer dictates how I feel about Anne. I do hope she finds the role(s) that equal her huge talent.

May 26, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTommy Marx

Eek! I forgot to mention her brilliance in I Know What You Did Last Summer. She was, by far, best in show, so I should’ve mentioned that in the Year of Anne Heche section.

May 26, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMark Brinkerhoff

She swiped The Juror away from Huge stars at the time Baldwin and Moore then I saw everything she was in then sadly something happened and her career vanished until recently.

May 26, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I loved her 2 scenes in I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER and she was awesome in BIRTH

May 26, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBhuray

She was the MVP in Birth. Yes, you heard correctly.
She gave me the chills.

May 26, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

Add me to the chorus who considers Heche one of the best. I remember, as a kid, her first day on AW. She was barely out of high school and killing it. Up until that point I’d never been so knocked out by an actress. I recall chatting among friends on how to pronounce her last name prior to her break out in film. It still pisses me off to this day the way she was treated by the industry (including Ellen). I was raised in a similar evangelical southern Baptist nightmare and that she made it out at all should be applauded (I still know people ‘stuck’ there). Mental illness is still somethIng people joke about or dismiss. RDJ’s messy past hasn’t been a hindrance to him. It’s a credit to her talent that she has constantly worked. Where is her Beale Street?

May 26, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterA.H.

I haven't thought about Pie in the Sky in years. Probably the greatest movie ever made about traffic reporting from a news helicopter.

It has many 90s movie conventions: indie feel, young male protagonist fixating on a young female that we are supposed to revere but not really know, starring lesser known leads and well-known actors in small roles.

I don't know if it's a great Anne Heche showcase -- give or take a few years, you could see Hope Davis or Monica Potter being offered the role -- but it's a pretty enjoyable movie. Recommended for Josh Charles fans, to account for that period of time between Dead Poets Society and TV's Sports Night.

May 26, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBrevity

She's super talented. I'm glad she still gets work even if most of it seems pretty low-profile. I'd love to see her in a really good film or series. I know he doesn't always deliver the most quality work, but it might be good for her career if she got a juicy role in some kind of Ryan Murphy vehicle.

May 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJJM

@JJM- I think she was on Nip/Tuck for a few episodes as someone in witness protection and needed plastic surgery.

May 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTom G.

Definitely underrated. When she was younger I remember thinking she could have played Audrey Hepburn, coloring aside - she had that doe-like, gamine quality. Still think that she could.

May 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLynn Lee

She's a really good, underrated actress. Look at what she did with her small but pivotal part in the dopey but entertaining 1997 horror-thriller I Know What You Did Last Summer. She can take a generally unmemorable part and make it something special.

May 27, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRob

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