Anne Heche, the Hollywood actress who has died after a car crash earlier this week, lived a life framed by triumph and tragedy. For a heartbeat in the late 1990s, she was among the most bankable female stars in tinsel town, with roles opposite Johnny Depp in Donnie Brasco, Harrison Ford in Six Days, Seven Nights and a young Joaquin Phoenix in Return to Paradise.
But, as one of the first stars to step voluntarily out of the closet, she was also a victim of movie industry homophobia – so entrenched in the 1990s that nobody saw it as an issue. It was simply how things were.
Six Days, Seven Nights in 1998 was, in particular, overshadowed by her decision to go public the previous year about her relationship with Ellen DeGeneres. Studio executives and critics openly questioned whether audiences could accept a lesbian (Heche was bisexual) portraying a straight woman. The idea of a then 56-year-old Harrison Ford as a hunky love interest was seen as far more plausible.
“The only way Six Days, Seven Nights works is if you buy into the premise that the couple are falling in love,” an anonymous executive complained at the time. “That's almost impossible to do because you have a female lead better known for her sexual preferences than for her screen persona.”
In the long run, exiting the closet had a less negative impact on DeGeneres. It could be argued that it elevated her to the position of American sweetheart –a role which she enthusiastically drew on fronting her popular chat show through the following decades.
For Heche, it was a disaster. She received a taste of what was to follow when she let it be known she was bringing DeGeneres to the red carpet premiere of Volcano – in which she starred opposite Tommy Lee Jones – in 1997.
“I had told them that I was taking Ellen as my date and I was told if I took Ellen, I would lose my Fox contract,” the actress said. “At that moment, she [Ellen] took my hand and said, ‘Do what they say,’ and I said, ‘No thanks.’”
Nobody would have mistaken Heche for the second coming of Meryl Streep. Nonetheless, she brought spark to her roles and, whether playing rom-com lead or action heroine, her charm and pizazz went off like a popping camera bulb.
Yet beneath that sparkling screen presence was an ocean of darkness, thanks to her horrifically abusive childhood. She’d been raised in a suburb of Akron Ohio and had suffered terrible sexual abuse by her father since she was a toddler. Don Heche was a Baptist minister and church organist – and a closeted gay man who would die of Aids in 1983, shortly after coming out to his family (Heche contracted genital herpes as a result of his abuse).
“I think it’s always hard for children to talk about abuse because it is only memory,” she would say. “I didn’t carry around a tape recorder … I didn’t chisel anything in stone... Anybody can look and say, ‘Well how do you know for sure?’ And that’s one of the most painful things about it. You don’t.”
Heche remained estranged from her mother, Nancy, who had refused to acknowledge her husband’s wickedness. The family, meanwhile lived in terrible poverty – one reason Heche went into acting. Her first professional performance was in a lunchtime production of The Music Man when she was 12.
“At the time we’d been kicked out of our house and my family was holed up living in a bedroom in the home of a generous family from our church,” she later told The Telegraph. “I got $100 a week, which was more than anyone else in my family. We all pooled our money in an envelope in a drawer and saved up enough to move out after a year.”
The Heches had, by then, moved a dozen times in as many years. Amid this upheaval and cruelty, acting offered her respite from her demons. “I found heaven on that stage. I’d been given an opportunity to experience a life and a joy that was not in my family.”
Hollywood treated her with immense callousness after she and DeGeneres went public with their relationship. Initially, though, it welcomed her enthusiastically. She was still a teenager in Ohio when offers for parts in soap operas came rolling in. Under pressure from her mother – who feared her daughter was going to hell rather than escaping it – she rejected the first role sent her way. Second time around, when she was 16, she said yes.
“I was told I couldn’t go. My mother was very religious and maybe she thought it was a sinner’s world. But I got on the phone and said, ‘Send me the ticket. I’m getting on the plane.’ I was like, ‘Bye!’ I did my time with my mom in a one-bedroom, skanky apartment and I was done.”
She soon soared so high that Akron and her childhood impoverishment must have looked like the tiniest specks. As detailed in her brutally honest 2001 memoir Call Me Crazy, the background thrum of tragedy was nonetheless ever-present. Three months after her father passed away, her brother Nathan (18), had died in a car crash. The official report stated his car left the road and struck a tree. Heche always maintained it was suicide. Her sister Cynthia had already perished in infancy, as the result of a heart defect. Anne’s sister Susan would die from brain cancer in 2006.
Heche later became estranged from her sister Abigail, who said that her sibling’s memories of childhood abuse were “untrue” [she also disputed that Nathan had taken his own life].
“It is my opinion that my sister Anne truly believes, at this moment, what she has asserted about our father's past behaviour,” said Abigail. “However, at the same time, I would like to point out that Anne, in the past, has expressed doubts herself about the accuracy of such memories. Based on my experience and her own expressed doubts, I believe that her memories regarding our father are untrue. And I can state emphatically, regardless of Anne's beliefs, that the assertion that our mother knew about such behaviour is absolutely false.”
Whatever the truth, Anne was undoubtedly traumatised. She did everything to numb the pain. “I drank. I smoked. I did drugs. I had sex with people. I did anything I could to get the shame out of my life,” she said.
And yet, for all the darkness, it seemed preordained she would find herself amid the bright lights of Los Angeles. She played identical twins Vicky Hudson and Marley Love on the soap opera Modern Love from 1987 to 1991. That led to break-out parts, opposite Robert De Niro in Wag the Dog, and Depp in Donnie Brasco.
Her movies tended towards conventional multiplex fare. Her love life, though, was far less straightforward. She dated a 23-years-her-senior Steve Martin for three years and also stepped out with Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham (in his 40s at the time). And then, in 1997, she fell in love with DeGeneres.
“I saw the most ravishing woman I had ever seen in my life standing across the room,” Heche said in 2001. “Her name was Ellen DeGeneres. She was radiating. I think at certain times in people’s lives you just radiate an energy and a glow of fabulousness. And that was her. I had never seen anybody so lit up.”
Heche claimed that Hollywood blacklisted her because of her relationship. Certainly, by the time Ivan Reitman’s Six Days, Seven Nights came out in June 1998, her romance with DeGeneres dominated the news cycle.
“We made our decision before Anne’s relationship with Ellen became public, but we knew about it,” said the film’s producer Roger Birnbaum. “To be honest, we did talk about it. But we talked about it for a second and then said, ‘Who cares?’”
Everyone cared. And Heche felt the temperature change immediately. “In an instant I was told I was not going to have a job anymore... Nobody was hiring me. And then the word came that everybody was going to wait and see how I did in Six Days, Seven Nights."
Six Days, Seven Nights performed respectably. The biggest problem with the film was not Heche’s portrayal as an uptight magazine editor stranded on a tropical island; it was the hugely grumpy Harrison Ford, who had no interest in starring in a remake of The African Queen. And yet all the focus was on Heche.
“Anne Heche’s noisy love affair with Ellen DeGeneres in no way interferes with her convincing portrayal of a hetero cutie in Six Days, Seven Nights” began a hair-raising review in Entertainment Weekly. “The camera adores her very blue eyes. Light bounces off of her white blond hair. With her narrow bottom and curvy top—woman to woman, your basic nightmare—she’s a sylphlike bundle of a girl.”
This “bundle of a girl” found herself cast into purgatory by Hollywood. And when the romance with DeGeneres sputtered out in 2000 (DeGeneres claimed Heche simply walked out the door and never contacted her again), it seemed that the demons she had fled in Ohio were back. On August 19 of that year – 24 hours after ending her relationship with DeGeneres – Heche, dazed and wearing just bra and shorts, knocked on the door of a stranger’s house in Fresno, California.
She requested a shower and then declared herself to be God, saying she would take everyone to heaven in her spaceship. It was later reported that she may have been taking ecstasy (this week, police reported she was found to have narcotics in her system after the crash that claimed her life).
“I was told to go to a place where I would meet a spaceship. I was told in order to get on the spaceship that I would have to take a hit of Ecstasy,” Heche said after she was released by the local sheriff. “Fresno was the culmination of a journey and a world that I thought I needed to escape to in order to find love.”
Fresno was a watershed. She got her career back on track and married cameraman Coleman Laffoon (whom she met filming a comedy special for DeGeneres). They would divorce after three years, after which she became engaged to James Tupper. Her most recent relationship was with skincare brand founder Peter Thomas Roth.
As an actress, she would never again come within sneezing distance of the A-list. Still, she worked steadily, appearing in Ally McBeal, and in 2004 receiving a Prime Time Emmy nomination for TV movie Grace’s Choice. She would also star in the Will Ferrell-Mark Wahlberg spoof The Other Guys and the comedy Cedar Rapids. Two years ago, she twirled her way through Dancing With The Stars – America’s answer to Strictly Come Dancing.
Hollywood is full of both happy endings and unspeakable catastrophes. Heche veered between the two before finally succumbing to tragedy this week. She leaves behind a substantial body of work. And yet her true legacy may have been her willingness to break from convention, follow her own rules and refuse to be defined by the evils she suffered in early life.