' ' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Anne Heche

Monday, August 15, 2022

In Memoriam: Anne Heche

Earlier this year my friend Jaime inaugurated an in-order Nicole Holofcener retrospective. That meant it began with 1996’s “Walking and Talking,” a vintage 90s experience, where the video store was the nexus of culture, where all jobs were pointless, where characters truly walked and talked. It starred Catherine Keener and Anne Heche as best friends, the latter character about to walk down the aisle but feeling hesitation, suddenly seeing all the flaws, real or imagined, in her husband-to-be (Todd Field). Holofcener movies are frequently great because she allows her characters to be erratic and eccentric and though hers essentially felt trapped, you could still sense in Heche the joy stemming from the freedom of being given the space to explore all that mess. It foreshadowed Heche’s best movie roles, where the air around her seemed to crackle from her own unique energy. It’s fascinating to imagine a career trajectory similar to her co-star Keener as an indie queen. Instead, the following year, 1997, functioned as Heche’s entrance to Hollywood, beginning with “Donnie Brasco,” a good movie if less interested in its female characters, where her forlorn expression at the end could have belonged to Heche the actor as much as the character she was playing.  

She followed “Donnie Brasco” with two traditional would-be blockbusters, “Volcano” and “Six Days, Seven Nights,” paired off with two of Hollywood’s gruffest leading men - Tommy Lee Jones and Harrison Ford, respectively. The latter was too pedestrian a rom com and too conventionally imagined by its director to properly utilize an actor as off-kilter as Heche. In the former, at least, playing the stock role of Blonde Scientist, to quote the late Roger Ebert, she cut through all the clichés with a believable zeal. Best, though, was “Wag the Dog,” in which a movie producer (Dustin Hoffman), political operative (Robert DeNiro), and Presidential Advisor (Anne Heche) devise a fake war to distract from the American President’s scandal. Only Hoffman and DeNiro got to be on the poster, but this was a Three Musketeers situation through and through and Heche was one of them, her aggressive, razor-edged wit put to premium use. It is one of my all-time favorite comedies, on par with just about anything from the Golden Age. (Watch clip below, but be warned it is Not Safe For Work.)

Heche, though, who was declared legally dead last Friday after an awful, destructive, disturbing, sad, tragic car crash, never had it easy. She did not have it easy as a person born to an abusive father as she detailed in her memoir, and whose mental health struggles were less empathized with than mocked. She did not have it easy as an actress in Hollywood, claiming she was blacklisted for her famous relationship with Ellen DeGeneres in the late 90s (if not also for those struggles with mental health). Consult her IMDb profile post-1997 and it’s virtually impossible not to believe her. But when afforded the chance, she proved her talent, like in 2011’s “Cedar Rapids,” set at an insurance convention in the eponymous Iowa city. That movie did not see her magnificently named Joan Ostrowski-Fox quite as clear as its male characters, no surprise, but Heche did, sort of playing the Vera Farmiga part of “Up in the Air” in the key of comic tragedy, a performance brave enough to admit career and family are not necessarily a saving grace. 

In “Birth” (2004), Heche was phenomenal. There the equally phenomenal Nicole Kidman plays a woman convinced her dead husband has been reincarnated as an 10-year-old boy. That’s a weird concept, and Heche tapped right into that wavelength, leaving an indelible mark despite only being in a few scenes by giving a performance that is all witch-ay woman; she has the moon in her eyes. Her character might be harboring a secret but Heche is not playing Woman With a Secret, not exactly, more like Woman With Truth You Are Not Ready to Hear, which, come to think of it, pretty much summarized her relationship to Hollywood.

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