Anne Heche 1969-2022

An actress like a mercury bead: brilliant and hard to pin down.

Anne Heche 1969-2022
(Photo by Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP, File)

Anne Heche was a unique presence onscreen: Vivid, mercurial, thoughtful, tough. She was one of those performers with the knack of seeming to discover the moment precisely as it was happening, as if there were no script and her dialogue and emotions were a tightrope she was blindly feeling her way across in real time. Her acting career – and a busy career it was, with 54 movies and 34 TV series or appearances over three and a half decades – was overshadowed in the public eye and hamstrung in the industry by her three-year relationship with Ellen DeGeneres from 1997 to 2000, and I confess that I’d personally stopped paying much attention to her work in recent years. The circumstances around Heche’s death on August 12, after a car crash a week earlier left her on life support, have a weirdness to them that seems to circle back to the horrific trauma she described as her childhood, but the news also set me thinking about her qualities as an artist and a presence. I remember being struck by the immediacy of her talent when she first broke through as a movie star in the mid-1990s, after four years of playing a double role on the NBC soap “Another World,” but I couldn’t quite remember the movie that did the trick. Was it 1996’s indie comedy-drama “Walking and Talking”? Yes, that was it. So this weekend I sat down for a revisit.

It’s a female buddy movie, tart and attentive and sneakily funny, and while Amelia (Catherine Keener, above left) is the main focus of the story, Heche (above right) gets almost as much screen time as her bestie from childhood, Laura. Amelia is single and floundering, Laura is in a committed relationship (with Todd Field’s Frank) but eyeing the exits. First off, everyone’s so young in this movie! That includes Liev Schreiber as Amelia’s once and maybe future boyfriend, if he can stop having phone sex with that woman in California; Kevin Corrigan, adorable as a bona fide love interest nicknamed “Ugly Guy”; Vincent “Big Pussy” Pastore as a psychiatric patient; even Allison Janney in a walk-on. “Walking and Talking” was the writing-directing debut of Nicole Holofcener, who went on to a splendid on-and-off Hollywood career, and it has an ear and a gimlet eye for the way people in general and some women in particular look over at their friend’s plate and wonder why they didn’t order that.

Heche’s Laura visibly buzzes with intelligence, frustration, and horniness, and she gets off a great moment of high dudgeon in a diner when her fiancé gifts her with a … well, watch the scene.

There’s a brittle sensuality to her performance in this movie that the movie industry never seemed sure how to package or even contain, certainly not in a har-de-har high-concept confection like “Six Days Seven Nights” (1998), in which her innate impatience and Harrison Ford’s just about cancel each other out.

Screwball romance was never Heche’s métier. Satire was, as in “Wag the Dog” (1997), and she could make a thankless dramatic role like the wife in “Donnie Brasco” (1997) seem itchy and alive.

After Gus Van Sant’s 1998 remake of “Psycho,” a much-maligned lab experiment in which Heche gives the doomed Marion Crane a sly and watchful edge – Marion’s not a victim until she suddenly is – lead roles in A-list projects seemed to dry up. She kept working, busy onscreen and turbulent off, and I have no wish to cite tabloid chapter and verse of the life. I’ll point out, though, that few movies really allowed us to see what Anne Heche was capable of — how she could bring a naturalness to extreme behavior that was both subversive and emotionally relatable.

One of them is the obscure “Wild Side” (1995), a luridly kinky “erotic thriller” that went straight to video not long after that echt-Reagan Era genre had peaked. Heche plays an international banker by day/high-priced escort at night – because of course she does – who gets mixed up in a financial conspiracy masterminded by Christopher Walken in one of that actor’s most gloriously unhinged performances, which is truly saying something, while also embarking on a hard-R love affair with his wife (Joan Chen). The movie’s an artifact of its heavy-breathing era – it’s a mess, ridiculous, over the top, and absolutely fascinating, with a commitment from the entire cast that is perverse and complete. I wish I could tell you to watch it right now but it is practically a ghost movie, unavailable for streaming and only on DVD from third-party vendors on Amazon. That version, running 96 minutes, was taken away from director Donald Cammell (“Performance”), who committed suicide not long after; the film was further trimmed because the lesbian sex scenes were considered too hot for HBO. A 110-minute director’s cut overseen by Cammell’s widow, was released in 2000 and is floating around the samizdat corners of the Internet and it’s the version to see, if you can find it. As batshit bonkers as this movie is, it’s a testament to the full range of Anne Heche’s nervy, unnerving talent, and it’s only a shame that few of her other films can say the same.

(Warning: The following clip is NSFW and may be triggering.)

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