The news that Anne Heche has been declared legally dead from the injuries she sustained in an Aug. 5 car crash comes as a particularly baleful end to her story. There’s not merely the obvious element of human tragedy for Heche and her family, as well as, it ought to be said, the woman whose house Heche destroyed with her car. But Heche’s final days playing out in a spectacle of tabloid interest and ambiguity around her state of mind comes as an eerie echo of various moments throughout her life in public. Heche was a star dimmed and diminished by the aura of scandal that she couldn’t shake — and one who, despite that, tried unrelentingly to bring the audience into her world.
Heche was, first, a gifted performer; she went from being an Emmy-winning soap star to film stardom in the late 1990s and seemed, with lead roles in “Volcano” and “Six Days, Seven Nights” to be locked and loaded for A-list fame, a blonde counterpart to Julianne Moore with a bit more jitter underlying her calm. (A favorite performance of mine of hers at the time is as a White House aide in “Wag the Dog,” amoral but poised, and sparking with ideas that might salvage a doomed presidency.) And though she would go on to other accomplishments on film, TV, and stage, Heche’s story necessarily must include mention of what halted her ascendant career: In 1997, the year of “Volcano” and “Wag the Dog,” Heche began publicly dating Ellen DeGeneres.
Both stars’ public profiles were altered by the relationship, but the impact was asymmetrical: DeGeneres, for all of her well-documented image crises, is still remembered as a pathbreaker for queer people in the entertainment industry and in American life. Heche was more complicated. Shortly after the pair’s 2000 breakup, Heche’s mental health made news when she was briefly hospitalized after showing up at a stranger’s home disoriented. This was the sort of scandal for which the public had an infinite appetite at an idle moment; Heche’s eventual interview with Barbara Walters to promote her memoir “Call Me Crazy” aired a week before Sept. 11, 2001. And what had been an attempt by Heche to bring people into an understanding of what she went through — alleging childhood sexual abuse and describing her dissociative states — got reshaped into a half-remembered punchline. The things to know about someone who had been so close to being a generational star were that she was Ellen’s ex, that she apparently no longer dated women, and that she thought she was an alien named Celestia.
There’s something sad about that erasure of potential and of humanity. But it also allowed Heche to become something more interesting. Not everyone is built for the sort of sanding-down of personality and humanity it takes to become an everything-to-everyone star; Anne Heche’s shrewd, resourceful supporting work in the film “Birth,” for instance, isn’t the sort of thing a major star would do. And yet it’s marvelous, with the audience perennially sensing that Heche knows things about her character that she’s holding in reserve until the right moment.
And Heche lacked the reserve and restraint that the peers who outran her in the industry had learned — what a remarkable thing. In trying to find video of her big Barbara Walters interview, I stumbled upon a 2011 “The View” appearance in which Heche was promoting “Cedar Rapids.” Within the first two minutes, she’s asked about preparing a bikini scene in the film: “Starve yourself!” she replies. “Every girl who asks me how did you get thin, I didn’t eat! What do you mean?” She goes on to clarify that she’s not intending to promote disordered eating; what she’s trying to do, in a manner that has the awkwardness and the touching sudden clarity of real life, is to convey what it feels like to be her, what it takes to do the job of being a woman in public.
That was Heche’s way. It could be perceived as a slight against a talented performer to cite their “Dancing With the Stars” stint, but I found her time on the series in 2020 exhilarating, not for her natural gifts on the floor but for her eagerness to, each time, treat the paso doble as a potential reinvention. She had a seeming allergy to treating herself as above the show, even as some of her fans might have wondered what exactly she was doing there. And recent attempts by Heche to explain what dating DeGeneres had been like (not good for Heche!) glimmered with an un-media-trainable candor.
Now she leaves us, once again chased out by dark speculation. It should not be discounted that Heche’s last days carry with them collateral damage; the anonymous person into whose life she collided probably doesn’t care that much about Heche’s achievements and setbacks. But it’s possible to feel terrible about that and, in considering the work of a person who opted for a public life, emerge with another set of regrets. Anne Heche had a talent for letting the world see what was going on with her characters onscreen; she was kept from achieving what she might have by an industry that couldn’t deal with her sexuality, let alone her inner turmoil. And her seeming desire to be understood, to make herself known as a way of knowing herself, was a striking perennial reminder that, even as perfection would be simpler, performers are, that they must be, fallible — that they are, with all the mess that comes along with it, human beings.