Anne Heche Was a Compelling Study in Contrasts

·2 min read
2017 Tribeca Film Festival - "My Friend Dahmer"
2017 Tribeca Film Festival - "My Friend Dahmer"

Anne Heche at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. The actor died at 53 following a car crash in Los Angeles Credit - Gilbert Carrasquillo/FilmMagic

For a time, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Anne Heche—who was declared legally dead on Aug. 12, at age 53, after being critically injured in a series of car crashes in Los Angeles on Aug. 5—was one of the most intriguing and coolly magnetic young actors in Hollywood. Her delicate features and lunar complexion could easily lure you off the trail of her crisp intelligence. She was angelic, with an edge. Golden and fragile-looking, she seemed ethereal, untouchable. But her timing always had an almost feral precision. She was a compelling study in contrasts, as adept at sly comedy as she was at dramatic roles, and watching her was often a source of pleasure and wonder.

Heche won a Daytime Emmy in 1991 for her portrayal of twins Vicky Hudson and Marley Love on Another World, but moviegoers didn’t become aware of her until a few years later: Her performance in Nicole Holofcener’s 1996 Walking and Talking, opposite Catherine Keener, was perceptive and finely wrought, and the film, about longtime best friends whose bond is shaken when one of them becomes engaged, became a touchstone for many young women at the time. In 1997, she played the wife of undercover FBI agent Johnny Depp in Mike Newell’s mob drama Donnie Brasco. The performance is a model of grit balanced against fragility; Heche’s Maggie may look like a china figurine, but she pushes back against her increasingly agitated husband with astonishing fierceness. And she was superb in Ivan Reitman’s largely forgotten 1998 romantic comedy Six Days Seven Nights, as a fashion-magazine editor who finds herself stranded on a remote island with the pilot who’d flown her there, played by Harrison Ford. She’s an agile, blipped-out pixie, perfectly matched to Ford’s stolid, tiki-mug demeanor.

Though Heche’s career was most likely derailed by her highly publicized personal problems, she worked steadily through the next few decades, not just in independent movies (Cedar Rapids, Catfight), but also in television shows like Chicago P.D. and All Rise. In 2001 she took over the role of Catherine in David Auburn’s Proof on Broadway, earning acclaim in a role that many thought had already been defined by her predecessors Mary-Louise Parker and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Over the years, some have taken pleasure in slugging away at the easy target of Heche’s mental-health and substance-abuse issues. But to play amateur shrink—or worse, amateur judge—is a fool’s errand at best and cruel at worst. There’s no easy way to explain why some extremely gifted people can hardly bear to live with themselves, and erring on the side of compassion is rarely a mistake. Better to remember Heche as a loopy screwball heroine marooned on an island with a gruff hottie pilot. She filled that performance to the brim with delight, at no cost whatsoever to us.