Anne Heche: A charismatic and witty actor whose personal life was beset by misery

Heche believed her relationship with Ellen DeGeneres damaged her career prospects

It adds tragedy on to tragedy that Anne Heche, an actor of singular charisma, will be remembered as much for the miseries of her personal life as for her smart and witty performances. That sadness culminated with bizarre death that is still under investigation. On August 5th, she was involved in two mysterious car crashes. Her Mini Cooper initially struck a gas station and then ploughed into a house, setting a fire that left her severely burned. It seems the ultimate cause of death was an anoxic brain injury. Nearly 40 years ago, her own brother died in a car crash that Heche believed to be suicide.

“Anne will be deeply missed but she lives on through her beautiful sons, her iconic body of work, and her passionate advocacy,” a spokeswoman for her family said.

Raised in Ohio, she first achieved fame playing twins, that daytime soap opera staple, in the popular NBC show Another world. In the late 1990s, Hollywood woke up her talents and she found decent roles in the crime drama Donnie Brasco, the horror flick I Know What you Did Last Summer and in Gus Van Sant’s misunderstood 1998 remake of Psycho. Critics complained that the film was too close to the original, but Van Sant always meant the project to be in conversation with the Alfred Hitchcock classic. Heche managed a cunning variation on Marion Crane, the doomed protagonist, that wove genuine emotion in with the experimentation. Though the film was not a hit, Heche’s performance should have opened up possibilities. In the event, the industry was a little puzzled by her.

It didn’t help that she was never far from controversy. Hollywood has always boasted about its supposed liberalism, but the revelation that she was in a relationship with Ellen DeGeneres — open lesbian affairs being close to unheard of at the top end of the industry — should have been shrugged off, however Heche, almost certainly correctly, believed that it damaged her career prospects. “I got to participate in a loving truthful celebration of the way I thought the world should be,” she told the New York Times in 2009. “How could that destroy my career? I still can’t wrap my head around it.” The news broke just before she was cast opposite Harrison Ford in the romantic comedy Six Days, Seven Nights. Psycho emerged the same year.

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Heche was never again elevated to the lead of a big-budget, marquee picture. She proved, however, eminently reliable at the front of Independent films or playing supporting roles in larger projects. She is excellent opposite Nicole Kidman in Jonathan Glazer’s magnificent 2004 psychological drama Birth. She has delicious grim fun opposite Sandra Oh in the pitch-black comedy Catfight from 2016. Always interesting, always engaged, she seemed to be waiting for a smart director to rediscover her. Television remained her friend and, in 2020, she competed in Dancing With the Stars.

Sadly, her fraught personal life continued to cause problems. In 1983, her father died of Aids. Heche believed he caught the disease from one of several male partners. She also claimed her father, a Baptist choirmaster, raped her from childhood and ultimately gave her genital herpes. “We all played this false game that we were a happy family,” Heche told Allure magazine in 1998. “It wasn’t until we got kicked out of our last house that we all suddenly realised we’d been lied to.” Relations with her mother, who lectured on “overcoming heterosexuality,” were also poor. “My mother’s had a very tragic life,” Heche said in 2009. “Three of her five children are dead, and her husband is dead. That she is attempting to change gay people into straight people is, in my opinion, a way to keep the pain of the truth out.” Her sister Abigail, now the only sibling alive, has said that Anne’s “memories regarding our father are untrue”. She further said that she could “state emphatically, regardless of Anne’s beliefs, that the assertion that our mother knew about such behaviour is absolutely false.”

The family was left destitute after Heche’s father died and she found herself working in dinner theatre to keep them in a home. At 17 she left to forge a career. She was married to cameraman Coleman Laffoon from 2001 to 2009 and the couple had one son. She had another son with actor James Tupper. As long ago as 2000, she was involved in a still puzzling incident when she drove from Los Angeles into central California and knocked on the door of a stranger’s house. The good Samaritan, recognising her, allowed her to have a shower before phoning the local sheriff. She told the authorities she was “going to take everyone back to heaven in a spaceship”.

She will be celebrated for, with DeGeneres, standing up to the conventions of the time. “When I told them I was taking Ellen as my date, I was told if I took Ellen I would lose my Fox contract,” she said of a premiere in the early stages of their relationship. Their eventual decision to go public broke barriers. But she should also receive note as an intelligent actor of the old school with a great line in sharp comedy. She is wonderful in David Mamet’s political comedy Wag the Dog and in the tough crime drama Rampart from 2011. Just 53 at the time of her death, she was forever on the brink of a proper comeback.