Anne Heche, the film, television, and Broadway actor, died a few weeks ago at the age of 53. The media made a great deal of the tragic circumstances surrounding her death, and many were quick to point out her own culpability for the circumstances. Which is true, but hardly kind, and Anne Heche’s health struggles have been discussed for decades — the tabloids have never been shy about discussing her troubles, particularly during the late-1990s height of her film career. She came out as sexually fluid at a time when identifying as queer was seen as a potentially career-ending faux pas; her relationship with a woman exposed her to homophobia, and her subsequent relationships with men were seen through the lens of her mental health struggles in a media landscape that diminishes bisexuality and views neurodivergence as evidence of weakness.
Even if she slid off of the Hollywood A-list, she never stopped working, and her performances only got better and better. If movie audiences sometimes lost sight of her, theatre and TV audiences never did. Here are a dozen of her very best performances.
Walking and Talking (1996)
An indie cult classic from an era that produced a few of them, Walking and Talking is a funny and prickly story of two lifelong friends, played by Anne Heche and Catherine Keener. Heche’s Laura is the more outgoing of the two, having recently become engaged to a jewellery designer (Todd Field); Keener’s Amelia is far less lucky in love and, seemingly, life in general. Neither character is a caricature, and none of their interactions ever devolve into the expected women-can’t-be-friends tropes. There’s a plot, but there are no big dramatic turnabouts — just two women occasionally struggling to see eye to eye. It’s all in the performances, and Heche, even in her 20s and near the beginning of her film career, projects the easy confidence that that made her a star.
If These Walls Could Talk (1996)
Inexplicably hard to come by, the smart HBO drama was a massive hit for the cable network (at the time, and for quite a long time after, it was their highest-rated movie), also racking up a ton of award nominations. An anthology dealing with abortion, Anne Heche stars in the third and final segment as Christine Cullen, a college student who seeks an abortion after being impregnated by her professor; the procedure is dramatically and violently interrupted by anti-abortion protestors. The movie includes a who’s who of stars (Cher, Sissy Spacek, Jada Pinkett Smith, CCh Pounder, Demi Moore, etc.), and yet Heche more than holds her own as the lead of her segment.
Donnie Brasco (1997)
Leads Al Pacino and Johnny Depp are fine here in a great movie, but Anne Heche seems to be playing on a whole different level; while Pacino and Depp occasionally fall back on easily recognisable and well-worn gangster-movie ticks, Heche, as Donne Brasco/Joe Pistone’s wife, Maggie, always feels like a fully realised human being. It’s her character that brings out the movie’s stakes and reminds us that it’s not just about mob drama or macho posturing — lives and families are on the line. If we didn’t care about Maggie, none of the rest of it would matter much.
Wag the Dog (1997)
Director Barry Levinson re-teamed with Anne Heche (he’d produced Donnie Brasco, released earlier the same year) for one of the great cinematic political satires: sharp, vicious, and eerily timely. Heche is Winnie Ames, a tough and ruthless political aide who hires a leading spin doctor to help take the nation’s mind off a scandal around the president’s having made advances on an underage girl in the Oval Office. Their solution? An entirely fictional war with Albania to boost the country’s sense of patriotism and keep anyone from asking too many questions about the other thing. Heche handles her fast-paced Hilary Henkin/David Mamet dialogue ably and, just as importantly, proves that she can hang with the big dogs: she’s third billed alongside Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Denis Leary, Willie Nelson, William H. Macy, Woody Harrelson, and Kirsten Dunst, and never for one moment feels like she doesn’t belong.
I Know What You Did Last Summer (1997)
Anne Heche’s role here isn’t much more than a cameo (she’s only in a couple of scenes), but the best slasher movies know exactly how to treat a memorable guest star (think Drew Barrymore in Scream). She plays Missy, one of the movie’s most effective red herrings, and steals those moments while at the height of her star power.
Six Days, Seven Nights (1998)
Volcano was a breakout for Anne Heche, no question, but this Ivan Reitman adventure/comedy movie (think Romancing the Stone) was her first true big-time starring role, sharing co-billing with Harrison Ford. Even if their romance falls a little too neatly into the cinematic mode of older man/much younger woman, Heche is all charisma as a fashion magazine editor who winds up stranded with a rakish pilot. The movie’s fun, if not wildly memorable, but Heche proved that she was more than capable of holder her own with one of Hollywood’s most beloved leading men in a movie that’s frequently just the two of them.
Gracie’s Choice (2004)
Heche rarely wanted for work, whether on TV, stage, or in movies. There’s no question, though, that her relationship with Ellen Degeneres (and its ending) and tabloid-style coverage of her mental health struggles dampened her trajectory. The late 1990s had seen her well on course to Hollywood’s A-list, but studios were seeing her a little differently by the early 2000s. For all her impressive TV performances, this was the one that earned her single Primetime Emmy nomination (she’d won a Daytime Emmy for her work on Another World in 1991); she plays Rowena Lawson, the manipulative, substance-addicted mother to Kristen Bell’s Gracie. Concluding that her mother won’t get help, Gracie finally decides to fight for custody of her brothers, with a little help from Grandma Lou (Diane Ladd). Rowena isn’t particularly likable, but Heche brings humanity to a difficult part; the three leads together elevate what might have been a more traditional movie-of-the-week.
Jonathan Glazer’s weird, and controversial drama polarised critics and audiences (the ones who saw it, anyway), and with good reason: the story of a woman, Anna (Nicole Kidman), who believes that her dead husband has been reincarnated as a 10-year-old boy is hardly conventional in its plot or structure. Heche plays Anna’s sister-in-law, who introduces a third-act twist that cruelly puts everything into perspective. It’s a focused performance that makes clear the extent of Heche’s range: Conveying love and jealousy that’s morphed over time into a frosty rage, she’s very nearly terrifying without so much as raising her voice.
Hung (2009 – 2011)
This was another great role for Anne Heche, and one that brought her a bit more (well-deserved) mainstream attention than she’d had since her late-’90s heyday. Here she’s Jessica Haxon, ex-wife to lead Ray Drecker (Thomas Jane), and parent to twin teenagers who are gradually drifting away from her. She’s always great when the character is person-just-barely-holding-it-together, but here she’s even given the chance to snap a few times. It’s not the most traditionally likable character she’s playing here, but she’s electric in every scene.
Cedar Rapids (2011)
Having made a bit of a comeback with her role in Hung (though she’d never truly gone away), Heche here plays boozy, flirtatious Joan Ostrowski-Fox, on the make for Ed Helms’ painfully naive Tim Lippe at an insurance conference. The set-up here is conventional to the point of sounding dull (innocent guy finds himself in the middle of R-rated debauchery away from home), but the screenplay enjoyably blends sweetness and naughtiness, while the cast (Helms, Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr., John C. Reilly, Sigourney Weaver, etc.) sell the hell out of it. Once again Heche plays a complicated and funny near-antagonist who winds up stealing every scene she’s in.
Heche excels in this pitch-dark, frequently disturbing comedy; the film makes the best use of her comedic talents since Wag the Dog. She plays opposite Sandra Oh, kicking off with a (brutal and believable) fight between the two in a stairwell that sees Oh’s Veronica Salt in a two-year coma while Heche’s Ashley Miller excels in an increasingly jingoistic America given to lazy fads — one that honestly looks an awful lot like…well, present-day America. Both women are mean and entitled, but entirely recognisable, and Oh and Heche play the hell out of them.
The Brave (2017 – 2018)
The Brave didn’t last long, generally not having stood out from the pack of similar network military dramas (think the CBS drama SEAL Team, which debuted the same week and has been a bit more successful). What the Brave does possess is co-lead Anne Heche as Patricia Campbell, deputy director of the Defence Intelligence Agency, leading a team of analysts and coordinating the field operations of an elite squad. Safe, but competent and enjoyable, military procedurals of this type have made comfortable homes for many an ageing film star, but Heche brings something extra to the role — her easy air of authority and sardonic half-smile lend the show tremendous personality.