Anne Heche’s Stubborn Incandescence

When a seventeen-year-old Anne Heche first arrived on the set of the NBC daytime soap opera “Another World,” in 1987, she wasn’t aware that she’d be playing twins. It was the day after her high-school graduation. A green talent plucked fresh from the Midwest, she’d previously acted in dinner-theatre and high-school drama productions. Now, at a television studio in Brooklyn, the producer who’d hired her explained the nature of the assignment. “Vicky’s the bad one,” he said to her, Heche recalled in “Call Me Crazy,” her 2001 autobiography. “Marley’s the good one.”

Heche—who died on Sunday, at the age of fifty-three, after suffering a brain injury during a car crash, in Los Angeles—at first doubted her ability to make the two characters feel distinct. Vicky was a headstrong tornado of a girl, Marley an avatar of virtue. But Heche did not exaggerate either of these defining traits, instead using subtle inflections to distinguish the two. With her cornflower-blue eyes and lanky carriage, she deftly navigated the implausibilities inherent to the soap genre (one story line involves Vicky impersonating Marley during the latter’s trial for attempted murder), and succeeded in infusing each sister with her own separate soul. The show, set in the fictional Bay City, gave Heche’s Vicky and Marley many screen partners in the form of lovers and family members, but Heche was rarely more electric than when playing against herself. In a scene from late 1990, Marley tearfully tells Vicky that her partner, Jake, has raped her. Marley’s throat tightens as she tries to confess what happened. Vicky coaxes the words from her sister and then vows to get revenge. Each woman’s pain is vivid in its specificity, and so convincing that it’s easy to forgive the sequence’s hopelessly trite final moments: “Baby, he’s not going to hurt you again,” Vicky promises a wailing Marley as the soundtrack thrums ominously.

Heche’s mercurial talents solidified during the course of her four-year run on “Another World.” The job, Heche told one journalist, required her to memorize sixty pages of dialogue a day. By the time she left the show, in 1991, with a Daytime Emmy, she was just twenty-two. Then she sloughed off any stigmas associated with soap operas and made the leap to Hollywood. But she would spend much of her career trying to shake off other kinds of reputational baggage. By the time I was introduced to Heche’s acting, as a teen-ager in the mid-two-thousands, her “Another World” run was finding new life on the now defunct cable channel SOAPnet and on YouTube. Yet the press had already largely written her off. A romance with the comedian Ellen DeGeneres, beginning in 1997, had made her target practice for tabloids and an object of ridicule on “MADtv” segments. Though she and DeGeneres separated in 2000, the opprobrium lingered, as did the memory of a psychotic break Heche suffered that same year, which resulted in her entering a stranger’s home in Fresno while high on Ecstasy. More mockery ensued when she spoke of a divine alter ego named Celestia. As I discovered Heche’s talents on “Another World,” I felt as if someone had lied to me about her. Knowing about her struggles to find peace offscreen only heightened my response to her acting. I wondered how Heche, performing on the show having barely reached adulthood, seemed to possess information about the human condition that far exceeded her years.

Anne Heche with her “Another World” co-star Russell Todd, circa 1990.Photograph from Everett

Heche had a reserve of bruising life experiences to draw upon. Born in Aurora, Ohio, in 1969, she had a childhood pockmarked by homelessness and abuse. Her religious Christian family was unaware that Heche’s father, a choir director who was supposedly in the business of gas and oil, was leading what Heche, in her memoir, termed a “double life” as a gay man. He drove the family into debt, and Heche—the second of five siblings, one of whom died in infancy—began acting as a twelve-year-old to help make ends meet. Heche also alleged that her father, who died of AIDS, in 1983, subjected her to sexual abuse throughout her childhood, and she insinuated that her desire to become a movie star was in part a way of striving for his approval. (“Would that be enough, Daddy?” she wrote.) During a sophomore-year production of Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth,” a scout for the CBS soap opera “As the World Turns” persuaded her to audition for the show. She landed a part, but her mother insisted that she pass it up and remain in school. About two years later, she took the roles on “Another World.” (Her mother, who went on to become a Christian therapist, called the claims in her daughter’s book “lies and blasphemies.” Heche’s sole surviving sibling also cast doubt on her sister’s memories.)

The credits that Heche amassed in the wake of her turn on “Another World” seemed to signal the emergence of a major cinematic star. In 1996, as the best friend to Catherine Keener’s character in Nicole Holofcener’s “Walking and Talking,” Heche was emotionally direct and bracingly free of affect. During the following two years, a flurry of film roles displayed Heche’s quicksilver ability to glide across genres with ease. In “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” she was a countryside loner who spoke with a delicate twang; in “Wag the Dog,” a fast-talking aide to a scandal-ensconced president. In Gus Van Sant’s much-mocked remake of “Psycho,” she carefully reconstructed the doomed Hitchock heroine Marion Crane while making the character her own. More than Janet Leigh in the original, Heche externalized the character’s anxieties, nervously smiling to herself and widening her eyes as Crane made the fateful decision to steal a hefty sum of cash. Perhaps Heche’s most evocative part from those years was in “Donnie Brasco,” the 1997 film about an undercover F.B.I. informant, played by Johnny Depp. Heche’s role could have been a mere stock character: the long-suffering wife. But, as in “Another World,” she exhibited an uncanny ability to bring color to her character’s despair. In an era when leading ladies like Julia Roberts and Meg Ryan had captured America’s hearts, Heche represented something off-kilter for moviegoers. She was “altogether lemony,” the critic David Thomson later wrote, “in a culture where actresses are encouraged to be peaches, strawberries, or jelly doughnuts.”

Looking back, her rise and fall were alarmingly fast. After Heche’s romance with DeGeneres went public, the leading roles dried up. Heche claimed that major studios blacklisted her, though not before she showed her sprightly charm as a leading lady opposite Harrison Ford in the desert-island rom-com “Six Days, Seven Nights.” (Heche recalled to Vanity Fair that Ford stood by her when the studio wavered on casting her, saying, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn who you’re sleeping with.​”) In the following years, Heche earned positive notices onstage in the Broadway production of “Proof” (2002-03) and a Tony nomination as an Old Hollywood actress in the revival of “Twentieth Century” (2004). But her onscreen work became limited to independent films and television for much of her later career, providing her with steady gigs that she said allowed her to support her two sons—one who is currently thirteen, and the other, twenty—who now survive her.

Given Heche’s openness about her past recreational drug use and struggles with mental health, the details of her death have generated the same sort of invasive interest that haunted her throughout her lifetime. (As of this writing, the matter of whether drug use was involved in her crash is still under investigation.) The question now is how the culture will choose to remember her. It is easy to lament, as some tributes have, that Hollywood was unable to bottle Heche’s brilliance sufficiently. Yet, for viewers partial to the melodramas of Bay City, “Another World” remains reason enough to celebrate her for her art as well as for her commitment to candor, no matter the cost. I find myself returning to a scene from one of her final episodes on the show. Marley, about to move to Switzerland, is bidding Vicky farewell. Vicky says that Marley is stronger than most people like to believe; Marley comments, in admiration, that Vicky’s fearless spirit expands her own emotional capacity. “All those feelings get me in an awful lot of trouble,” Vicky says, to which her mirror image responds, “It also gives you a lot of life.” ♦

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