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Anne Heche: A tragic end for a once-bright Hollywood star

PHOTO: L.A. Times

Anne Heche died Aug. 14 at age 53 from injuries sustained in a flaming car crash several days earlier. It was a tragic end for a once-bright Hollywood star, who had leading roles in such 1990s hits as "Donnie Brasco," "Wag the Dog" and "Six Days, Seven Nights." That was around about the time when gossip about her sexual orientation — and her romance with Ellen DeGeneres — threatened to sabotage her career. But when I spoke to her in 1998 for the movie "Return to Paradise," she was trying hard to focus on her work, not the distraction about her love life.

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

Anne Heche is very chipper for someone who supposedly committed career suicide.

"I see heaven here, " the hot young actress says from Boston, in a voice bubbling with enthusiasm.

"There is joy behind the pain of this."

Heaven wasn't in sight 18 months ago, when Heche stunned Hollywood. She came out as a lesbian and announced her love for comic actress Ellen DeGeneres. The two had met at an Oscars party and immediately bonded.

Industry scuttlebutt said Heche had scuttled her own skyrocket. After years of character work in small films and a TV soap opera ("Another World"), she was beginning to get leading lady roles, including a pairing with Harrison Ford in this summer's big romantic comedy "Six Days, Seven Nights."

Now everybody was asking how a lesbian could play a straight woman.

"It was focused on such the wrong thing, " Heche says with a sigh.

"I mean, people had never questioned whether I could play a seismologist (in "Volcano") or a mother of three ("Donnie Brasco"). These were real stretches for her, and there were other things people should have been nervous about: I had never really been a leading lady before and never really played in a comedy. Yet it was all focused on the sexuality."

But if this is career suicide, pass the razor blades.

The 29-year-old Heche not only landed the "Six Days, Seven Nights" role, winning praise from co-star Ford and director Ivan Reitman, she's now on the short list of every Hollywood casting director, a "topliner" as they say in the biz.

The Ohio-born blonde now seems to be everywhere, in every film genre. Her current movie, which opens today, is the drama "Return To Paradise," in which she's a lawyer fighting to save a man's life. (The review is on page D2.)

She's also been seen recently in the political satire "Wag the Dog," playing an uptight Washington aide, and the horror hit I Know "What You Did Last Summer," playing a psycho.

The latter was great training for her top-billed role in Gus Van Sant's remake of Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho," currently in production, which also features her "Return To Paradise" co-star Vince Vaughn.

As Marion Crane, the victim role made famous by Janet Leigh, Heche had to learn how to scream in the shower, while Vaughn, who has Anthony Perkins' title role, did his lethal ginsu demonstration.

"The shower scene was just a hoot and more monotonous than anything else, " Heche says with a chuckle.

"It was, 'Oh, my God — another day in the shower?' But it was interesting because there were boundaries of a script that were already made. We were shooting not only Hitchcock's original script but also his shot list.

"It was an amazing blueprint to work with, but also very specific. 'Okay, is she screaming now? Is the knife going into her stomach here?' Oftentimes when things are really, really tough, I counter them with hilarity."

She needed a sense of humour to get through her coming-out ordeal.

She and DeGeneres chose to be very public about their love, and in a brave and perhaps ill-advised move they announced it together on the Oprah show. The other guests on the chat show that day were religious fundamentalists who denounced the pair as the spawn of Satan.

Worse still were the little whispers around Hollywood. Rumour had it that Reitman was having serious second thoughts about casting her in "Six Days, Seven Nights" and that Ford was demanding a rewrite to make it more of an action picture, and less of a romance.

"How could you not have had second thoughts?" Reitman admits. "Everyone was talking about Anne coming out, and I had to think about what effect it would have the picture. But she proved she was right for the part and we quickly got past all that."

Ford is equally effusive in his praise of Heche.

"She's a terrific actress and she's been really good in every role she's chosen. When we read her for the first time, there was something original about what she was doing. And by the time she had read the third time, she was really the best choice for me and the movie."

Heche is grateful to Reitman and Ford for giving her a chance.

"They certainly didn't have to cast me, " she says. "There were a lot of reasons not to cast me, and Ellen was the least of them, really. There were a lot of people who were bigger names or bigger box office. I feel really blessed that they had the courage to do it."

It didn't matter to her that Ford is old enough to be her father, a fact that hasn't gone unnoticed in a summer when many aging Hollywood actors are being matched with women who are younger by a generation or more.

The off-screen age of her lovers doesn't matter to Heche, either. Before she met DeGeneres, she lived for two years with comic actor Steve Martin, who turns 53 today. And DeGeneres is 40.

"We do not fall in love with the package of the person, we fall in love with the inside of a person, " Heche says. "I was trying to say that in my life at the time (in her love of DeGeneres), so I loved that parallel.

"But Harrison and I both felt it had to be addressed in the movie, otherwise it would have been like the big elephant in the room."

Heche was so determined to prove herself in "Six Days," she didn't blink at the unliberated requirement that she spend most of the movie running about in a skimpy bikini top. True to her positive nature, she took the top to be a symbol, proof that lesbians are just as sexy as heterosexual women.

"I kept saying to my wardrobe person: 'Where is it? Where is the wardrobe?' " Heche jokes.

"But to me, it was going along with what the movie was, which was a big Hollywood movie. It's my job, to create a fantasy. It was also very specifically for me to knock the notion that a gay actress can't be a leading lady in a movie and be sexy and hot.

"I wanted to say, 'C'mon folks, give me a break! What, lesbians aren't pretty? Duh! You just don't know who they are.' "

She didn't need to convince People magazine, which earlier this year named her one of the world's 50 most beautiful people.

Heche was highly amused by this. She has no doubt People chose her for her notoriety, not her looks.

"After all the crap I was going through last year, and then I was named one of the most beautiful people! And I sort of joked around, 'Did you see the other 49? It wasn't too tough a category.'

"But at the same time, I said to the guy who was interviewing me for it, who was asking me about make-up tips, 'Listen, I'm not on the list because of how gorgeous I am. I'm being recognized for something that I did.' "

Heche puts a positive spin on this, too. "Are we changing the idea of what beauty is? Let's hope so. I'm not the typical Hollywood beauty. Let's hope we're looking at the insides of people a little more."

She practises what she preaches. A week after wrapping her role in "Six Days," she began work on "Return To Paradise," deliberately making her character as unglamorous as possible.

She plays Beth, a lawyer representing an American man (Joaquin Phoenix) who carelessly bought a large quantity of hashish while vacationing in Malaysia, and who faces the death penalty on charges of drug trafficking. Beth must convince the man's two friends, who escaped to America before the police arrived, to return to share the penalty and save their friend's life.

Heche played Beth with dishevelled hair and no lipstick. Many actresses would have insisted on looking their best, but not Heche.

"I consider myself a character actress, whether or not I'm the leading lady. And I always try to get into what a character is, and be realistically as possible. I wanted to look like she's been fighting for this guy's life for two years and she didn't give a shit how she looked.

"But oftentimes in Hollywood they're so damned specific, and they say, 'No, you've got to be the movie star here.' I like to fit into what a movie's structure is, taking everything into consideration, but I've taken a lot of shit for it.

"I go through so many changes, people can't recognize me from movie to movie. But that's the thrill for me."

She's a person who knows her own mind and goes her own way, although she hasn't always been this way.

She left home at 17, fleeing from an abusive mother and a father who lived a double life. He was a Baptist church choir director and a closeted gay. He died of AIDS in 1982; her brother died the same year.

She explored her childhood in a short film she wrote and directed this year titled "Stripping For Jesus." The experience whetted her appetite; she's now planning to write and direct her first feature, a comedy-drama called "Fierce" that is based on a group of homeless children. Gus Van Sant is executive producing it; she hopes to submit it to the Sundance Film Festival in 2000.

But she's not completely wedded to movies. She hopes one day soon to live on a farm with DeGeneres, raising a barnyard full of animals. They've already started with a stray orange-and-white cat named Flower that they adopted recently, after finding it sick and lost on the streets of L.A.

"I've always kind of gone with my heart, " Heche says.

"I had a lot of faith. And what's great about this now is my faith had foundation and now everybody is kind of catching on to that.

"It was hard what I went through. I said I was in love with Ellen, and everybody immediately said, 'Guess what! You're not going to have a career anymore!' And I said, 'Wait a minute. What about my talent? What about the girl that everyone was saying was such a good actress for 10 years?' "

Turns out the girl did more than all right for herself, after all. 🌓

(This interview originally ran in the Toronto Star.)



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