Even before I could sit down, a publicist gave me a warning: “Ms. Heche will only be talking about her film. She will not discuss her personal life.”
It was 1997 when it seemed everyone was talking about Anne Heche’s personal life. Months earlier on “Oprah,” the young actress had professed her love for Ellen DeGeneres who came out as a lesbian that same year on the cover of Time magazine. As Heche garnered enthusiastic reviews for her performances in “Donnie Brasco” and “Walking and Talking,” she became one-half of the most high-profile lesbian couple in Hollywood history.
When I met Heche in a New York hotel suite, she was on a publicity tour for the film “Wag the Dog,” a tart political satire co-starring Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman. And with no prompting from me, she spoke with glee and thoughtfulness about her personal life during an hour-long interview.
“Hell, once you start hiding, well, that’s a path you didn’t want to go down,” she told me. “I’ve seen people go down that path, and they may have careers but, Jesus, can they look in the mirror in the morning? I don’t know.”
Heche, 53, died Sunday from injuries sustained when her car crashed into a Los Angeles home and burst into flames on Aug. 5. Though Heche was declared brain dead on Aug. 12, her family requested that she be kept on life support to honor her wish to be an organ donor.
For much of Heche’s public life and now her death, her name was rarely mentioned without the word “troubled” loitering somewhere nearby — as if all lives aren’t marked with peaks and potholes. What made Heche different is that she hid none of them. In interviews and her 2001 memoir, “Call Me Crazy,” she spoke candidly about surviving sexual abuse by her father, his death from AIDS, and her own struggles with substance use and mental health. Heche refused to follow someone else’s script to tell her story.
“It was so strange to me that someone would say I could have my career taken away from me because I’m in love,” she said to me. “It was so crazy for people to say to me, ‘Oh, you were in the perfect position to be’. . . to be what? What the world thinks is important? When did careers and stardom become more important than being in love with someone?”
Stardom, the kind that sells tickets and fills theater seats, is all that matters in Hollywood. Studio executives fretted over whether audiences would accept Heche as a romantic lead opposite a man. It probably didn’t help when “Saturday Night Live” spoofed the “Oprah” appearance with two men portraying DeGeneres and Heche.
When we spoke, Heche seemed determined to not let anything steal her joy or diminish what she saw as a gift — to “represent a love [the LGBTQ community] always wanted to see represented,” as she put it.
That certainly wasn’t lost on me. DeGeneres and Heche’s “Oprah” episode helped slowly thaw the ice between me and my mother after I came out. On the red carpet they spoke against racial injustice and for LGBTQ rights. Heche often referred to herself as DeGeneres’s wife, seven years before Massachusetts became the first state to legalize same-sex marriage.
After more than three years together, DeGeneres and Heche split in 2000. When Heche later married a man, it fed absurd theories that their relationship had been a stunt. That was a ridiculous conclusion given how Heche’s once-ascendant career stalled due to intolerance inside and outside of Hollywood.
A year later on “SNL,” Reese Witherspoon portrayed Heche in a skit. She mocked a much-publicized mental health episode Heche suffered and characterized the actress’s career achievement as having “slept with a lot of famous people.” It was a cheap, misogynistic punchline.
Even when the projects carried less prestige, Heche never stopped acting. But go back and watch her in her best-known films — the piercing intelligence, the way her eyes lock on the person she’s speaking to, the fragility and honesty. However stony her road in life, she struck me as someone who took each step with curiosity though it sometimes landed her on pitted, uneven ground.
Near the end of our hour together all those years ago, I remember Heche leaned in toward me as if sharing a secret. “Here’s the formula,” she said. “You tell the truth, you always say what you want and what you feel, and you will live in bliss. Don’t hide, don’t lie, don’t manipulate, and you’ll get blessed.”
Heche is survived by two sons and a handful of performances that only grazed the surface of what she could have achieved with opportunities equal to her talents. She deserved better. Wherever she is, I hope she’s finally blissful and blessed.