Fly Like An Eagle: An Appreciation of Anne Heche

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This is a story about cannibalism.

It shouldn’t have happened, this pointed industry-sanctioned slight.

But let the record show that Hollywood ate one of its own. The people in charge got together and blacklisted Anne Heche.

It’s both tragedy and travesty, a crime against the natural order of celluloidal history.

Her ascent to the A-list curtailed, then obfuscated and expunged from the consciousness of the general public.

Myself included, when Heche’s personal life took precedence over her professional career.

Almost overnight, she became fodder for the insatiable appetite of a new animal called The Twenty-Four-Hour News Cycle, an inorganic beast always on the prowl for fresh meat.

If the dead could speak? The dead would say, “you’re reaching.”

But if there is a silver lining to this sutured tear of the filmic timeline, it’s that Anne Heche’s journey in motion pictures reset her on the road less-traveled.

Instead of playing the lead in David Fincher’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, or taking a smaller part in Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids, Heche made a quiet return to film in 2011, which resulted in her best performance in an career put on pause, made uneven by truncation.

Cedar Rapids, directed by Miguel Arteta marked the first time many had laid eyes on Anne Heche since Gus Van Sant’s 1998 Psycho. The universally-panned shot-by-shot remake of the Alfred Hitchcock classic promptly ended her career in mainstream film. It was a timely and opportune excuse for the studios to deem Heche as an unbankable commodity.

Cedar Rapids should have been her calling card that made the veteran actress employable again, the caveat being, at the very least, on the indie scene. Inexplicably, Heche, who had the skillset to be an ace character actor, never became the Sundance darling, or anybody’s darling. Forty-two at the time, Hollywood treated the former “it girl” like a has-been. A living specter in the Norma Desmond-mode that the industry pretended wasn’t a sideshow curiosity of their own making.

Cedar Rapids offers a tantalizing glimpse of what-could-have-been. 

Heche plays Joan Ostrowski-Fox, an insurance agent, who every year like clockwork, sheds her mom jeans and gets to be the life of the party, a woman who lights up every room she walks into. Joan is one of the guys, capable of out-drinking any man under the table. Heche makes a serial adulterer likable, which is no small feat. But the comeback kid plays the philandering insurance agent like a matryoshka doll.

Joan’s own husband and kids wouldn’t recognize her. Mom doesn’t do shots. Mom doesn’t take off her top in swimming pools. Mom doesn’t get into ice fights with people like Dean Ziegle (John C. Reilly), a self-styled party animal.

But with her latest conquest, Tim Lippe (Ed Helms), a nerd gone wild with a serious Oedipus complex, we can see the qualities that makes Joan a good wife and mom, even though she does the guy. Her rules, of course, predicated on an alternate universe are bullshit. But Joan is a charmer, as well as a minx, in equal proportion.

Cedar Rapids, or rather, Iowa, as Joan explains, is more than an annual vacation; it’s a “fantasyland.” It’s a two-star hotel she conflates into a theme park, where she gets to be somebody else: A full-blooded woman containing multitudes, latent qualities she compartmentalizes, left dormant in her real life as an upstanding citizen of her community.

“I only smoke in Cedar Rapids,”
she tells Tim.

Quite appropriately: on a swing set.

Swinging is child’s play. Heche, in essence, portrays Joan as a twin, the naughty one, a throwback to her soap star days on Another World, where she spent four years playing Vicky Hudson and Marley Love. The ability to meld her maternal persona with this horny doppleganger is a highwire act that the veteran actress straddles adeptly. She never once strays too far from the right side of the line between mother and whore.

Heche brought her A-game; she really did. Understanding, no doubt, that Joan Ostrowski-Fox was her best part since playing Harrison Ford’s love interest in the Ivan Reitman rom-com Six Days, Seven Nights way back in the twentieth century. She was ready for her close-up.

Cedar Rapids should have marked the beginning of Anne Heche’s second act.

Sadly, the phone never rang.

Heche remained persona non grata with the major studios, left for dead in Phoenix; slumped over a bathtub at the Bates Motel, clutching a shower curtain dislocated from its rod.

Catfight (2016) has three fight scenes; three cat fights.

Slow them down, go frame-by-frame, and try to spot the body double. Catfight is Anne Heche’s last hurrah, her parting shot. She plays Ashley Miller, a misanthropic artist, a painter whose violent canvases look inspired by Cannibal Corpse covers. Veronica Salt (Sandra Oh), a haughty defense contractor’s wife, stands on the other side of a grudge match that the former high school buddies can’t settle with conciliatory words.

Both actors’ commitment to bare-knuckle boxing can’t be overstated. Heche, who stayed in shape until the bitter end, makes you believe in her blood, Oh’s blood, and the blood on the stairwell.

Reversals of fortune is this pitch-black comedy’s schematic. After Ashley emerges from her respective coma, she becomes even more repellent, more sociopathic, whereas Veronica wants to call a truce, to be forgiven. It’s a crying shame that Catfight was never released theatrically, given both ladies’ Grace Jones-like commitment to stunt work. Catfight allows the viewer to imagine how Anne Heche would have faired in a big-budgeted action film.

Independent film can be likened to a Hollywood farm system. Wild Side (1995), directed by Douglas Cammel, was rookie league fare. Nicole Holofcener’s Walking And Talking (1996), however, was AAA, where she kept pace with Holofcener’s muse, Catherine Keener. Hollywood called her up to the big league, for good.

Heche was a known commodity; she had multiple stints, cups of coffee in The Juror (1995), Milk Money, (1994), and A Simple Twist Of Fate (1994).

But her turn as Maggie Pistone, a harried FBI agent’s wife, in Mike Newell’s Donnie Brasco (1997), was to witness the actualization of a star before our very eyes.

Heche found transcension in a stock character, giving Maggie a verisimilitude, and more importantly, a character arc that, perhaps, was not readily-apparent in the Paul Altanasio screenplay.

It’s not just Joe Pistone (Johnny Depp) who undergoes a transformation. Maggie, a homemaker and mother of three, is first seen washing dishes, at her wit’s end with worry over Joe’s dangerous job, cosplaying a mafioso. On paper, Maggie Pistone is the accommodating wife and mother, a reactive character. Sad and scared, render those two emotions with conviction, and you’ve fulfilled the assignations of a supporting actress with flying colors.

But to Heche’s credit, Maggie hardens in equal proportion to Joe as the stakes get higher, the lines get blurrier, and ends up being a de facto mafioso’s wife, a tough broad who doesn’t cry after “Donnie” slaps her across the cheek. Not a tear is shed; no histrionic bawling; that’s an acting choice, as Maggie’s altered self surrenders the bag of laundered money to her husband, who in turn is more feral and felonious than fatherly. Heche, a late bloomer at twenty-eight, transforms Maggie Pistone into Maggie Brasco. 

No Oscar nomination. That’s fine.

There would be plenty of opportunities, surely. Donnie Brasco was Anne Heche’s lab. She stood toe to toe with an actor of higher caliber, and leveled the playing field when it was all said and done.

Heche didn’t just fill the frame, she inhabited it. Hollywood’s movers and shakers took notice. To dramatize a disintegrating marriage in irreversible freefall, Johnny Depp needed a domestic gladiator he could spar with, a war of words with no obvious winner from either party, and earn a split decision from the audience.

Donnie Brasco also starred Al Pacino as Lefty Ruggiero, the second vertex of a bizarre love triangle. Metaphorically speaking, Anne Heche never makes it to the main stage. She and Al Pacino were on separate call sheets; they existed in different filmic localities. Only Depp got to bask in Pacino’s limelight.

But Wag The Dog (1997), directed by Barry Levinson, signaled the end of Heche’s days as an understudy.

By virtue of range, she showed off an unbeknownst comic side as Winifred Ames, a PR advisor to a thinly-veiled Clinton-esque president.

Heche, literally, has a seat at the table, sitting next to Robert DeNiro, a spin doctor, in the war room, as a small team of insiders strategize on how to distract the public from their boss’ transgressions. Heche looks like she belongs. It’s so obvious that this girl was going places. Heche also gets to cuss like a drunken sailor, reading the riot act to no other than Dustin Hoffman (Stanley Motss), when the Hollywood producer’s scripted war encounters a considerable setback.

Scene after scene, Heche brings her dancing shoes. Old dancing shoes, seemingly, handed down from her grandmother, ready to tap with snap and precision, leaving behind a storm. On the airport tarmac, in silhouette, Heche argues with military personnel about sending her public relations team a bipolar felon on meds, to play the decorated war hero they created out of thin air: Sergeant Robert Schumann (Woody Harrelson), an American held hostage by the Albanian army.

Backpedaling in the rain, Heche confers with soldiers, recalling, to my eyes, Ginger Rogers, who may or may not have said “backwards and in high heels” in regard to her footwork with Fred Astaire.

Dancing by herself, the audience imagines all the people she never got the chance to tango with:
Harrison Ford being the exception, in Ivan Reitman’s Six Days, Seven Nights, her first and only major studio lead.

It’s Wag The Dog, however, that better exemplifies Anne Heche’s singular talent, which Levinson encapsulates and crystallizes in an iconic scene at the film’s midpoint.

The invented war gains traction. Like Conrad Bean keeps repeating, the people “saw it on television.” The three principal players touch flutes brimming with red wine. Motss, with Robert Evans-like grandiosity, makes the toast: “To the beginning,” which can be read as the cast and crew predicting a bright future for Anne Heche, bestowed with accolades galore. 

It’s 1996. A young actress gambled.

Anne Heche, still in her teens, flew the coup, leaving a nest of steady work on the soap opera, Another World, with no television or film job lined up.

She was an eagle. Flying blind.

A presumptuous eagle, some would have argued. Countless actors, if they’re lucky, can point only to a nationwide commercial, let alone being in people’s living rooms five days a week, as their crowning achievement in the hard-knock life of showbiz.

For five years, Anne Heche paid her dues, bouncing around from off-Broadway theater to television guest spots. The gamble paid off.

Nicole Holofcener cast Heche opposite Catherine Keener in Walking And Talking, a buzzy indie that validated the twenty-seven-year-old woman’s decision to risk everything.

Heche plays Laura, the BFF who graduates to adulthood first. Walking And Talking picks the action up in midstream, after the recently-engaged, unseasoned therapist realizes that life with Amelia (Catherine Keener), her childhood friend and roommate, was creating an epoch of protracted adolescence.

Flirty, but virtuous, unsure about the future like all young people, Heche plays Laura as a true blue friend, both sweetie and bedrock; it’s no wonder that she breaks Amelia’s heart, because she’s breaking ours, too.

“I’m wearing a shower curtain,” Laura tells the maid of honor.
Amelia promises to never tell.

I know.

To me, it’s not a secret. Anne Heche made bad films look good, or at least, watchable.

She made good films great, and if given the opportunity, she would have made a great film…transcendent. Anne Heche should have stood at a podium to give her acceptance speech at the Oscars in a beautiful designer dress, or shower curtain. Either/or. It wouldn’t matter. 

Anne Heche died on August 11. She was 53.

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Phylum of Alexandria
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Famed Member
October 13, 2022 8:42 am

I had no idea about Anne Heche’s recent passing, or really any of the details of her personal life. What a horribly tragic end to someone with potentially so much more ahead of them.

I also haven’t seen much of her work in film. I think the only movie I watched in full (sorry, Psycho remake) was Wag the Dog, and she was great in that role.

I haven’t seen the film in a while, but as I recall her character, it seems more relevant than ever. She’s an intelligent-but-compliant political aide stuck in a project that’s veering further and further from any pretense of good intention. She rationalizes everything as it happens and moves on, but her neurotic tics belie the inner turmoil of someone who knows deep down what is going on and is not okay with it. It’s the closest thing the darkly satirical story has to a moral center, and Heche brought that element out perfectly.

Rest in Peace.

JJ Live At Leeds
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Famed Member
October 13, 2022 9:19 am

I haven’t seen Cedar Rapids since it came out. It seemed to go under the radar (over here anyway) but 2011 was the year our daughter was born so me and Mrs J made the most of our soon to be lost independence and free will and were at the cinema most weeks. Cedar Rapids was a hidden gem, loved it. Totally forgotten that Anne Heche was in it, thanks for the reminder. Her passing was horrific and the way she was treated by the Hollywood system a travesty. Its easy for those factors to become her defining features as even I have to admit I’ve largely forgotten what films I saw her in but hopefully there were good times and personal fulfilment outside of the times she became tabloid fodder.

cstolliver
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cstolliver
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October 13, 2022 12:35 pm

So well written. I’ve only seen a few of the films you cite, and those more than 20 years ago. You’ve made me want to see them.

Dance Fever
DanceFever
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October 13, 2022 1:14 pm

Thanks for the article, cappie.
I was vaguely familiar with Ms. Heche during her soap opera days but she came to my notice when I rented “The Wild Side” where she played opposite Christopher Walken and Joan Chen. A very strange movie but Heche’s total commitment to her part was amazing. I watched all of her movies afterwards and felt she was on the verge of hitting it big, but, as she admitted later, her big mistake was coming out with her relationship with Ellen DeGeneris.
She felt she should have waited until she was more established in Hollywood
but the blowback was too intense and her career suffered.
You would think, in the quote “more enlightened” times of the 21st century, she would be able to mount a comeback but her mental health problems seemed to override her talent and in the end she died a tragic and horrible death.

Edith G
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Edith G
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October 13, 2022 6:18 pm

Beautiful tribute it made me want to watch Cedar Rapids when I find it. I admit that I don’t remember seeing most of her movies (did she have a small part in I Know What You Did Last Summer?).

I don’t know exactly if she went through mental health issues, but I felt sorry about the circumstances that surrounded her death.

Aaron3000
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Aaron3000
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October 13, 2022 10:28 pm

I haven’t seen many of her movies. Donnie Brasco and I Know What You Did… for sure, although I’d forgotten she was in those. And of course two stinkers (not the fault of her performances though, you are correct): the Psycho remake (notable for the totally unnecessary sound effect during Norman’s peeping scene) and one of the competing volcano movies from 1997 (can’t recall if she was in the one actually called Volcano or the other one). I definitely need to seek out Cedar Rapids and Walking And Talking.

lovethisconcept
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October 14, 2022 12:31 pm

Psycho was a stinker, a bad idea poorly executed. But it didn’t hurt any of the other stars. Viggo Mortensen, Julianne Moore, and Vince Vaughn went on to some great roles, including Oscar nominations and an Oscar win for the first two. It was only Anne Heche who was affected, as if the failure of the film rested entirely on her performance, and not on a host of other factors, including the fact that the movie just didn’t need to be made.

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