From there, her star grew, becoming virtually omnipresent in 1997 and 1998 with films like “Donnie Brasco,” “Wag the Dog,” and “Volcano.” Granted, some of this was due to the exposure that came with being Ellen Degeneres’ girlfriend (revealed two months after “Donnie Brasco” came out, eclipsing her beautifully brittle turn there as Johnny Depp’s tough-as-nails wife), one of the first out gay couples in Hollywood.
Despite the headlines, media exposure, and cracks about her sexuality, Heche continued to move mountains as a confident screen presence. Sure, “Volcano” was bad, but Heche moves through the material with bitten-lip confidence, spitting out technobabble with a scientist’s nerve. “Six Days, Seven Nights” may feel like a warmed-over riff on “Romancing the Stone,” but Heche bickers admirably against a grizzled Harrison Ford, her turn as a fast-talking career woman stuck with Ford’s dirtbag pilot not too far removed from Mae West and Claudette Colbert.
And yet, she did feel different from those classic leading ladies and her sweeter, more wholesome contemporaries like Sandra Bullock or Julia Roberts. Her delivery was sharp and deceptively intelligent, a wily smile hidden underneath the short-cropped blonde hair she’d rock through many of her ‘90s roles. She wasn’t there to placate the men around her or serve as eye candy; she had her own designs and was unafraid to enact them.
Heche was most illuminating in roles that carried a hint of danger. Even in Gus Van Sant’s risible, unnecessary remake of “Psycho,” one of his smarter choices was casting Heche in the role of Marion Crane, a desperate woman resolved to escape the world of predatory men and tragically fated to succumb to it. Films like “Wag the Dog” and “Return to Paradise” show the darker edges of Heche’s persona, playing foils and manipulators more than capable of rewriting reality to suit their purposes.
This would be the beginning of Heche’s lifelong stardom in a just world. But her relationship with Ellen was just too tawdry to leave alone, and a never-ending deluge of homophobia and misogyny in the press and pop culture quickly marginalized her. At the premiere for “Volcano,” she was warned that she’d lose her contract with Warner Bros. if she brought DeGeneres as her date; Heche chose to do it anyway because screw the optics, and suddenly a $10 million picture deal went up in flames.
If Hollywood wanted to punish her for being a lesbian, her breakup with DeGeneres and subsequent dating of men after that just made America want to punish her further. As a short-haired lesbian in the public eye, we demonized her as a deviant. Going back to men after that (DeGeneres would be the only woman Heche ever dated) made her not bisexual, but a hypocrite in the eyes of an unforgiving public.