The actress Anne Heche, 53, has died after driving her car into somebody else’s house at 90 mph.
I’m mildly upset because I liked watching her on screen. That had little to do with Heche’s thespian excellence, for I found her performances rather mannered and histrionic.
But my aesthetic standards leave room for compromise wherever good-looking actresses are concerned, and yes, I know how sexist this sounds. Moreover, moving right along from sexist to troglodyte, every time I admired Heche’s gamin pulchritude, I thought, “What a waste.”
For the actress was a lesbian, although she seems to have been versatile enough in her affections. Her omnivorous sexuality was only objectionable because everyone knew about it, and please don’t accuse me of moral relativism. All I’m saying is that even the strictest moralist couldn’t have objected to Heche’s lesbianism had she kept it under wraps.
But she didn’t. In fact, Heche turned it into a cause célèbre, much to the detriment of her career.
In 1997, when Heche was at her nubile best, she insisted on attending the premier of her film Volcano with her lover, Ellen DeGeneres. She had informed her Hollywood bosses of that intention beforehand, and they were furious.
You do that, they said, and you can kiss your Fox contract good-bye. Millions of dollars were at stake, but Heche valued her principles more. Even DeGeneres tried to talk her out of that attempt at career suicide, but Heche stuck to her guns.
As a result, she lost her contract and didn’t make another studio picture for the next 10 years. She managed to hold on to her role in the 1998 comedy Six Days, Seven Nights, but only because the studio was desperate.
The film had been intended as a vehicle for Julia Roberts, but she had walked off the set. Heche was brought in as a last-minute replacement, and the shooting couldn’t be delayed any longer, lesbianism or no. And Heche’s co-star, Harrison Ford, interceded on her behalf.
All those events unfolded 25 years ago, not an especially long time. But time can be measured not only chronologically, but also historically, culturally and socially. By those standards, 1997 wasn’t just a quarter-century ago. It was a different era, an age when even generally amoral Hollywood still had to take a bow towards conventional decency.
The obituaries praise Heche’s self-sacrificial heroism in her fight for LGBT+ causes. Obviously, had she taken the same stance in 2022, rather than 1997, she wouldn’t have to die to rate gasping plaudits.
If anything, today her career would suffer if she tried to stay in the closet. She’d be roundly castigated for cowardice, careerism and letting the side down. As it is, she is showered with posthumous accolades for courage in the face of reactionary forces.
However, those forces were never as reactionary as all that. Provided people’s private parts remained private, no one cared one way or the other (or both).
Staying with Hollywood, it was widely known that some of the top stars were open to unorthodox amorous options. Greta Garbo, Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, Lawrence Olivier, Marlon Brando were all homosexual to various extents – at a time when homosexuality was still against the law in many American states.
But those stars lived according to the maxim by that great aphorist, De La Rochefoucauld (d. 1680): “Hypocrisy is a tribute that vice pays to virtue.” They didn’t just play roles; they also played the game.
Hypocrisy has a bad name these days. However, not just civility but indeed civilisation would be impossible without it. Hypocrisy is inevitable when society lives by certain norms of public behaviour (and if it doesn’t, it’s not a society but an aggregate of atomised egoists).
Whatever such norms are, they will always seem too lax to some people and too stringent to others. But as long as they all agree to live by those norms or at least to pay lip service to them, not to flout them too vehemently or openly, society will remain stable.
Amazingly, the shock waves of the sexual revolution still hadn’t quite destroyed civilised hypocrisy by 1997, 30-odd years after the explosion. Now they have, and transmorality has been added to transvestism and transsexuality.
Yesterday’s virtues have become today’s sins, yesterday’s sins today’s virtues. That’s how it has always been with revolutions: the saints of the old regime become the demons of the new one and vice versa. And the accelerating moral and cultural decline of modernity is nothing if not revolutionary.
Hence it’s not surprising that the moral about-face happened. What’s surprising is that it happened so fast, and the story of Anne Heche provides a useful speedometer of the metamorphosis.
Anne Heche, RIP.