Anne Heche’s life did not have to, and should not have, ended as it did.
And yet so much about the actress’s death, at 53, following a tragic but heavily reported car crash in Los Angeles on August 5, feels so troublingly preordained. So familiar. That is what makes her death, and what led to it, such an unmitigated tragedy.
The starkness of her final hours echoes the recent deaths of legendary performers Amy Winehouse, Michael Jackson and Prince. Heche never reached the heights of fame they did, despite her considerable talent, but that’s a fact that only compounds the sadness of her story. Yet Heche’s closing chapter bears lessons from those earlier deaths.
There’s no getting around it: Anne Heche was, based on all available evidence, immensely irresponsible in the moments before the car crash that led to her death. Her negligence not only cost the actor her life but damaged the lives of innocent victims. As she was hospitalized in a coma, Alec Baldwin was savaged by online critics following his simplistic call that everyone should be “sending their support and love” to his one-time co-star while she was still alive; critics griped he was ignoring the other victims of Heche’s actions that day.
On the morning of Aug. 5, Heche bought a bright red wig from the delighted owner of Glass Hair Design in Venice before cruising through the West Side. She apparently crashed into an apartment building’s garage before speeding away, nearly taking out a passerby. The wig sat in her Mini Cooper next to what photos published later seemed to show was a red-capped liquor bottle—though a toxicology test reportedly showed no evidence of alcohol in her system.
After Heche swerved away from the garage and barely avoided hitting that pedestrian, she struck a Jaguar and then careened at least 30 feet into a Mar Vista home, igniting an inferno that required 59 firefighters working 65 minutes to quell. Lynne Mishele, whose home was engulfed in the blaze, stood barefoot afterward in what little remained of her material possessions. She’d cried for help to save her pets, a tortoise and two dogs. Mishele’s house was totally destroyed and she was reportedly hit by debris and suffered smoke-related injuries.
As neighbors helped Mishele to safety, the fire rapidly consumed everything around it while Heche remained pinned to her vehicle, having sustained burns and a severe anoxic brain injury. Smoke inhalation severed the supply of oxygen to her brain, literally sucking the life out of her. In a horrifying moment captured in helicopter footage, Heche, while seemingly unconscious, rises from a stretcher while being transported into an ambulance. At some point after, Heche fell into a coma.
A week after the crash, doctors at Grossman Burn Center at West Hills Hospital and Medical Center declared Heche brain dead. She was kept on life support until her organs could be harvested for donation, as per her wishes.
The Los Angeles Police Department has closed its investigation into Heche for a possible felony DUI traffic collision, a move that will help to close this particular tragedy. But the prosaic description of the crime that Heche could have been charged with, had she lived, continues to propel the casual horror of L.A.’s local news. Flip to KTLA in the middle of a slow news day and more often than you’d like to imagine, there’s a similar hit-and-run story unfolding, or something even worse—such as when, on the day before Heche’s crash, traveling nurse Nicole Lorraine Linton sped through a red light and killed five people and an unborn child. This sort of public carnage, wreaked on any given weekday, is becoming another of the city’s simmering and largely ignored crises.
According to LAPD data, as we emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021 and got back on the road, 289 people were killed in traffic collisions—that’s 21% more than in 2020. Sure, we were locked down for a large part of that year, but it’s also 19% over the same period in 2019. And a total of 1,465 people were severely injured in car accidents in 2021, making outgoing Mayor Eric Garcetti’s goal of ending traffic deaths by 2025 look like a farce.
The question is whether we’re willing to face what’s often actually to blame here: Not just substance abuse but mental illnesses that are its common comorbidities. Psychological disorders significantly affect driving outcomes; one 2017 study found that depression and anxiety could increase the odds of road accidents by 2.4 and 2.7-fold, respectively. In the U.S., it’s estimated that around two-thirds of depression cases go undiagnosed. Many more are untreated, much less recognized as serious warnings of potential road catastrophes.
Heche was remarkably candid about her own history of mental illness stemming in part from childhood abuse. Meanwhile, Linton’s lawyer indicated that she has issues with her mental health; investigators revealed that she was involved in up to 13 wrecks prior to the fiery explosion this month, during which she’d been barreling into traffic at 90 mph. Detectives say they are working to determine whether Linton had been taking any prescriptions prior to the crash. Far from outliers that should be stigmatized and shamed, Heche and Linton’s apparent unchecked mental health issues need to be understood as part of the fabric of Angelenos’ larger, everyday confrontation with mortality behind the wheel.
The reality of L.A.’s deadly roadways isn’t all that feels weightily symbolic in Heche’s untimely death. In order for a traffic collision to be considered a felony, the driver must have been impaired and/or injured others. It seems Heche was guilty on both counts. Authorities drew Heche’s blood while she lay in a coma to test for substances. They reportedly found cocaine that may have been laced with fentanyl; additional testing is now required to rule out any substances that were administered in the hospital, police say. Cocaine and fentanyl, an opioid sometimes used for pain management in hospitals, both loom large over L.A.’s party scene and have played an outsized role in earth-shattering celebrity overdose deaths in the past decade.
Cocaine users who have never ingested an opioid in their lives, and don’t intend to, may snort a line of coke without knowing that fentanyl is coursing through their body. It’s impossible to say if Heche was in this exact situation—experiencing a downer 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the CDC—when she was hoping for the lift of an upper. The owner of Venice’s Glass Hair Design said that Heche had acted like “a sweet little girl” in his shop. That suggests a possible psychotic episode, and indeed, back in 2001, Heche told Larry King, “I never told anybody that I heard voices and spoke to God.” Instead, the actor guessed at a diagnosis of schizophrenia. But it’s far from clear she ever really got the help she needed.
There is the last, Hollywood-imprinted manner of her death that can’t be forgotten: Heche was 53 years old but seemed so much younger. This may be because, despite an undeniable wealth of talent, she never flickered as brightly as she could have had she lived a healthier life in a more supportive, humane industry. Heche said that in her early years, she was sexually molested by her father. In interviews, she explained that this caused her to escape into a “fourth dimension” fantasy world in which she believed she was from another planet and had another name: Celestia. The abuse shadowed her, trailing a life that she admitted was full of “crazy.”
“I was a perfect hider. I was raised to hide. I was raised to pretend. I was raised to always tell everybody that everything was fine, and even though I was in therapy for years I never told anybody that I had another personality,” she told King in the 2001 interview.
That “perfect” hiding is a disquieting hallmark of mental illness and addiction. But Heche also bore the hallmarks of celebrities who left us too soon, consumed by self-destruction. Like Winehouse, Heche was the victim of unrealistic expectations put on beautiful female stars. Like Jackson, childhood trauma gnawed at her for her entire life. She had a tendency to withdraw and had the funds to shield herself from public scrutiny. And like Prince, the increasing lethality of street drug culture may have helped drag her to her grave.
It’s disappointing to see Heche now reduced to a star “known for ‘90s film roles” in certain headlines—even if it’s an accurate description of when she peaked in Hollywood. While she had once commanded mainstream audiences with back-to-back hit movies, her relationship with Ellen DeGeneres and clear psychological imbalance forced her onto tabloid covers as a Hollywood curiosity. While she blamed homophobia for her career decline, it’s just as likely that erratic behavior led to her being ostracized in certain corners of Hollywood. Whatever the case, she never quite recovered her footing. Now that she’s gone, we have to reckon with our own role in her downward trajectory. We can’t laugh or ogle at this one any longer.
At her best, Heche brought a natural spark and irreplaceable charisma and chemistry to mostly middle-of-the-road movies like The Juror (1996), starring opposite Baldwin; the crash-landing-leads-to-love two-hander Six Days Seven Days with Harrison Ford (1998); and the same year’s Gus Van Sant-directed shot-for-shot Psycho remake that went nowhere.
Heche also summoned rare spirit in overlooked gems like 1997’s surprisingly smart gangster drama Donnie Brasco and, from the same year, the wickedly funny political-gamesmanship satire Wag the Dog. This was a delicate blonde who was also not to be underestimated, who helped keep shows like Ally McBeal far more compelling to watch. She radiated chutzpah when she entered the frame. These are mostly forgettable projects that have vanished in the churn of middlebrow Hollywood content. But what matters is what Heche brought to the projects. The thing most who became her fans thought when we saw Heche in anything: “Oh, wow. How refreshing!”
She was a glimmer, always, we could only briefly hold our eyes on. Anne Heche and all of us deserved so much more.
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