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A Closet Door Opens

Casting: How accepting is Hollywood? The comedian's mate, Anne Heche, might be the one who'll find out.

May 02, 1997|ELAINE DUTKA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For months, the public had been gearing up for Wednesday night's episode of "Ellen" during which Ellen DeGeneres' alter ego would become the first openly gay lead character on network TV. Last week, another plot twist was added to the mix: Anne Heche, the 27-year-old co-star of the No. 1 movie, "Volcano," publicly announced that she was the comedian's mate.

The revelation sent ripples through Hollywood, sparking debate about the role of sexuality in casting, and Heche dismissed her agent and manager, seemingly in a disagreement over the timing of her announcement. In a bottom-line town that prides itself on tolerance, have things changed since Rock Hudson's days in the closet? As it happens, filmmakers who have worked with Heche predict she'll be untainted by the disclosure.

"Anne is an extremely attractive, sexy woman . . . and I say that as a straight man," said producer Mark Johnson, who worked with Heche on "Donnie Brasco." "It's how she plays on-screen, not off. I believe Hollywood will take the high road."

Jane Rosenthal, producer of the upcoming "Wag the Dog," a Barry Levinson comedy in which Heche stars with Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro and Woody Harrelson, agrees. "It was studio system which kept Rock Hudson in the closet," she said. "Now there's far less control over the stars' lives."

Heche, who met DeGeneres at Vanity Fair's Oscar party at Morton's and attended the "Volcano" premiere with her, was unavailable to comment for this article.

She did, however, appear with DeGeneres on Wednesday's "Oprah." Ever since she saw her father leading a double life and dying of AIDS, Heche said, she had been determined to avoid duplicity. But not until she spotted DeGeneres "across a crowded room" did she even think about being gay.

"No one [was] more confused than me," said Heche, who, in a twist, was one of the actresses considered for the part of Ellen's girlfriend on the "coming out" episode, a role ultimately landed by Laura Dern. "But it was very clear from the moment I saw her that this was more powerful than anything I could have controlled. . . . It's very exciting to be a representative not only of truth but of love. I have no fear about this--it's the easiest thing in my life I've ever done. . . . I'm sorry for people who think it's 'yuck'--this is heaven to me."

Though she too was taken with Heche, DeGeneres acknowledged, she was apprehensive at first. "I told her, 'Get away from it--you're straight,' " she said. "I don't want anything to do with you. . . . You don't know what you're doing."

Known for her fearless, offbeat portrayals, Heche has been on the fast track ever since winning a daytime Emmy playing twins on the soap opera "Another World" in 1993. After starring in the independent film "Pie in the Sky," she went on to make the acclaimed "Walking and Talking," "The Juror," "Donnie Brasco," "Volcano" and "Wag the Dog."

20th Century Fox was said to be anxious about the revelation as the nearly $100-million "Volcano" was set to premiere--a contention the studio denies.

Her next movie, a romantic comedy titled "6 Days, 7 Nights," is due to go before the cameras on July 7. The actress stars as a magazine editor stranded on a South Pacific island with a cargo pilot played by Harrison Ford. A statement released by the filmmakers stressed that Heche is "definitely in the film." Reports that the actor was upset with her revelation are unfounded, says Roger Birnbaum, chairman of Caravan Pictures.

"Harrison, director Ivan Reitman and I all found out about Anne's homosexuality before we hired her and it made no difference to us," he said. "Harrison had veto power over casting and was immediately supportive. If Anne did something heinous, that might interfere with the public's ability to accept her in the role. The only thing she did was love another human being. . . . I can't imagine why it's an issue."

But insiders say that "6 Days, 7 Nights" casting director Michael Chinich visited Heche's representatives at the Endeavor Agency and discussed her relationship with DeGeneres. Given the filmmakers' discomfort with the situation, her agent, Doug Robinson, and manager, Julie Yorn, suggested she keep things under wraps until negotiations were complete.

One highly placed agent defends that course of action. "Heche's career is ascending to the skies," he said. "Her managers felt a responsibility to advise her about the potential ramifications of this very public announcement so she could make a smart analysis of her options. Though they were supportive of her choice, she regarded the advice as less supportive than she had hoped."

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Another factor, said someone close to the proceedings, was the fact that the two had known each other for less than a month. "The advice had less to do with sexuality than with fact that this was a very new relationship," he said. "You want to protect it and see how it evolves before you expose it to the world."

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