There’s a really fleeting moment in Walking and Talking that takes up an outsized amount of space in my mind when I think of Anne Heche. Filmed in 1995 and released a year later, this was the movie (indie filmmaker Nicole Holofcener’s first) the rising star made right before she got really big. It’s about a pair of best friends, Laura (Heche) and Amelia (Catherine Keener), who have been inseparable since they were kids but whose relationship becomes strained by Laura’s engagement to her boyfriend Frank (Todd Field). The moment I’m thinking of comes while the three of them are planning the wedding at Amelia’s family lake house. Laura has been motor-mouthing her way through how everything will go without consulting anyone else, which causes Frank to poke fun at her and Amelia to take her friend’s side. As she joins Laura by the lake and gets wrapped up in the bride-to-be’s plans, Frank, seated behind them says, “Excuse me? Ladies, excuse me. Do I have a say in all this?” Of course, that prompts Laura and Amelia to look at each other and simultaneously quip, “No,” before turning back to the lake. But a split second later, Laura whips around on one foot and laughs, a turn so quick Heche seems to nearly lose her balance.
The moment is impish and wired and completely adorable and, to me, is Heche through and through, and the reason she was such a hard actress to contain. Every time you saw her—5-foot-5 and tiny to the end—she looked like there was a spinning top inside her. It made her crackle, and it made her charismatic, but it also made you a little concerned for her. Like what would happen if all that whirling energy burst forth and took over?
Before Walking and Talking, Heche had a successful career as a soap actress, but her early movie career was less notable—until she auditioned for Holofcener. “She has a bawdy sense of humor, and we hit it off right away,” the filmmaker said in the Calgary Herald at the time. The shoot lasted only 25 days on a budget of $1 million. As Holofcener told Indiewire on the film’s 15th anniversary, “It was stressful but also a lot of fun.” Walking and Talking was released on July 17, 1996, but I remember finding it at Blockbuster that same summer. Someone on Twitter described it as the quintessential video store movie and its cover even shared the Blockbuster colors—blue and yellow. I assume it was a movie meant for a slightly older crowd—I was only 16 at the time—considering the best friends are I think supposed to be in their late 20s (though Keener was in her late 30s during production). But the boundaryless friendship was very familiar—that best friend you call 900 times a day, who you constantly consult, who you tell everything to and vice versa—as was the idea that it might not last forever.
In the film, Heche is clearly playing the more conventional of the two. She is the blond one (though she hates her wavy hair), the one the waiter flirts with, the one with the long-term relationship, the one studying to be a psychologist. She is outwardly the more together one. Keener is the brunette, the one who had the awkward phase and borrows her friend’s much better dry clean-only clothes, the one whose boyfriend broke up with her because she made him too important, the one who only gets attention from “the ugly guy” at the video store, the one working in the classifieds. And yet, despite playing the friend who has a therapist and remains sort of obsessed with her ex (Liev Schreiber), Keener, who was older and already an indie name from her work with Tom DiCillo, brings a kind of zen quality to her role, a kind of chillness. It’s actually funny that she and Heche were cast the way they were—physically they fit their roles, but underneath it’s less clear.
And yet they are both perfect. As Laura, Heche’s emotions flicker along the changing cadence of her voice, in a kind of controlled volatility. In one scene, Laura’s jewelry designer boyfriend presents her with an oversized starburst diamond ring (they have an ongoing inside joke about the crassness of his commercial work). “Jesus, you designed this?” Laura says. “This liiived in your MIND—God, I LOVE this one.” In another, the couple has spent some time apart over a mole (it’s a long story—Frank didn’t want to get it checked, but Laura kept asking him to). They meet at a restaurant, both of them cowed. So when Frank hands Laura a box she feels ashamed. Until she opens it. “Is this your MOLE?” she asks, her expression turning to a grimace. “This is your mole. You. Gave. Me. Your. Fucking. Mole?” As he explains he got it removed and biopsied, Laura flits from loud anger to quiet earnestness to mockery. “So you gave it to me in a BOX,” she says, almost punching him with the word.
But it’s with Keener that Heche is the most arresting. It’s with her that she is comfortable enough to almost toss off certain lines, and sometimes even laugh through her own dialogue. In one scene, Laura suggests they put down the sick cat they share because her treatment will be expensive, and Amelia accuses her of being cold. Laura ramps up, “I AM N . . . ,” before deflating and saying quickly, “Alright, I’ll split it with you.” In another scene, driving to the lake house, Amelia is pissed at Laura for referring to “the ugly guy” on her answering machine, which he overheard. In the front seat with Frank, Laura steals a glance at him as she trails off, “It didn’t really seem like he was right for you ANYway,” before covering her face and laughing. “Well, NOW HE ISN’T,” Amelia says. Noticing her friend is actually serious, Laura composes herself quickly and earnestly says, “I’m sorry.”
I don’t know what was going on inside Heche when she made Walking and Talking, and it wasn’t much covered by the press at the time, as far as I can tell. This appears in part to do with Miramax releasing the film at the same time as the much splashier Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Emma. (Harvey Weinstein’s studio was known for angling for Oscars and he likely thought Douglas McGrath’s film had more potential; it did end up winning best costume design.) “We didn’t even have a premiere or a party,” Holofcener told Indiewire. “I was invited to the Emma premiere. I think that was my consolation prize.” There are a couple of photos of Heche at Sundance for Walking and Talking in January 1996, months before the film’s theatrical release. She has been caught by the photographer in line at the box office, snow falling on her illuminated face. She sees him and then smiles, virtually make-up free, in her winter hat and coat. She seems to be on her own. The image is in stark opposition to the very glam red carpet shots of her that would follow a year later, side by side with her super famous girlfriend.
I would like to think making Walking and Talking was a happy time for Heche, or at least a calm one, before everything went out of control. Before she started doing disaster movies like Volcano and co-starring with A-listers like Harrison Ford (Six Days, Seven Nights). Before she started dating Ellen. And way way way before she crashed that car into a house and died at only 53. I like to imagine her 27 years ago, on the set of Holofcener’s first movie, laughing while trying on grotesquely huge wedding dresses as Keener delivers her lines about having sex with a video store guy. I like to imagine Heche, as Laura, grabbing the butt of one of those meringue frocks and confessing resignedly, “I’m farting.” And Keener, as Amelia, replying, “I thought so.” And I like to imagine them walking down the stairs arm in arm at the end of the film, Heche throwing her head back in laughter at something we can’t hear as Billy Bragg sings, “Must I paint you a picture / About the way that I feel? / You know my love for you is strong, girl / You know my love for you is real.”