Film: Out of the closet, into the fire

`Out' is no longer cool in Hollywood, if ever it was. Take Anne Heche: a bankable star turned film promoter's nightmare.

Does anybody really believe Harrison Ford when he says he doesn't care that Anne Heche, the leading lady in his latest film, Six Days, Seven Nights, is a lesbian? "Frankly, I don't give a damn," he has doggedly replied when the subject is inevitably broached. But the controversial casting of Heche, the "fiancee"of America's infamous lesbian TV star Ellen DeGeneres, in a romantic role opposite Ford - who has built a career playing steadfast, masculine heroes in hit movies such as the Indiana Jones trilogy, Presumed Innocent, and Air Force One - seems to have backfired. It appears that Heche's much-hyped relationship with DeGeneres has become a stumbling-block for Disney in their attempts to promote the film. In a recent poll, 68 per cent of respondents said their decision to see the romantic thriller had been adversely affected by the choice of Heche as Ford's love interest.

That sentiment was echoed by one high-powered studio executive, who maintained that "the only way Six Days, Seven Nights works is if you buy into the premise that the couple are falling in love. But that's almost impossible to do because you have a female lead better known for her sexual preferences than for her screen persona." Heche, of course, was thrust into the limelight last year when her lover, the actress Ellen DeGeneres, declared to all and sundry that she is a lesbian (and she also announced that, yep, her TV character is gay too). For a while, the couple were omnipresent. They cuddled up at premieres, flaunted their sexuality on the Oprah Winfrey show, and looked as if they were joined at the hip while attending a White House state dinner.

Everyone I talked to had become sick to death of them both. So, eventually, did ABC, which yanked DeGeneres' mid-rated sitcom from its line-up for next year. Sadly, the reviews for Six Days, Seven Nights concentrated not so much on Heche's overall performance as on her portrayal of a heterosexual woman. "Much too whiny," criticised The Hollywood Reporter.

So how is any of this even remotely sad? Because Heche, a talented actress, has been denied the greatest gift any actor can have: The ability to surprise us. All the hullabaloo concerning her sexuality and her lifestyle has undermined her value as a performer. By being so public about private matters, she seems to have inadvertently typecast herself for ever.

Why? Because we know far too much about her. The name of her dog, which side of the bed she prefers to sleep on, even the colour of her toilet paper. Several critics have wondered whether she would have been cast in the part if she had not already been living with Ellen. I suspect not. Not that it matters. When we see Six Days, Seven Nights, we think, "Is that really the lesbian girl who lives with Ellen? I wonder what she sees in her."

In 10 years' time, this won't matter. They will either be married, in which case we will be tired of them, or they will have broken up, in which case those of us with short memories will have forgotten that they ever cohabited. (Although as the movie started its run, that's all we could think about.) Heche couldn't surprise us because we knew too much about her.

Also, whether she admits it or not (she doesn't), her lesbianism gets in the way of intimate moments she shares with Ford on screen. You know it's difficult for them to kiss, because he's really not her cup of tea. Some actresses openly admit they enjoy feigning moments of passion with handsome leading men. "Hey, it's not exactly a stretch to find Brad Pitt attractive," observed Minnie Driver. For Heche, though, audiences know it's a huge pretence and the moment is overshadowed by what we know.

Of course, Heche is not the first high-profile lesbian to be maligned for her sexuality. Long before DeGeneres and Heche, notable performers such as Sandra Bernhard and kd lang were already out there, extolling the virtues of a lesbian life. Was it merely a coincidence that the downward spiral of their careers occurred not long after this bold proclamation?

Their prominence in the early Nineties seemed to indicate a triumphant resurgence in the lesbian movement which had flaked off into grumbling factions and separatist groups in the Seventies. The stereotype lesbian was a girlie-girl, a trend-setter and go-go dancer. And the steamy lambada scene with Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct set the tone.

There was Melissa Etheridge and her lover celebrating lesbian motherhood on the cover of Newsweek, the popularity of writers such as Jeanette Winterson and Dorothy Allison (who posed for The New York Times magazine in biker gear); lesbian movies such as Bound to Xena: Warrior Princess, a television character who has become a role model for teenage females and a huge lesbian cult hit as well.

However, the climate has changed again, and high-profile lesbians don't seem so ecstatic about coming out now. "I don't care to define myself as a lesbian," Bernhard, a former playmate of Madonna, told Out magazine recently. "I hate that word. It's a nasty, dirty word. It's not a glamorous word. It's not a sexy word. It's dry. It's colourless."

The problem is that our pop culture wants everything and everyone nailed down, neatly labelled and explicit. The intellectual practitioners may preach a porous unisexuality in which genders are blurred, and males and females share each other's clothes, but the tabloid press, the dominant influence on media culture today, works from an entirely different agenda.

Its job is to squeeze out confessions or, failing that, to get the goods. Hence all those off-guard, grainy "Gotcha!" shots of a female celebrity with her "lady friend" that appear in the American tabloids almost every week. Tabloid foragers assume that each celebrity has a private and a public face, like two sides of a playing-card, and that when the two sides clash, it's open season.

Some of the celebrities who come out - Rupert Everett and George Michael spring to mind - do so less from pride than from battle fatigue. They're tired of being dogged by the media. Of course, no one should stay in the closet if they want to be out. But in the case of Anne Heche, at the start of what I'm sure she hopes will be a long and distinguished film career, discretion might have been the better part of valour.

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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