Phoenix will rise again, but will anyone rescue Anne Heche's career from the flames?

As the talented Heche re-surfaces, is Hollywood's negative attitude to her breakdown, and its relief that Joaquin Phoenix's was fake, a sign of its unease about real mental illness?

Like much of the film-going world, my eye was caught this week by the re-emergence of a Hollywood star with a history of mental health issues that sent their once-glittering career off the rails. But I'm not thinking of Joaquin Phoenix, protagonist of what we all know for sure now is the hoax documentary I'm Still Here – although that does make for an interesting comparison. Because the person on my mind has been Anne Heche.

Like Phoenix, Heche also has a new movie out today, although not one that ever inspired any great debate about its place on the divide between fact and fiction. Her performance comes in the more prosaic setting of The Other Guys, the slapstick cop-opera vehicle for Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg in which she pops up early on in what looks at first glance a major role. However, and I can honestly say I'm not giving anything vital away plot-wise here, it then proves anything but – in fact, she promptly disappears, barely to be seen again.

There may have been untold scenes left on the cutting-room floor – maybe it was only ever a bit part. Either way, it's a shame. After all, back when she first broke through in the distant 90s, Heche looked if not exactly a safe bet then a significant new presence among Hollywood actresses. For me, the proof of her talent came in the small-but-pivotal role of the wife of Johnny Depp's undercover Fed in Donnie Brasco. Just as good, however dubious the film itself, was her turn in Gus Van Sant's shot-for-shot Psycho remake. Playing the ill-fated Marion Crane, it gave her the perfect showcase for her professional USP – jittery, clearly laden with some heavy baggage, never entirely sympathetic but too mixed-up to be written off as a villainess.

Even then though, the performances often existed in the shadows of tabloid interest in her personal life – chiefly her relationship with Ellen DeGeneres. But the real crisis came later, in a spectacular meltdown a decade ago in which she wandered into a strange family's house and claimed, among other things, to be the second coming of Christ.

Since then, despite appearing to have recovered her health, her second act has pretty much stalled in the less credible corners of US TV. Among the handful of movie jobs, the best and most high profile came in Birth, director Jonathan Glazer's tale of apparent reincarnation in which she took on the risky business of playing an unrepentant mistress – and did so with a startling, flinty bravery. That aside though, cinema hasn't wanted to know. It would be nice to think that mainstream exposure (however brief) in the likes of The Other Guys and a role in the next movie from Youth in Revolt director Miguel Arteta might change that – but 10 years after she touched bottom, the jury remains out.

Such is what happens when the film industry gets a whiff of mental illness – and which does feel like a jarring contrast with the giggly frolics of I'm Still Here. Certainly, it's not hard to scent a certain double standard about women at work here – and to recall the sad example of Sean Young, Blade Runner's tragic replicant Rachael, who as Heche was starting out was seeing her career implode amid lurid tales of her troubled psyche. Whereas you suspect that now it's out in the open that Phoenix's Letterman-baiting was a wheeze all along, the big-league roles will swiftly start up again.

But I don't think that's just to do with gender, just as it's not wholly down to Phoenix being more successful than Heche or Young at the time of his comedy breakdown. It's both those things – but it's also tied up with our terrified unease about real mental illness, and the comforting implication of Phoenix's just-for-laughs routine that it can be as easily cured as shaving off your beard. One gets you a faux-guerilla advertising campaign with your hirsute profile rendered as hipster iconography. The other still ends your career.


Danny Leigh

The GuardianTramp

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