How 'Finding Nemo' Launched Ellen DeGeneres' Comeback

Gwynne Watkins
Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

Ellen DeGeneres earlier this year (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

Finding Dory, opening in theaters on Friday, stars one of the most popular entertainers in the United States: Ellen DeGeneres, who is currently hosting the thirteenth season of her Emmy-winning daytime talk show. She’s also a two-time Oscar host, spokeswoman for American Express and Cover Girl, a former American Idol judge, and taker of the most retweeted selfie in history. But none of this was true when DeGeneres first voiced the character of Dory, the cheery blue tang with short-term memory loss, for 2003’s Finding Nemo. In fact, the comedian was at the lowest point in her career. “I went through a phase, whether it was true or not, where my perception was, ‘Everyone hates me now,’” DeGeneres said in an interview the year that Nemo was released. Here’s how an animated movie about a forgetful fish helped DeGeneres get back on her feet.

Related: Red Carpet Flashback! 20 Years of Ellen DeGeneres

DeGeneres, now 58, rose to fame through her quirky, self-deprecating stand-up in the 1980s. Like many comedians of the time, she channeled her comedy into a sitcom: Ellen, which ran from 1994 to 1998. The show was popular, but not particularly headline-grabbing… until DeGeneres declared herself a lesbian on the cover of Time magazine (”Yep, I’m Gay”) in April 1997. The coming-out profile has since become somewhat of a standard public-relations move for celebrities bold enough to leave the closet, but at the end of the 20th century, it was still a jaw-dropper. Even more unprecedented was her decision to have her television character, Ellen Morgan, come out as a lesbian as well. (DeGeneres timed her personal announcement to coincide with the airing of the episode, which was preceded by a season’s worth of “Ellen might be gay” hints.) Although gay-centric TV plots were becoming increasingly common by the mid-90s — including Friends’ lesbian wedding episode in 1996 — there were no gay lead characters on prime time.

Ellen DeGeneres and Laura Dern on the coming-out episode of ‘Ellen’ (Touchstone Television/ Courtesy Everett Collection)

It turned out to be a highly controversial move. The coming-out episode of Ellen attracted a series-high 42 million viewers, but scared away advertisers, including Chrysler, Wendy’s, and JCPenney (for whom DeGeneres, ironically, later became a spokesperson). Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell spoke for many of the more homophobic objectors, saying of Ellen, “If she chooses to live this way, that’s her business…But we don’t want her dumping that into the hearts and minds of the kids of America.” The backlash extended even to the episode’s one-shot guest stars. Oprah Winfrey, who played Ellen Morgan’s therapist, got what she has since described as “the worst hate mail I’ve ever received.” Laura Dern, after playing the lesbian who helped Ellen Morgan realize she was gay, has said she could not get another acting job for over a year.

But DeGeneres herself seemed to be doing just fine. “Now, I feel completely comfortable with myself, and I don’t have to be fearful about something damaging my career if it gets out, because now I’m in control of it — sort of,” she told Time. She and her new girlfriend, up-and-coming actress Anne Heche, seemed blissfully happy (even though their PDA inspired one fellow guest at the 1997 White House Correspondents’ Dinner to call them a “freak show”). “I think it’s forever. That’s a good feeling,” DeGeneres told Diane Sawyer.

And then the public turned on her. Ratings for Ellen declined as the show gently explored the main character’s new life as a gay woman, and ABC began opening the (extremely non-explicit) sitcom with an “adult content” warning. A year after the coming-out episode aired, Ellen was cancelled. As showrunner Tim Doyle described it to The AV Club last year, “By the spring of 1998, the tiny hysterical anti-Ellen/anti-Ellen backlash had broadened into a seeming cultural fatigue with the topic of Ellen’s gayness.” Though DeGeneres had never tried to politicize her sexuality, she was accused of pushing an agenda on the American public. The backlash extended even to the gay community: Elton John, one of the few other out-of-the-closet celebrities, told the press that DeGeneres should just “shut up and be funny.” (“You can imagine how much that hurt me. I had done three interviews!” DeGeneres told Oprah Winfrey in 2015. She wasn’t exaggerating: Despite all the press hype, DeGeneres had only spoken to Oprah, Time, and Diane Sawyer.) In 1999, the comedian announced that she was taking a hiatus from Hollywood.

A dramatic breakup with Heche took DeGeneres to an even lower point: The day after the couple announced their split in September 2000, Heche showed up at a stranger’s house, took a shower, and starting babbling about taking a spaceship to heaven. Within a year, Heche was married to a man and promoting a memoir about her struggles with mental illness. As an LA Times reporter bluntly put it in an interview with DeGeneres the following year: “The image you two presented now seems like a fraud. How do you deal with that?” (A bewildered DeGeneres replied, “She walked out the door and I haven’t spoken to her since, I don’t have the answers… What I don’t mind saying is, it was the first time I ever had my heart broken.”) The comedian attempted to bounce back with a new sitcom, The Ellen Show on CBS; it was cancelled after just 13 episodes.

And that’s when a certain blue fish entered the picture. “‘I hadn’t worked at all,’ DeGeneres explained to Entertainment Tonight while promoting Finding Dory last fall. "People don’t realize that, because it took three years to do Finding Nemo. In the time that [The Ellen Show] was canceled, while I was doing nothing, [writer/director] Andrew Stanton had heard my voice on TV and how rambling I was and how I never stayed on topic, and he wrote Dory with me in mind.“

When Finding Nemo finally opened in May 2003, it was a smash hit beyond what anyone involved had imagined and became the highest-grossing animated film at the time. (It’s still Pixar’s third biggest money-maker of all time.) And critics agreed that DeGeneres’ amnesiac character stole the film. “Dory… has a lousy short-term memory, but a great capacity for friendship and the good luck to be voiced with perfect pitch by Ellen DeGeneres,” wrote EW’s Lisa Schwarzbaum. Slate called Dory “one of the most inspired sidekicks a cartoon has ever had,” and The New York Times praised DeGeneres as “the movie’s comic center.”

Nemo reminded audiences how much they liked DeGeneres’ idiosyncratic comedy, regardless of the cultural lightning rod she’d become. The film was DeGeneres’ first professional triumph in years, and kicked off a swift comeback, which included an HBO stand-up special (Here and Now), a bestselling book of comedic essays (The Funny Thing Is…), and most significantly, the debut of her daytime talk show in September 2003. "That was a hard sell. A lot of people didn’t want to buy the show,” she told People. Nevertheless, the upbeat chat show was an instant success. “I’ve come from a place where there was so much criticism, so much negative stuff,” DeGeneres told the New York Times in December 2003. “Now it seems like everything is so flattering and positive. I’m savoring this.” (Her personal life was also in a good place: She and actress Portia de Rossi started dating in 2004 and have been married since 2008.)

Watch a compilation of all the times Ellen lobbied for a sequel:

For more than a decade, the absence of a Finding Nemo sequel was a running gag on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. And then the host got a call from Stanton, asking if she’d be interested in a Dory-centric follow-up. Finding Dory, opening today, has garnered rave reviews and is on track to break the animated opening weekend record. The sexual orientation of its star is completely irrelevant — which is extraordinary, considering that less than 20 years ago, DeGeneres visited Primetime Live to defend herself against accusations that she had become “too gay” for mainstream audiences. (“[Ellen] became a program about a lead character who was gay every single week, and I just think that was too much for people,” ABC chief Robert Iger, who cancelled DeGeneres’ show, told Diane Sawyer on the episode. Sawyer responded, “Well, she is gay every single week.”)  The extreme backlash and scrutiny that DeGeneres faced, simply for being the first major American celebrity to come out of the closet, seems almost comical in this post-Glee era. But the truth is, it nearly cost her her career. And DeGeneres still credits Dory’s cheerful catchphrase, “Just keep swimming,” with keeping her afloat during those rough years. 

"It was weird that [Stanton] was writing [“just keep swimming”] at the same time that I was really wondering what was going to happen to me,” DeGeneres told the AP earlier this week. “[Now] it’s really weird timing that Dory is looking for her home, and I’m in a place where I am home. I feel really, really amazed that I was able to come back to this point.“

Watch the ‘Dory’ cast talk about “What would Dory do?”