In a pique of nostalgia, I watched Donna Deitch’s lesbian classic Desert Hearts (1985) again the other night, then trolled on line to find out that it’s recently been re-released as a “vintage” DVD with additional footage and cast interviews. In fact, YouTube now features footage of Deitch shooting the film’s love scene (famous as the first on mainstream film to treat lesbian sexuality seriously). Various interviews with Deitch and stars Patricia Charbonneau and Helen Shaver are also available in short clips on line. And in an odd coincidence, the same evening I watched the DVD, I turned on a (thankfully) new episode of Law and Order: SVU to find that Charbonneau was among the guest stars and that Shaver had directed. A cosmic link indeed, and nice to see that they’re still working together after cooking up all that on-screen chemistry 23 years ago.
Meanwhile, the film itself holds up very well as the prototypical lesbian coming-out comedy/melodrama. Shaver plays Columbia English professor Vivian Bell, who arrives in Reno, Nevada, from New York for a no-fault divorce in 1959. She emerges slightly less than fresh off her train, wearing a glorious fitted 1950s-style suit that Shaver carries off, along with the rest of her costume wardrobe, with great style and beauty. Picked up by the alcoholic ranch-owner Frances (Audra Lindley, vivid as the inadvertently butch rancher), Bell reluctantly settles in to the slow cadence of life on the ranch as she waits the compulsory six weeks for her divorce to be final.
I’d forgotten how beautiful Reno appears in the film. The red soil, rolling hills, and desperately blue sky practically blind the bookish Vivian and immediately lure the viewer into the story. One of the film’s pleasures is watching Shaver open up to the environment, as well as to the idiosyncrasies of life on the ranch. While the other visiting divorcées wait for their paperwork by gossiping about their soon-to-be-exes, Vivian writes lectures at her desk and walks alone in the chaparral. Only Cay, Frances’s unofficially adopted daughter, draws her out of her head and introduces her to sensual pleasures unimagined in Vivian’s old life with her well-respected scholarly husband.
Cay Rivers offered Charbonneau her first film role, and it shows. Although she’s physically stunning, with rich dark hair that frames a gamin face, and a lithe, athletic figure she shows off to seductive effect, Charbonneau’s acting is earnest but two-dimensional. Sometimes, her naiveté works for the role; she’s supposed to be 25, ten years younger than Shaver’s Vivian, and that puppy-dog panting affect she adopts to chase after the older woman comes off convincingly. In the more serious scenes, Charbonneau’s acting deficits cost the film more; her line readings, especially in that infamous sex scene, only underline the film’s melodrama.
Shaver, on the other hand, finds deeper levels and more subtle, nuanced emotional responses in Vivian Bell, developing a portrayal of pain, confusion, and longing that makes the actress herself irresistibly sexy. When the film was released in the mid-80s, some of my lesbian friends laughed off the film’s sex as unrealistic and too “straight.” But I continue to think that Shaver and Deitch (and Charbonneau) achieved a moving understanding of Vivian’s sexual awakening with Cay. Shaver’s face registers the slightest shivers of desire, and fear mingled with excitement shudder through her at Cay’s touch. Cay’s coltish advances land awkwardly, but Shaver as Vivian feels each one as a physical tremor of Richter scale import.
Even in more mundane scenes, Shaver peels off Vivian’s protective layers in impeccable emotional detail. Deitch shoots montages of Vivian’s life on Frances’s ranch and her growing attraction to Cay. The first time she smiles in the film, Shaver’s beauty is sudden and shocking. Although the professor who lets down her hair is a narrative stereotype, in Desert Hearts Shaver makes it fresh and somehow true. Trying on western-style clothing with Cay becomes an occasion for hilarity; rolling dice in the casino establishes new horizons of chance and luck. Shaver moves through it all with an affecting wonder, her beauty looser and more unwittingly seductive in each scene. Watching Shaver open Vivian to her future continues to offer real viewing pleasure.
Desert Hearts documents some of mainstream films’ first strong female friendships, in addition to its first lesbian affair, which makes it as remarkable for its feminism as it is for its sexuality. Deitch recreates Reno in 1959 as a woman-centered world. Cay’s friend Silver (Andra Akers), who works with her at the casino where Cay is a change-girl, is a failed singer turned card dealer about to marry a good Italian man from New Jersey. Silver is both strong and fragile as she embarks on her own romance, and her friendship with Cay is full of real warmth, affection, and respect. A bathtub scene, in which Cay and Silver loll together in bubbles while Silver’s fiancée brings them martinis, evokes girlfriends’ physical closeness and the erotic connections that bubble between them, even when they remain platonic.
Likewise, Cay and Frances’s relationship rides its own complicated erotic currents. Cay’s father was Frances’s married lover; when he died, and Cay’s mother abandoned the girl, Frances took her in, making Cay both a surrogate daughter and a constant reminder of her doomed romantic affair. Frances loves Cay for how she inspires her memories, but her jealousy over Cay’s sex life keeps their relationship tense. Still, the two women talk in bed like girlfriends, and enact the intensity of their relationship through a casual but volatile physical intimacy.
Nancy Cooper’s script portrays Vivian as a stereotypically aloof, abstract, intellectual whom the other women both envy and scorn. Cay is a sculptor, the most physical of artists, who molds things (clay and obviously women) with her hands. Vivian’s and Cay’s orbits would barely intersect outside the bedroom in which they find solace in each other, and Reno is worlds apart from Manhattan. ButDesert Heart’s utopian fantasy is that these two can make a go of it romantically; perhaps the film remains a perennial favorite because Deitch makes just that leap of faith.
Rather than chalking her experience up to divorce-inspired madness, Vivian invites Cay to come to New York, to try out a different way of life, to test the potential of escaping from a Nevada in which she’s singular and illegible as a lesbian (one of the ranch hands, watching various women come and go from Cay’s cottage, mutters, “I don’t know how you get all that traffic without no equipment”).
Cay’s free-spirited generosity lets her laugh off such comments, and her courage, as a lesbian in 1950s rural northwest America before Stonewall, is palpable as she moves through the film as out as she can possibly be in such an environment at such an historical moment. But Vivian invites her to escape, to come to a city where together, they could participate in the crucible of feminist and lesbian sexual revolution in the decade just ahead. Vivian’s 11th hour offer, made from the steps of a moving train, gives not only Cay but the film a glowing sense of hope and possibility.
It helps, of course, that Patsy Cline and other country western crooners grace the Desert Heartssound track. Schmaltzy doesn’t begin to describe the film, but Deitch manages to both embrace and transcend the romantic style by choosing background ballads like Cline’s “Crazy,” then tempering it with satirical visual details like the rodeo scenes sewn into Frances’s leather couch.
The director respects the kitschy charms of 1950s Reno, dignifies her female characters’ ambivalence and heartache, shades them all with the steely resolve necessary to be strong women before Second Wave American feminism, directs a steamy lesbian sex scene, and persuades us that this odd couple of misfit artist/intellectuals might have a chance to be happy together.
Prior to the 1980s, lesbians in film typically committed suicide or, if they stayed alive, ended their narrative trajectories humiliated and alone. A short 23 years ago, Desert Hearts broke important new ground. I remember seeing the film for the first time in 1985 on the Upper West Side of New York when it opened, amazed at what it felt like to follow the travails of a lesbian character, and Cay and Vivian’s dawning attraction, and their consummated sexuality in a widely marketed, Sundance-sanctioned film at a mainstream cinema. Every critical faculty I’d ever exercised waited for me at the popcorn stand while I watched, completely cathected, jaw dropped, eyes misted.
When my then-partner and I had a drag down fight some days later, I ran back to the theatre by myself to watch the movie again, as I could think of no better way to make myself feel less alone. Just like many other women I’ve now watched online attest, Desert Hearts meant the world to me then, and captures my heart even now.
For a classic film in which same sex attraction and love propels women toward each other and into new lives of greater social and emotional potential, Desert Hearts remains unparalleled.
Here’s to the late, great, lesbian novelist Jane Rule for first telling the story,
The Feminist Spectator