“I don’t usually feel this way at 11 o’clock in the morning.”
The year is 1959 and Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver, a Columbia University English professor, has arrived in Reno, Nevada in order to obtain a “quickie divorce.” As was required at the time, Vivian plans to spend the next six weeks establishing her residency. She’s reserved a room at nearby horse ranch where she meets and inadvertently falls in love with the ranch owner’s daughter (for all intents and purposes), Cay (Patricia Charbonneau).
Desert Hearts is among the very best, and most iconic, of lesbian cinema. With a considerate and intelligent screenplay by Natalie Cooper that manages to stay more or less faithful to author Jane Rule’s original content, Desert Hearts is a sincere, beautiful, and controlled film.
The film has become a legend, and with good reason. Released in 1985, Desert Hearts garnered widespread critical praise throughout its festival circuit run during which it screened at Sundance.
Unlike many of the film’s predecessors which include the droll sports-themed Personal Best (1982), Desert Hearts draws extensively from the budding romantic relationship that evolves between its two leads, Shaver and Charbonneau, ultimately offering a rare-for-the-time suggestively optimistic ending for the characters.
Until this particular moment in cinema, in 1985, no film had been made about lesbians that, in the words of Deitch, “did not end with a suicide, a murder or a bisexual triangle.”
And while the story structure of the film remains somewhat simple, there is also very little to detract from the love the women begin to feel for one another and the very real struggles they, as lesbians, must eventually face in 1950s America.
Shaver and Charbonneau, who had just learned she was pregnant prior to filming, were both warned by friends, family, and colleagues about getting involved in the film. They were each told that playing a lesbian onscreen – one who must engage in explicit woman-on-woman love scenes – would destroy their careers and be the ruin of their future.
Thankfully, neither of them gave in to the fear mongering.
Having not seen Desert Hearts in years prior to this review, I was concerned it wouldn’t hold up in the shadow of more recent films like Kiss Me, Room in Rome, and Elena Undone. I’m happy to report that, even after more than 25 years, Desert Hearts, and the love scenes between the two women, remains among the very best thanks to the strength (if not raw honesty) of the film’s performances.
Filmed in just 35 days, it took director Donna Deitch more than four years to fund Desert Hearts. Eventually, she sold her home in order to ensure the film would be made. Sound familiar? Another director made similar sacrifices when he positively refused to give up on the production of Psycho. The director? Alfred Hitchcock.
It (sometimes) pays to take risks.
It’s true that director Donna Deitch is in the process of fleshing out the idea for the Desert Hearts sequel. Yes, you read that correctly. A sequel is in the works. Deitch, who has penned the screenplay herself, says that the sequel is unconventional in that it won’t pick up where Desert Hearts and its characters left off. Instead, the sequel will be set in 1960’s New York City with a broad cast of characters. To learn more, visit the director’s blog at: donnadeitch.blogspot.com
Wiki facts: Desert Hearts
Is Desert Hearts rotten or fresh?
Buy and read the Jane Rule book Desert of the Heart on Amazon