Director Donna Deitch broke new ground with her landmark lesbian love story that shifted queer filmmaking from the margins and into the mainstream.
“She’s a pioneer,” Desert Hearts actress Patricia Charbonneau told Turner Classic Movies some 35 years after the film’s release. “Everything she did about this film was ground breaking. She had the courage and the tenacity to make this movie … it was an absolute honour to be a part of it.” It’s easy to see why. Even at the time of its release in 1985, Desert Hearts was making waves not just because of its depiction of lesbian sex, but lesbian sexuality and positive female relationships that existed entirely without the involvement of men.
Based on Jane Rule’s 1964 novel Desert Of The Heart, the story follows 35-year-old English Professor Vivian (Helen Shaver) who arrives from New York to establish residence in Nevada so she can get a quickie divorce in the 1950s. Staying at a ranch for women who are waiting for their own divorces to be finalised, the free-spirited Cay (Charbonneau) some 10-years her junior literally speeds into her life. The pair gradually develop feelings for each other and begin a sensuous love affair that challenges the conventions of the time.
Making the transition from documentaries to narrative features, Desert Hearts origin story from page to screen is famed for Deitch’s unconventional method of funding which included investments from lesbian, gay and feminist groups in the US. She became the first lesbian director to have a sex scene between women seen by general movie theatre audiences, with the film’s originally mixed response growing in estimation over the years as it transitioned from cult to classic. While the depiction of two women falling in love has become less radical over time, the honest and emotional relationships between all of the women in Desert Hearts feel more progressive than ever (not to mention the transformative lack of tragedy). With Natalie Cooper’s subtly clever script highlighted by the beautiful cinematography of Robert Elswit, it’s the kind of film that – as Cay so perfectly says – reaches in and puts a string of lights around your heart.
Desert Hearts is referenced in Women Make Film in chapters on Sex.