Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau in Desert Hearts
For anyone who’s frantically googled “How do I know if I’m a girl who likes girls???” within the past 10 years, the Gay & Lesbian section of Netflix is an all-too-familiar place. A sizable percentage of those searchers likely found the affirmation they were looking for after streaming Donna Deitch’s 1985 lesbian romance Desert Hearts.
Three decades after it was made, this particular lesbian romance — about Vivian, a 35-year-old English professor from New York who, in 1959, temporarily relocates to a ranch in Reno for a quickie divorce, then meets a wild-hearted younger woman named Cay — still resonates, particularly with a new generation of viewers. The film, which is based on the novel Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule, has experienced a spirited second life, spurred by streaming options like Netflix and Amazon Prime. Young women make fan cuts on YouTube, reblog GIF sets on Tumblr, and reach out to the director, Deitch, with their stories.
This week, Desert Hearts returned for a special screening in 35 mm at BFI Flare: London’s LGBT Film Festival. When Flare (formerly known as the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival) launched in 1986, Desert Hearts was on its starting slate, at a time when lesbian stories were barely getting made, let alone being seen by mainstream audiences.
“People will come up to me after screenings at festivals,” Deitch told BuzzFeed News over coffee at the BFI Southbank theater. “They say, ‘Can I just tell you what happened to me after I saw Desert Hearts? I came out after that.’” At this week’s screening, she announced that she’s going to start asking people to record their revelations. “So many people have been telling me these stories over the years — I decided it was time I start collecting them.”
These days, coming out epiphanies can likely be attributed to a wide variety of pieces of pop culture. In the post-Ellen era, there’s no longer a dearth of lesbian storytelling in film and television — see: The L Word, Orange Is the New Black, et al. Queer people don’t need to look quite as long and hard anymore to see a version of themselves reflected onscreen (though LGBT representation still skews white, cis, monosexual, and male). Even as queer characters become more commonplace in media, however, a certain queer storyline remains, frustratingly, rather rare: happy endings.
When released, Desert Hearts was championed as the first film to depict a lesbian relationship that didn’t end in heartache, disaster, or death. It takes place in 1959, far removed from 2016 (and 1985, for that matter), and yet the final scene swells with hope and possibility.
While on the divorce ranch, Vivian (Helen Shaver), the stiff, stuffily suited English professor, eventually learns to let her hair down thanks to Cay (Patricia Charbonneau), the free-spirited, pottery-slinging young Nevadan who’s looking for more than just another one night stand. Though Cay is confident in her sexuality, Vivian grapples with the standard bouts of uncertainty and repression; she’s worried about what her students back in New York might think about her dalliance (as if students in New York are the unlikeliest of people to be totally chill about homosexuality). Cay’s surrogate mother, Frances (Audra Lindley), who owns the ranch where Vivian’s staying, is a classic homophobe who stokes Vivian’s fears and riles Cay’s defenses. It’s a straightforwardly told and uncomplicatedly plotted film — so much so that, upon its release, some critics called it unimaginative and overly earnest. The widely praised chemistry between the actors, though, sold many on the production. When Vivian finally softens and allows herself to fall for Cay, lesbian viewers were able to picture — perhaps for the first time — lives for themselves in which embracing queerness wouldn’t automatically condemn them to eternal loneliness and shame.
The power of a happy ending hasn’t diminished over time. If there’s anything to be gleaned from the recent uproar over a lesbian’s death on the CW show The 100, which was quickly followed by yet another lesbian’s death on The Walking Dead, it’s that LGBT fans — particularly young ones — still yearn for stories of queer love and triumph, and feel that those stories aren’t told nearly often enough. Todd Haynes’ critically acclaimed Carol, from 2015, has rocketed toward the top of nearly every Best Lesbian Movie Ever Made list in part because it doesn’t reify any tropes about dead or despairing lesbians; the final scene is an optimistic one, just as Desert Hearts’ was 30 years earlier.
Deitch is well aware that lesbian happy endings have been close to nonexistent in commercial cinema. “It was my goal to do a lesbian love story that didn’t end in a bisexual triangle or a suicide,” she said. “That was important to me, because that was the movie I wanted to see, you know? You can call that personal, or you can call that political. But if you come from the era that I come from, you think of the personal as being political. And that, I think, holds true through the ages — the personal is very much political.”
When Deitch first decided to make the film, there had been some studio interest in Jane Rule’s Desert of the Heart, to which she’d secured the rights. But those same studios weren’t necessarily interested in hewing closely to the source material. “I initially went to a couple [meetings], and I knew it was wrong,” she said. “They kept talking about changing the ending, about how [Cay and Vivian] couldn’t possibly be together. And I thought, I’m never gonna make the film that way; that’s not the film I want to make.”
So she set about independently raising $1 million to produce the film; the financing would take her years. Deitch viewed the obstacles that inevitably accompanied the making of a queer movie as, ultimately, advantages. For one thing: Plenty of agents didn’t want their clients to be in the film, thinking a lesbian association would destroy the actors’ careers. “Was that an obstacle? In a way, but maybe it all worked out,” Deitch said. “I couldn’t imagine doing any better than who I got.”
Before Charbonneau and Shaver officially came on board, Deitch had long conversations with the actors about their “full-on commitment” to the film’s sex scene. “I had to look in their eyes and know that it wasn’t just contractual,” she said. “If there were any doubt or fear or reluctance, I wouldn’t have hired them.”
It’s the longest scene in the film (so long that, according to Deitch, her distributor, the Samuel Goldwyn company, asked her to cut it down, even though they didn’t have contractual rights to alter the film). And it's a scene that comes quite late in the game; by that point in the just-beginning-to-drag narrative, everyone watching is just waiting for the inevitable.
After numerous scenes brimming with songs meant to fill the wide Nevada skies — by Patsy Cline, Buddy Holly, Johnny Cash — Cay and Vivian finally, finally end up alone in a room together, and everything goes quiet.
“The only sounds I wanted were in the room: traffic, church bells, whatever,” said Deitch. “I didn’t want them to have the radio on, nor did I want to have it scored. I just wanted it to be raw. And real. And true to that moment.”
The resulting few minutes remain one of the most lauded lesbian sex scenes in recent film history. There are no quick, disorienting cuts; no sweeping, dramatic music; no gross, objectifying super-close shots. It’s two women moving and breathing together in a room. It’s two women fucking, that widely mythologized and fetishized act. And unlike so many lesbian sex scenes (not like we’re necessarily deluged with options), it was made for women who have sex with other women.
Desert Hearts is, overall, a story about women. Refreshingly, while there are a couple male characters — similar to but ultimately unlike the 1939 classic The Women, which also takes place in quickie-divorce-enabling Reno, and has no speaking men’s roles at all — they’re bit parts, more or less insignificant to the plotline. Instead, it’s the relationships between Cay and her best friend, Cay and Frances, Frances and Vivian, and, of course, Vivian and Cay that drive the story. The women are the ones who matter.
While some aspects of the film might not stand the test of time — the characters’ development doesn’t extend very far beyond their sexuality and their struggles with homophobia, both internalized and externalized — Desert Hearts marks an extraordinarily important moment in queer film history, wherein good sex and coupled happiness for lesbians entered the realm of cinematic possibility, and, by extension, into the lived experiences of so many who have watched it since its release 30 years ago. And that kiss scene in the rain will never, ever get old.