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Desert Hearts: The Thrill of It All

What is it about a lesbian love story that fits so snugly into the past and so uneasily into the present? For decades, if not centuries, there has been an imaginary past where lesbians were free to live and love. With history itself a place of half-intuited customs and longed-for possibilities, the setting of a period piece has a way of illuminating the unseen and recalling to memory the forgotten; it opens history up to those written out of it the first time around, and nowhere more powerfully than on the movie screen. Just so in Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts, in which a dude ranch in 1950s Reno, Nevada, is transformed into a magical space where anything is possible, even the kind of lesbian happily-ever-after ending never seen before in a movie theater.

Released in 1985, Desert Hearts is now a period piece in another sense as well, a survivor of an era when U.S. independent film itself was just taking its baby steps, when there were few women directors and barely a lesbian in sight, and when the kind of bold queer filmmaking that would flourish only a few years later was barely hypothetical. There were already, however, lesbian novels. Filmmaker Donna Deitch devoured Jane Rule’s pioneering Desert of the Heart (1964), then traveled to Vancouver to persuade the expat professor, who had fled the United States at the height of McCarthyism, to grant her the rights. When Deitch succeeded, acquiring Rule’s blessing, she was signing on to make a period film. Rule had set her novel in 1959, a significant year: the last gasp of the Eisenhower-era hidebound America she knew so well, just before the national culture would change forever. By the next year, John F. Kennedy would be elected and the winds of modernity would enter the White House. By the time the novel was published, Kennedy was dead from an assassin’s bullet, massive social changes were under way, and a whole new era was advancing. In Rule’s Reno, though, the “divorce capital of the world,” time stopped and anything was possible.

What Deitch could not know then was that her period piece limning love between women would last and last, even as technologies and mores changed, only to arrive today, gorgeously restored, in the hands of a younger generation, just when an emotional pull back to the past is gaining in force. Call it a nostalgia for repression. With LGBT rights on the rise and gay marriage legal, a fresh longing seems to have been activated in queer communities for those bad old days when love of one’s kind was still a terrible risk, and the reading of codes was a matter of life and death. It’s a mixed-up kind of yearning for a time when nothing could be taken for granted and loving another woman could truly make you an outlaw. That nostalgia may soon shift, with the past less passé under a government intent on recriminalizing certain behavior—but the desire for an escape from the present is stronger than ever.

Desert Hearts was a breakthrough. From the opening, where uptight professor Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) arrives at the dusty Reno train station, planning to stay in town for the time required for a Nevada divorce, it punches above its weight, looking effortlessly glossy and mainstream-gorgeous despite a budget of just $800,000. Plus, with apologies to Montana, this is big-sky country, and cinematographer Robert Elswit is ready for it, lighting up the screen with a sunny vision of how good life can be.

Wasting no time, Deitch stages the most memorable meet-cute scene I’ve ever witnessed. As she’s being driven down the highway through the majestic desert landscape by seen-it-all ranch proprietor Frances (Audra Lindley), the professor crosses paths with the inimitable Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau), who, coming from the other direction, throws her convertible into reverse to check out the new arrival, shifting into drive just in time to avoid a crash. Impression made!

Ah, the open road. Expansive space of the kind that Deitch captures is usually a male preserve in the movies: the place where men can get away from the civilizing force of the women back East, at least in the Zane Grey tradition of the West. In westerns, it’s the place where women are not welcome, where they are a nuisance, or perhaps in danger and in need of rescuing. Desert Hearts hijacks that tradition for the girls. When Vivian arrives in Reno, she may need rescuing, but she doesn’t know it yet. Cay is there to supply both the danger and the rescue, as it turns out.

If the road in films and novels was always an invitation to big adventure for men, and romance usually the only excitement available to women, then Deitch’s feat is to combine the two and make them work as one. Freed of eastern conventions and university protocols, Professor Bell can finally let her hair down—literally—and discover the passion hidden underneath her proper suit. For Cay, the flesh and the soul can finally meet and rescue her from her status as an oddity, however sexy, dressing up the ranch. A helpmate and daughter figure to Frances (who raised her after the death of her father, Frances’s lover) and a curiosity at the casino where she works as a change girl (dabbling with women, fending off men), Cay is an artist at heart. In her shed out back, she throws pots to pass the time. Impatient with her surroundings but afraid to admit it, Cay is also ready for a change of state: not marital but geographic. She finds herself, too, in the gaze of the outsider—finally, “somebody who counts,” as she confides to her friend with benefits, Silver (Andra Akers).

Deitch was after something special. Elswit’s camera work provided some of the rapture, true, and Jeannine Oppewall’s production design hid the low-budget truth behind clever invocations of an innocence lost in kitschy interiors. In a period when it was impossible to cast gay or lesbian roles in mainstream films (agents wouldn’t let their clients even go to the auditions), Deitch managed to convince Shaver and Charbonneau that these characters were absolutely necessary for them to embody, and indeed, the pair’s passionate, utterly believable performances sell the emotion and carry the audience along. Only later did Deitch discover that both were warned her film would ruin their careers (it didn’t). Deitch’s direction was inspired and deliberate. On set, she told everyone who’d listen that her film was just like The Misfits (1961), in which Marilyn Monroe journeys to a dude ranch in Nevada to get a divorce and falls in love with Clark Gable. Deitch knew what she was doing: she wanted the look of a mainstream film to sugarcoat a nonmainstream narrative. And she got it.

Desert Hearts plays with tropes established by midcentury lesbian pulp novels (but rejects their requisite endings): one gal is blonde, the other brunette; one is out, the other not. The film’s forward motion is driven by the age-old suspense of the narrative of first love, as conjugated in the language of lesbian romance: will they or won’t they, will she or won’t she, and when? The deliciously languorous pacing and the relative exoticism of the locale conspire to undo the professor and propel her toward her heart’s (and the audience’s) desire.

And then there’s that soundtrack. “I’m crazy for trying and crazy for crying,” sings Patsy Cline, and who are we to resist? It’s not merely legend that Deitch sold her house to pay for the music rights. She really did, rather than give up her dream soundtrack of country, rockabilly, and the like. “If you’ve got leavin’ on your mind . . .” Kitty Wells, Ferlin Husky, Buddy Holly, even Ella Fitzgerald embody an aural cheering section to accompany the women’s every move. Deitch’s brilliant musical selections serve as a reliable time machine, underscoring (pun intended) the deeply felt architecture of the film.

Not only does the “jukebox score,” as it is known in today’s parlance, ensure that Desert Hearts fully inhabits its location and era, but it also provides a subtle nod to a little-known fact: country-western music, with its reliable words of wisdom and heartbreak crooned over twangy melodies, operated for years as a soundtrack to “the life,” however improbable. Those women! Whether they were singing the songs or listening to them, C and W gals, gutsy and independent, offered up a model for a way of being. In roadhouses, C and W women liked to dance with each other—not for romance but for pleasure, a performance of friendship and mutual appreciation, without the nuisance of a male partner who didn’t dance as well. For lesbians, this provided cover. The country-western bar was a homosocial space, allowing a gender latitude not available elsewhere. Silver, who leaves Cay’s bed to marry her male beau, is just this kind of good-time gal, one who doesn’t believe in morality blotting out pleasure.

This is the world that Desert Hearts conjured so successfully. My main squeeze Mary remembers seeing it every night of its two-week run; Camille Paglia claimed to have watched it eleven times; and Jane Lynch once said it was her favorite film. Its theatrical release came about during my New York years. I reviewed it for the Village Voice and did my best to turn out the troops in the face of a dismissive New York Times review. Deitch herself never lacked nerve: she canvassed the queues outside other movies, handing out flyers, urging the people waiting to go to hers instead/as well. And it was a hit. By the time it arrived in U.S. theaters, Desert Hearts had already played the prestige festivals: Telluride, Toronto, the U.S. Film Festival (not yet named Sundance). It grossed more than $2 million in its original theatrical release, at a time when hardly any screens were open to independent films—let alone those by women, or lesbians, or about lesbian characters who were not going to end up dead by suicide or murder, or in the arms of men.

Desert Hearts was the product of Deitch’s artistic ambitions, true, but she also had an uncanny sense of timing: the early eighties marked a time of fertile convergence. American independent cinema was beginning to come into its own, having recently been the subject of a sidebar at the 1979 New York Film Festival programmed by the Independent Filmmaker Project, which had been founded earlier that year. Nobody yet spoke the word indie, but Park City was becoming the center of something.

The early women’s movement had empowered Deitch and her generation. The seventies were a heady time of excitement and promise. Everyone quoted Emma Goldman, the anarchist reported to have said: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” Deitch made a number of short and experimental films back then, including her 1975 UCLA thesis film, Woman to Woman: A Documentary About Hookers, Housewives, and Other Mothers. That movie convinced Gloria Steinem to sign on as a host to the house parties that financed Desert Hearts in $15,000 increments. By then, the women’s movement was being walloped by the Reagan years and devastated by the 1982 death of the Equal Rights Amendment, done in by ultraright attacks. Prepared to fight despair with hope, Deitch was ready for a change. She decided to move on from recording oppression to picturing freedom, from the realist gaze of the documentary to a fantasy-and-lust-fueled vision of Reno. She wanted to make a mainstream movie that would play in movie theaters and show lesbian romance to the world.

Independent fiction features about women’s lives were just beginning to be made, after a decade of documentary production, with Claudia Weill’s Girlfriends (1978) and Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens (1982) among the first. Seidelman’s second feature, Desperately Seeking Susan, was released the same year as Desert Hearts. All were part of a belated flowering of big-screen films that placed women at the center. With authentic dramas and concerns and friendships, these were the sorts of films that cartoonist Alison Bechdel wanted to see. Formulated with her friend Liz Wallace, the rules known as the Bechdel test—a work of fiction must feature at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man, and the women must have names—were first proposed in . . . yes, 1985.

Emerging at the very moment that women’s filmmaking was getting under way, Deitch made Desert Hearts a milestone, the only film to use that energy to fuel a genuine lesbian cinema. Before her, lesbians could seemingly choose only between being French (Diane Kurys’s Entre nous) or a vampire (Tony Scott’s The Hunger). Instead, Deitch set out to make a big, grand, red-blooded American film. Her women would drive through the desert and gamble in the casino, strike out for a dude ranch and file for divorce. And Deitch envisioned a romance, a sexy one that most lesbians wouldn’t even have dared to dream back then. And not just one with a room of our own, but a hotel room, preferably with a naked woman in it, and nobody to interfere.

Vivian: I’m not taking off my robe.
Cay: Well, everybody draws the line somewhere.

To understand the power of this scene, when it finally arrives after an eternity of waiting, you have to understand that most serious films by or about lesbians at the time did not even have sex scenes: they were tasteful, indirect, with French on the soundtrack, maybe a cutaway to morning (okay, maybe a bite on the neck). Explicit sex between women was still considered by some feminist viewers to be the domain of pornography, something to be protected from instead of shown. Deitch imagined things differently.

Cay has come to Vivian’s hotel room to beg her not to leave, not to give up on the love that is clearly developing between them. Vivian is in the room, drink­ing, scared of her own feelings. Cay is desperate not to lose her. Her world has been turned upside down, too, disrupted by her attraction for this outsider; she is determined to see it through. There’s the bathroom, where Vivian goes to try to compose herself. There’s the reverse shot: Cay naked in the bed. None of the coyness or innuendo that had ruled every cinematic lesbian sex scene until this minute. Vivian’s gasp was echoed by the audience’s own.

If Deitch was determined to deliver a visceral scene of authentic passion and desire, then in Charbonneau and Shaver, she found actors who would follow through on the promise of their characters. And the audience was ready and waiting, eager to share in the embrace, eager to applaud Cay and Vivian when they emerge, flushed and transformed, and finally, against their will or perhaps because of it, head for that train.

In the end, what Deitch built in Reno was a liminal space where happiness was possible. In 1985—the same year as Gus Van Sant’s Mala Noche, just months before Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It and Bill Sherwood’s Parting Glances, none of which ends well—she released Desert Hearts and succeeded in creating a happy lesbian ending. Yes, these women are loaded with symbolic freight: one an artist, one a professor; one from the East, one from the West; scripted to get together, they roll the dice. And three decades later, they are the ones still standing, on-screen again, poised for a future that’s sure to be joyous, with an open road and a beat you can dance to.

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