The writer’s life was transformed 30 years ago when she first watched this lesbian love story, and rereleased this month. Does this tale of our queer past give us a glimpse of our queer future?
Thirty years ago, in 1987, one of my best high-school friends invited me over to watch a movie called Desert Hearts, which had just played in theaters a year earlier. We were rising seniors, and several weeks earlier, I’d confided to her that I was depressed because I thought I was a lesbian—a hard word for me to say aloud back then because it frightened me, in part because I was given the impression by my family that I’d be doomed to a life of unsatisfying relationships with men while I secretly pined for women I couldn’t pursue. I didn’t think I knew any lesbians, wasn’t even aware that same-sex love could be consummated and was too terrified to allow myself to fantasize about what that might look like. No matter that I was growing up in a liberal town, with liberal parents; this was the Reagan era, and the president couldn’t acknowledge the AIDS crisis, let alone utter the word gay. I had no idea what I was about to see in my friend’s living room that day, that she was about to show me a film that would change my life—and one that I would return to it again and again for the next three decades.
Desert Hearts, which has been digitally restored by Criterion Collection and Janus Films (together with the UCLA Film & Television Archive), is being re-released starting July 19, a year after its 30th anniversary, and it’s more relevant than ever in this increasingly repressive climate, with a Supreme Court that threatens to swing further to the right, and cases like Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission on the docket, which could open a Pandora’s box of discrimination against LGBTQ people. While Desert Hearts was not the first lesbian love story on celluloid, it was the first major studio release of a Sapphic love story written by a lesbian (based on the novel, Desert of the Heart, by Jane Rule), directed and produced by a lesbian (Donna Deitch), and wholly focused on the story of two women (it passed the Bechdel test before such things existed, while Alison was just a few years into her “Dykes to Watch Out For” strip). The film is set in Reno in 1959, and introduces a tightly wound 35-year-old Columbia English professor, Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver), and a 25-year-old artist, Cay Rivers (Patricia Charbonneau), a free-spirit emotionally tethered to her late father’s mistress turned adoptive mother, Frances, who runs a ranch for women establishing residency so they can file for divorce. (Most states required a year’s wait and a proof of cruelty to file for divorce; Nevada was the only state at the time to allow women from all over the country to establish residency in just six weeks and required little or no proof.) Which is what brings Vivian into Cay’s world, the fact that she has to come to the ranch in Nevada, a state she’s never even visited, to divorce her husband in New York. Male characters are not vilified here, they’re incidental. The enemy here is convention. And, at the risk of giving away the ending, among the things that distinguishes this lesbian love story from those that preceded it (and even some that followed): Neither woman dies or ends up in a mental institution or marries a man. In fact, Deitch leaves the final scene open with possibilities. Did they stay together?
Cay has carved out a comfortable if inert life for herself living on the ranch, working at a local casino with her best friend Silver, caring for retired Vegas dancer Frances (who, incidentally, had her own life of forbidden love, with a married man, Cay’s father). Cay’s sexuality—which is never named—is an open secret, which is shrugged off by many, embraced by Silver and her fiancé, but barely tolerated by Frances who finds it revolting, and insists she be discreet, lest it reflect badly on her. (Tolerance used to be the best we could hope for. Not just back then. Even ten to 15 years ago, the fear of exposure, the desperate hope for tolerance from our families and friends, for our lives, our spouses, our friends, so we weren’t cast into exile or worse. That still enrages me. But I digress.)
Vivian—a beautiful, reserved, droll intellectual—proves to be as much of a beacon at the ranch for Cay as the artist is for the professor. Vivian relaxes a bit, lets her guard down, and challenges the bewitching, smart Cay, who, on the surface initially seems a little reckless, a little brazen, but reveals herself to be a bit unmoored. Meeting Vivian inspires her to become more clear-sighted, more ambitious, eager to be engaged and focused, and finally ready to move on from the ranch and take a chance—love is a great motivator. And she is in love from the moment they meet, and soon it’s requited. In fact, it is intense and palpable well before it’s declared, and Deitch takes her time developing their friendship before having them consummate it. The women’s outings as friends feel intimate, exciting, even illicit, so that when they finally do make love, you can feel the urgency, the insularity, the passion, and the tremendous risk—and it is risky (nb: risky, even, for the actresses to have taken on the roles at the time, not only because of the threat of typecasting but of never being cast again. More on that in a bit). And the terror, both Vivian’s, for entering a new frontier and worrying what it means for her—her job, her life. And Cay, because she has been to this rodeo before, so to speak, and though this time it’s real love, not just a conquest, she is bracing herself for the end just as things begin—and the heartache is unbearable to even consider.
I thought a lot about Desert Hearts a year and a half ago when I saw Carol, Todd Haynes’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s novel, The Price of Salt, a film (and re-reading experience) I wrote about for The New Republic. I loved the film, as I did the book, and in particular I was moved by the injustice Carol had to suffer from, among other things, having to choose between being with Therese and living an honest life, and being a mother—as a mother with a wife who never imagined I could have both, this story resonated deeply with me. (And who knows, with this spiteful adminstration, I may lose them, or watch others lose theirs.) I thought Haynes brought this aspect of the story more clearly into focus, perhaps more so than Highsmith would have liked, and he was criticized for it. But, save for the friendship between icy Carol (Cate Blanchett) and her devoted ex, Abby (Sarah Paulson)—more vividly rendered than Cay’s friendship with the ostentatious Silver—I do appreciate the criticism that Carol could seem overly stylized and stilted, even as I appreciated its claustrophobic, necessary insularity. Watching Desert Hearts this time, I was reminded what the other film was lacking: the passion, the chemistry, the subversive excitement of the forbidden. Perhaps it isn’t the fault of Haynes, but the timing: Carol, though set the same year as Desert Hearts, was made just after same-sex marriage became legal. Haynes, a pioneering gay filmmaker, has certainly has lived through the worst of queer times, he hasn’t forgotten—but his film seemed more of a conscious reflection of times past. It would be near impossible, I’d think, to evoke the past when you’re not in the thick of it. And in 1986, we were all very much in it.
Several days ago, I watched the new print. I don’t know how many times now I’ve seen the film: Ten times? Twelve? More? It’s like my Star Wars. And every time I do, it elicits a strong reaction in me, like seeing an old friend I haven’t seen in ages, and falling back into years of shared memories. The last time I watched it, I was so moved by it I actually wrote a fan letter—I’ve written three in my life—to Patricia Charbonneau, who is no longer acting anymore, sadly. (She’s hardly the only one—more than a few of my actor friends have made the same decision, but damn.) She genuinely seemed surprised to hear from a fan—it felt like a lifetime ago, acting, she said. The impact of her performance, all these years later … I remember when I first watched the film with my high-school friend, she asked me, “Who are you more in love with?” I couldn’t wrap my mind around the question because I had so many more questions. I was trying to sort through a lot of feelings after that. (My friend loved the professor because, well, who doesn’t fall in love with a literature professor, especially as portrayed by Helen Shaver?) But I realized the other night, as I watched with my 46-year-old eyes, how deeply the character of Cay resonated with me. How I would become a lot like her in my 20s—brazen on the outside, terrified on the inside. We may never know what happened to Cay—Deitch has a sequel in the works, she has for some time. I don’t know that I want to know, I like imagining her life in perpetuity. I can only say that for me, the film helped me envision my future, and now reflect on my past, for better and not always for worse. And I am forever grateful to these women for taking the enormous risks they did to make what is, arguably, to this day, one of great cinematic love stories, one of the absolute best about love between two women, and for instilling a lot of hope in a lot of viewers who were feeling pretty hopeless.
The restoration of Desert Hearts opens in New York City on July 19, at the IFC Center.
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