DESERT HEARTS: The Biggest Little Love Story in the World

March 15, 2018 - 9:16am
Posted by Jim Healy


These notes on Donna Deitch's Desert Hearts (1985) were written by Pauline Lampert, PhD candidate in UW Madison’s Department of Communication Arts. A restored DCP of Desert Hearts, courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive and Janus Films, will screen in our UCLA Festival of Preservation series on Saturday, March 17 at 7 p.m. at our regular venue, 4070 Vilas Hall. The DCP has been digitally restored by The Criterion Collection/Janus Films and UCLA Film & Television Archive in conjunction with Outfest UCLA Legacy Project and Sundance Institute.

By Pauline Lampert

The legacy of Donna Deitch’s 1985 romantic drama, Desert Hearts, typically concerns its standing as the first American film to feature a lesbian couple in which neither partner dies, is institutionalized, or winds up in a heterosexual relationship. It is an unabashedly queer film, made on a shoestring budget and set in 1959 Eisenhower-era America, and it was released during the height of Reagan-era conservatism. A film of this subject matter is a purposeful affront to the social values of both the time in which it is set and the time in which it was released, and yet it managed to find a small but loyal fan base which has continued to flourish in the intervening years. This story of triumph mirrors the narrative of the film, in which its characters learn to rebuild their lives in a similarly unforgiving climate.

To those unused to the oppressive heat and parched soil of the desert, such a landscape may seem foreboding or even dangerous. It is not just hellscapes that are evoked in the terrain of sand-dunes and tumbleweeds, the desert also has a purgatorial connotation. It is a liminal space-- neither here nor there--a land where the displaced are left to wander for generations until they are deemed fit for polite society. However, despite what the cultural or biblical associations would have us believe, there are plenty of species that manage to survive in these areas despite the limited resources. The desert, it seems, is made for creatures who know scarcity and have learned to live without.

Desert Hearts’s co-protagonists, Vivian Bell and Cay Rivvers, are two such creatures of this sparsity. Helen Shaver plays Vivian, a high-strung Professor of English at Columbia University who has thrown her life into disarray by ending her marriage of over a decade and running off to Reno to begin divorce proceedings. Vivian’s sojourn to Nevada is in part a function of the state’s liberal divorce policies. From the 1930s through the 70s, Nevada was the go-to destination for a quickie divorce. This phenomenon became known as the “Reno Cure,” where women would establish residency by living in a hotel or dude ranch for six weeks, and eventually be granted license to rid themselves of their unhealthy marriages.

While the practicality of Vivian’s sabbatical in Nevada is apparent, the reasoning behind the self-inflicted upheaval is more opaque. She has no concrete justification for getting this divorce, at least none that she is prepared to articulate. When her lawyer enquires about grounds for divorce, the only explanation she can offer is that her marriage was polite and professionally advantageous, but never full of love or happiness. She claims she wants out of this marriage so she can pursue “an honest life.”

And so Vivian casts herself out of her ill-fitting life amongst the New York City intelligentsia, and sets off for the no-man’s-land of the Parker Guest Ranch, in Reno, Nevada. It’s there where she meets the free-spirited ingénue, Cay Rivvers (played by Patricia Charbonneau). Cay provides the ideal romantic foil for Vivian. Cay is outgoing and open about her sexuality, whereas Vivian is shy and repressed. However, like Vivian, Cay’s life is missing something that she can’t quite identify, but has something to do with surviving in an existential limbo of working rotten waitressing jobs at the local casino and the lack of viable romantic partners. Though ten years Vivian’s junior, the pair share an immediate connection that transcends their age and background. It is established quickly that Cay is able to intuit what Vivian’s desire for “an honest life” really means without Vivian having to directly communicate her feelings.

One of the film’s great strengths is its judicious use of expository dialogue. While Natalie Cooper’s screenplay does have some overt declarations of love, as well as some pointed homophobic language, the script mostly provides scaffolding for the production design and the nuanced performances. The film’s director of photography, Robert Elswit, (who would go on to win an Oscar for shooting the similarly arid terrain of Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2008 film There Will Be Blood) lends the film a dusty romanticism. Though the film is a period piece, the sets never feel overly manicured or yoked to a specific time. From the kitschy Ranch House to the dingy hotel rooms, all the locations are imbued with a well-worn familiarity and comfort.

The photography also highlights the small gestures of Shaver and Charbonneau’s central performances. Shaver’s role in shaping Vivian’s character arc deserves special attention, as she serves a dual function as both the object of, and the primary obstacle to, the love story. When Vivian first appears onscreen her posture and costuming recall the icy remove of a Hitchcock heroine--specifically Kim Novak in Vertigo--with her fastidiously fashioned spiraled hair and grey pencil skirt. Shaver’s performance is a masterclass in subtlety. Throughout the course of the film she slowly unmasks the reserves of anxiety that lie underneath Vivian’s chilly demeanor.

Watch for a scene in the first act when Cay takes Helen shopping for some more Nevada-appropriate attire. Shaver’s comportment slowly alters as Vivian becomes more comfortable in Cay’s presence. Her arched shoulders start to relax and the stoicism that marked her character at the beginning gives way to an endearing tenderness. 

Despite all of its formal and narrative triumphs, Desert Hearts was initially met with indifference by mainstream viewers. The reviews of the film were often dismissive, particularly Vincent Canby’s sneering take-down of the film’s earnestness and representation of female sexuality. However, the film found a small but vocal group of advocates. Deitch herself was among the most ardent champions of her film and helped cultivate and sustain the fan base. Eventually interest in the film became so strong that in 2017 Criterion saw fit to put out a beautifully restored 4K digital transfer on Blu-Ray. How fitting that a film that is in part about second chances and forging a circuitous path toward happiness should find itself the subject of renewed interest from critics and audiences. It is heartening to find that a film as good as this one can flourish even in the most unlikely of environments. It goes to show that although the landscape of quality lesbian filmmaking can often feel like a dustbowl, it can also be warm and full of life, especially when sharing it with fellow desert-dwelling film fans.