Desert Hearts

Desert Hearts

Directed by Donna Deitch — 1985, US — 91 minutes, color, aspect ratio 1.85:1 — Drama

IN BRIEF, set in 1950s Nevada, a love story between a repressed literature professor and an exuberant young lesbian.


Desert Hearts (1985), freely adapted from Jane Rule’s classic 1964 novel Desert of the Heart, is a heartfelt and beautifully-made love story of two very different women – a shy professor and a freewheeling artist – who meet in the straitlaced 1950s and fall in love. This is one of those rare films that is engrossing the first time, but even more moving on subsequent viewings. The love scene is not only a landmark of LGBTQ+ cinema, but one of the most beautiful sequences of emotional and erotic connection I’ve seen. This debut feature from Donna Deitch was honored with multiple awards and nominations: the 1985 Locarno International Film Festival Bronze Leopard Award to Helen Shaver, 1986 Sundance Film Festival both Honorable Mention to Donna Deitch and a nomination for the Festival Grand Jury Prize, and a 1987 Independent Spirit Award nomination for Patricia Charbonneau. Viewers continue to rank it as the all-time favorite lesbian romantic film; and it remains the top-grossing lesbian-made feature. Its original 35mm print has been donated to the Outfest Legacy Project for LGBT Film Preservation at the UCLA Film & Television Archive, the first program of its kind anywhere. And now it returns to DVD, from Wolfe Video, in a 2-disc Collector’s Edition with a new transfer and never before seen special features, including an insightful all-new commentary by Donna Deitch and her March 2007 video interviews with Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau, plus additional footage of the love scene, and more. Whether you have never seen this film or you want to experience it again, with more background information, this new Collector’s Edition is ideal.

Desert Hearts tells the story of Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver), a repressed English Literature professor from New York who goes to Reno for a quickie divorce in 1959. She spends the weeks, to establish the residency requirement, at a dude ranch run by the salty Frances Parker (Audra Lindley). There she meets the proprietor’s stepdaughter Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau), a free-spirited young casino worker by night and an artist by day. These opposites attract, as Vivian and Cay hit it off immediately, with Cay introducing the shy academic to both the wild-west casino scene and the breathtaking grandeur of the desert. Vivian is shocked to find her friendship transforming into passion, while Cay for the first time has met someone who opens her heart. More complications ensue when an enraged Frances uncovers Cay and Vivian’s growing relationship.

There are many reasons for the enduring power and success of Desert Hearts, as we’ll see below, but they all begin with filmmaker Donna Deitch, who had dreamed of – and carefully planned – bringing it to the screen for many years. She even had to mortgage her house to complete post-production, then – ironically – the finished film created a Hollywood bidding war for distribution rights. Earlier, every major studio had earlier passed on this first major lesbian feature that pointedly does not end in the women’s suicide or murder. Deitch’s commentary on this 2007 release was first-rate, both informative and generous-hearted; you come away not only learning a great deal about what went on behind the scenes, but feeling that you’ve spent an hour and a half with a sensitive and strong-willed creative artist.

Deitch began as a painter, then became an avant-garde filmmaker, turned to documentaries. Desert Hearts was her breakthrough hit as a director of fiction films, and it landed her her next plum assignment: directing the Emmy-nominated mini-series The Women of Brewster Place (1989) for Oprah Winfrey’s production company. Since then she has made four television pilots, three of which were picked up for series, including Crossing Jordan. She has also directed many episodes of such acclaimed one-hour dramas as NYPD Blue (13 episodes), ER, Murder One, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, Heroes, and more. Her films include Prison Stories: Women on the Inside (1991), The Devil’s Arithmetic (1999 – for which she won a Best Director Emmy), and the acclaimed GLBT-themed Common Ground (2000 – its three parts were written by Paula Vogel, Terrence McNally, and Harvey Fierstein, and it featured Helen Shaver). She directed, photographed and edited the feature-length documentary Angel On My Shoulder (1997), about her close friend Gwen Welles (who plays Cay’s girlfriend Gwen in Desert Hearts) confronting her death by cancer; it won Best Documentary at the Chicago Film Festival.

As both producer and director, Deitch brought together a singularly talented crew and cast, including Co-Producer Cami Taylor (Snow Angels), Associate Producer Carol Jefferies, Screenwriter Natalie Cooper (this is the only screen credit for both Ms. Jefferies and Ms. Cooper), Cinematographer Robert Elswit (Boogie Nights, Syriana), Editor and Music Consultant Robert Estrin (1972’s The Candidate, Badlands), Production Designer Jeannine Claudia Oppewall (L.A. Confidential, Wonder Boys), Art Director David Brisbin (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho), Set Decorator Rosemary Brandenburg (2002’s The Ring, 2007’s Transformers), Costume Designer Linda M. Bass (To Live and Die in L.A., TV’s Grey’s Anatomy), and sound team: Sound Effects engineers Beth Bergeron (Traffic), Alia Kahn (This Is Spinal Tap), Lars Nelson (This Is Spinal Tap), and Roberta Doheny (The Sure Thing) who also worked as one of the Sound Mixers with John Brasher (Dark Star) and Austin H. McKinney (A Nightmare on Elm Street: The Dream Child), and Boom Operator Jack M. Nietzsche Jr. (1989’s The Little Mermaid; son of composer Jack Nitzsche). The entire cast was exceptional, from leads to supporting performers, including the principal actors Helen Shaver (The Color of Money, TV’s Poltergeist: The Legacy, The L Word), Patricia Charbonneau (Kiss the Sky, TV’s Law & Order), Audra Lindley (TV’s Three’s Company), Andra Akers (Moment by Moment), Dean Butler (TV’s Little House on the Prairie), Gwen Welles (Nashville), Alex McArthur (the boyfriend in Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” video), and Denise Crosby (TV’s Star Trek: The Next Generation; part of the Crosby family entertainment dynasty).

Desert Hearts is one of those rare works, like E.M. Forster’s 1913 novel Maurice and Merchant/Ivory’s 1987 film Maurice, in which a landmark of GLBT literature has been made into a landmark of GLBT cinema. Unlike its male romantic counterpart, Deitch makes many changes to Jane Rule’s classic 1964 novel, Desert of the Heart. This work was both Rule’s first book and Deitch’s first feature. Rule is a distinguished Canadian author (although born in 1931 in Plainfield, New Jersey, she moved to Canada in 1956 with her life partner Helen Sonthoff, to whom she dedicated this novel). She has taught at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, served on the executive council of the Writers’ Union of Canada, and been inducted into both the Order of British Columbia in 1998 and the Order of Canada in 2007. To date, her fourteen books are divided evenly between fiction and criticism. She has won the Canadian Authors’ Association Award for Best Novel (1978), the Benson and Hedges Award for Best Short Stories (1978), the Literary Award of the Gay Academic Union (1978), the Fund for Human Dignity’s Award of Merit (1983), and the Terasen Lifetime Achievement Award for an Outstanding Literary Career in British Columbia (1996), while Memory Board (1987) and After the Fire (1989) were both nominated for the prestigious Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize.

To differentiate the two works, Deitch changes the major characters’ names, although their basic characterizations are comparable. (Although Deitch did not give herself a screenwriting credit, she in fact restructured the novel and wrote the first draft herself, before hiring Natalie Cooper to suggest further changes and prepare the final script.) Rule’s Evelyn Hall has become Vivian Bell (she also switched coasts, from being an English professor in San Francisco to being one at New York’s Columbia University) and Ann Childs is now Cay Rivvers (with two v’s, no less); quirkily, the year is changed from 1958 (novel) to 1959 (film) while the locale remains the same. Some readers are nonplussed by these revisions, but Rule clearly had faith in Deitch to adapt one of her most personal works: she had been turning down movie offers for two decades. Preparing for this review, I reread Rule’s novel and was again moved by its emotional power, and impressed by its literary ambitions.

Another major difference between the two works is that Rule enriches her story by employing a range of allusions – that some readers may find overly-ambitious. She eclectically uses imagery from the Bible, Dante’s Divine Comedy and T.S. Eliot, not to mention the litany of quotations that opens Chapter 7, from Goethe, Joseph Conrad, Sappho and others (she certainly gives my BA in English Literature a power workout). The most frequently mentioned author is Yeats, and in fact Rule draws her title from the final quatrain of W.H. Auden’s elegy, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” (1939): “In the desert of the heart / Let the healing fountain start; / In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise.” From the pivotal Chapter 5, here is a brief example of Rule’s prose, which effectively combines sensual details, emotional depth, and literary erudition. This excerpt includes the first of three instances in which the title phrase is used – aptly, since Evelyn is a literature professor whose life is both enriched and constrained by her bookishness:

     As Ann bent down toward her, Evelyn took hold of the soft, damp hair at the back of Ann’s neck and held her away. But, as Evelyn looked at the face held back from her own, the rain-gray eyes, the fine bones, the mouth, she felt the weight and length of Ann’s body measuring her own. Her hand relaxed its hold, all her flesh welcoming the long embrace. But simply physical desire could not silence her recovering brain. Slowly, carefully, almost painfully, she turned Ann’s weight in her arms until she could withdraw.
     “I live in the desert of the heart,” Evelyn said quietly. “I can’t love the whole damned world.”
     “Love me, Evelyn.”
     “I do.”
     “But you don’t want me?”…

While the Auden quotation could apply equally to Deitch’s film – in fact, Rule’s passage is roughly comparable to Deitch’s scene in the car, when Vivian and Cay kiss for the first time – her picture is notable for its sometimes visceral directness. Gone are Rule’s allusions, while Deitch focuses – brilliantly and movingly – on the emotional complexity of the two women’s evolving relationship. Desert of the Heart has been streamlined, in the best possible way, into Desert Hearts. Yet Deitch succeeds, not least through her two exceptional leads, in making Vivian and Cay’s emotional journey universal, one that has resonated with both GLBT and straight audiences around the world for over twenty years.

Part of Deitch’s strategy is to use film’s evocative visual and aural potential to enhance the emotional impact. While she avoids cinematic overkill (not so easy to do, in that era of Flashdance), every shot is beautifully composed. We begin by seeing Vivian defined by constricted spaces, from Frances’s and Cay’s cars to her small room at the guest ranch to the lawyer’s office. In terms of symbolic geography, the film’s middle ground is the casino, which has aspects of both confined space and expansiveness in its rows of gaming tables and slot machines. (In a whimsical cameo, Deitch plays a “Hungarian Gambler,” who utters what also could be her motto as producer/director: “If you don’t play, you can’t win.”) On yet another level, gambling is a good, if perhaps overused, metaphor for life and love (as in Scorsese’s The Color of Money, which co-starred Helen Shaver) – central to both Vivian and Cay’s lives. Deitch also carefully stages a handful of key scenes, including the major argument between Cay and Frances, on the ranch’s porch, a liminal space that is both connected to the interior while revealing the vast desert beyond. Although it’s as much a cliche in movies as in literature to depict repression as a desert (even an artist like Bertolucci stumbled in his attempt, The Sheltering Sky), here Deitch focuses as much on the inherent beauty of the locale as its arid symbolism. And it works.

The scene of Cay and Vivian getting to know each other by walking their horses through the sagebrush is representative of Deitch’s technique throughout the film. It’s a quiet moment, with what remains unsaid even more important than the dialogue, and with the dry but alluring landscape counterpointing their still desiccated emotions. When their relationship deepens, we see them ambling along a lake, in perhaps the film’s most visually gorgeous sequence, with the two women framed – by both nature and painterly cinematography – against violet hills in the background, greenery in the foreground, and a reflective body of water between the two. It will come as no surprise that Cay and Vivian’s spontaneous initial kiss – the first time Vivian has ever been intimate with a woman (another slight departure from Rule’s novel) – is during a rain storm. Again, the natural settings simply and directly parallel the women’s burgeoning emotional world. Of course, I was so swept up on a first viewing that I never bothered to stop and think about the symbolic implications.

This is that rare film that looks better every time you see it, revealing not only its emotional/symbolic richness but a meticulous attention to period detail. Every element, from costumes to the inimitable Ford Fairline to the slot machines, is authentic. On the commentary track, it was moving to hear Deitch reminisce about her immigrant mother, who went from seamstress to fashion designer; one of her original late 50’s designs was used for Vivian’s gray business suit.

Deitch’s spending a full quarter of her million dollar budget (low, even then) on music rights – to original ’50s hits by Patsy Cline, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Ella Fitzgerald and others – proved an inspired decision. These period songs, many of which were still enormously popular in 1985 as today, provide yet another level of realness, not to mention emotional impact (the complete music listing is below). The songs define not only the time and place, but literally underscore the yearning and passion of the two protagonists, with a notable example being Ella Fitzgerald’s “I Wished On The Moon” in the final sequence.

Yet the most essential ingredient in the film’s impact is the extraordinary chemistry between Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau (incredibly, this was her screen debut). We believe in these two women, and the reality of their experiences, because we see what they are feeling in their every move and glance. Their love scene is one of the most powerful and utterly convincing that I have seen, as they reveal truths about the complexities and pain and joy of human connection that most films can’t even aspire to.

Of course, Deitch deserve credit for inspiring these performances, as well as for creating a safe working environment that allowed Shaver and Charbonneau to explore and express their characters. She wisely waited until day 30 of a 31-day shoot to film the love scene, whose success is a testament to the trust felt by everyone involved. That scene also brilliantly and paradoxically completes the film’s spatial symbolism, as one of the most confining locations – a tiny, drab hotel room – is transformed into a place of immense erotic wonder, solely through the passion of Vivian and Cay’s connection.

My only reservation about the film is that there is not quite enough development after the love scene and before that fateful train ride at the end. Rule’s novel also seems to race to its close (although she has her characters’ connection physically near the mid-point), but that’s no reason why Deitch or Cooper could not have added at least one more major sequence before the end. On the other hand, the film as it stands certainly achieves enormous momentum in the final reel.

Desert Hearts is not only a film of erotic heat, but of considerable warmth too. Another of Deitch’s best inspirations was to expand the minor character of Frances from Rule’s novel. She is here a feisty yet vulnerable almost-mother to Cay’s almost daughter; and the role superbly showcases Audra Lindley’s range as an actress. This Frances is completely believable as a parent torn between love for the girl she raised and disgust at her coming out as lesbian. Lindley and Deitch modulate a character type that is too often portrayed as a histrionic heavy into a woman of complex feelings. We come to see that her need for Cay is almost as strong, although in a non-erotic way, as Vivian’s. Frances and Cay’s understated final scene together is one of the film’s most evocative moments.

Also moving though in a genial way – which helps balance out the emotional peaks – are, respectively, the friendships between Vivian and Frances’s sweet-natured son Walter, and Cay’s bond with her fellow casino worker Silver. One of countless spot-on details, throughout the film, is the gesture that Deitch and actress Andra Akers use to define these women’s special camaraderie. The first time we see them together, changing in the casino locker room, Silver playfully sweeps her long leg right over Cay. Although this Silver is straight, unlike Rule’s openly bisexual character of the same name, there is a wonderful (non-biological) sisterhood between these two women, not least in the scene when they talk about their respective significant others – Cay’s Vivian and Silver’s fiance – while sharing a bubble bath. Each of these unique secondary relationships enlarges the emotional – and thematic – canvas of the story, while providing added realism. For all of its originality and power, the universe of Rule’s novel is a bit too symbolic to support fully flesh and blood people, while the world of Deitch’s film is as pulsating and unsettling and luminous as the world we all live in.

I was glad to learn, at the end of Deitch’s comentary, that she is now preparing the long-awaited sequel to this film, from her original screenplay. But whatever she achieves there, Desert Hearts remains a special – and enduring – work.

With compassion and wisdom, it shows how new life is waiting to spring forth from inside us, like rain reviving the desert – so long as we accept that our hearts need passion, nurturance, and growth.

As Auden succinctly put it, “In the desert of the heart / Let the healing fountain start.”

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  • Directed and Produced by Donna Deitch
  • Screenplay by Natalie Cooper,
    from the novel Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule
  • Associate Producer Carol Jefferies
  • Co-Producer Cami Taylor
  • Cinematography by Robert Elswit
  • Edited by Robert Estrin
  • Assistant Editor Sandra Adair
  • Production Design by Jeannine Claudia Oppewall
  • Art Direction by David Brisbin
  • Set Decoration by Rosemary Brandenburg
  • Costume Design by Linda M. Bass
  • Makeup by Richard Arrington
  • Hair Styling by Don Marando
  • Sound by Beth Bergeron, John Brasher, Roberta Doheny, Alia Kahn, Austin H. McKinney, Lars Nelson, Jack M. Nietzsche Jr.
  • Music Consultant Robert Estrin
  • Music Supervisors Terri Fricon and Gay Jones
  • Music (transcribed directly from the closing credits):
  1. “Leavin’ On Your Mind” – performed by Patsy Cline
  2. “Rave On” – performed by Buddy Holly
  3. “Amigos Guitar” – performed by Kitty Wells
  4. “Get Rhythm” – performed by Johnny Cash
  5. “Blue Moon” – performed by Elvis Presley
  6. “Be Bop A Lula” – performed by Gene Vincent
  7. Sergei Prokofiev: March from “Suite For Three Oranges”
  8. “Wondering” – performed by Webb Pierce
  9. “Crazy” – performed by Patsy Cline
  10. “When My Blue Moon Turns To Gold” – performed by Elvis Presley
  11. “Honky Tonk Man” – performed by Johnny Horton
  12. “Gone” – performed by Ferlin Husky
  13. “He’ll Have To Go” – performed by Jim Reeves
  14. “Treasure Of Love” – performed by Clyde McPhatter
  15. “Old Cape Cod” – performed by Patti Page
  16. “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” – performed by Kitty Wells
  17. “Cry” – performed by Johnnie Ray
  18. “I Wished On The Moon” – performed by Ella Fitzgerald
  19. (written for this film) “Lookin’ For Someone To Love” – music and lyrics by Steve Ferguson /performed by Andra Akers

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  • Helen Shaver as Vivian Bell
  • Patricia Charbonneau as Cay Rivvers
  • Audra Lindley as Frances Parker
  • Andra Akers as Silver
  • Dean Butler as Darrell
  • Gwen Welles as Gwen
  • James Staley as Art Warner
  • Katie La Bourdette as Lucille
  • Alex McArthur as Walter
  • Tyler Tyhurst as Buck
  • Denise Crosby as Pat
  • Antony Ponzini as Joe
  • Brenda Beck as Joyce
  • Sam Minsky as Best Man
  • Patricia Frazier as Change Girl
  • Sheila Balter as Roadside Waitress
  • Tom Martin as Red Cap
  • Joan Mankin as Casino Waitress
  • Frank Murtha as Minister
  • Dave Roberts as Lon
  • Bob Blankman as Croupier
  • Ron Fisher as Drunk Gambler
  • Gene Skaug as Announcer
  • Jeffrey Tambor as Jerry (uncredited)
  • Donna Deitch as Hungarian Gambler

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Video Release

Wolfe Video presents a 2-disc Collector’s Edition of Desert Hearts, the first time this classic has received the deluxe treatment it deserves (it was originally released in 2001 as a basic single-disc edition). The image and sound quality of this release are good, especially considering the age of the original source materials; Donna Deitch was closely involved in this DVD’s production. Wolfe Video is a leading distributor of GLBT films; Desert Hearts is the first release in the Wolfe Vintage Collection, which they describe as “new DVDs of queer classics and imagery from our cinematic past.”

  • Original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1
  • Dolby Digital 2.0 sound
  • Never before seen additional footage of the landmark love scene
  • Donna Deitch’s all-new commentary, recorded in 2007
  • Ms. Deitch’s March 14, 2007 interviews with Patricia Charbonneau and Helen Shaver
  • Slide show – featuring dozens of rare production photos by Jane O’Neal and David Lear
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • $19.98 suggested retail
LGBTQ+ Cinema / Jim's Film Website
LGBTQ+ Cinema / Jim’s Film Website

Reviewed June 5, 2007 / Revised October 24, 2020

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