Desert Hearts (1985)
Written by Natalie Cooper
Directed by Donna Deitch
It wasn’t too long ago that even in what is considered the “liberal bastion of Hollywood,” being out of the closet or even depicting a loving gay relationship was taboo. LGBTQ characters were relegated to supporting roles or, in sadly too many cases villains. Lesbian parts were often either psychologically manipulative of straight women or tragically destined to be alone or kill themselves. If you were an LGBTQ teen, there weren’t many positive media representations to help you get through adolescence and understand what romantic love looked like for someone like you. Director Donna Deitch set out to find a story that featured a lesbian romance outside of the urban and bohemian. She wanted a Middle America to help showcase how normal it was to everyone.
In Desert Hearts, we follow Vivian Bell, an English professor at Columbia University in 1959. She comes to Reno, Nevada, to establish residency and get a quickie divorce from her husband. This involves Vivian lodging at the ranch home of Frances, an older woman who specializes in housing women for this very reason. Vivian plans to keep to herself and then return home but meets Cay, the daughter of Frances’s deceased lover. Cay was raised by Frances and is an open lesbian. The people in Cay’s life try to ignore this aspect about her or, in the case of her boss at the casino, try to marry her promising he’ll just look the other way until this “phase” passes.
The romance at the center of Desert Hearts is all about a clash of not just sexuality but regional views, age, and class divisions. Vivian comes from a wealthy, more academic culture, and Cay is all about freewheeling in the Nevada desert and drinking at the bars. We don’t get to see the love story develop in the way we might expect until both women are away from the prying eyes of others. Vivian even bristles when Cay tries to hold her hand in public, afraid of a stranger’s admonishment. While Vivian is a decade older than Cay, Cay walks with more confidence in herself, having learned to face down the judgemental looks of others for a long time.
This would make a fantastic companion piece to Brokeback Mountain not just because of its LGBTQ themes but in that it embraces its rural environs and makes them apart of the story and how the characters behave. Vivian admits she looks down on these people at one point, snapping that when she returns to New York, she’ll write a scathing short story about them. She implores Cay to leave Reno and come back with her to New York, where they might find a subculture larger and more open to their relationship. We know Cay isn’t going to leave, though, because while she is a lesbian that is one facet, she is also a product of the region around her and knows urban living would be so alien and difficult to adopt.
Desert Hearts exists as a universal film about love with its theme of taking risks or never gaining anything. Vivian is so reserve and staid through her body language, the way she speaks, even her hairstyle. It’s when we see her let go of conventions and formality that she really comes alive. Her love for Cay is the most significant risk in her life, and by the end of the film, it’s clear they aren’t going to ride off in the sunset. It’s a bittersweet endnote about daring to love knowing it won’t last, but savoring the fleeting moments given to you. I loved how Desert Hearts acknowledged the prejudices of the culture around these women but didn’t wallow or seek to bring fatal tragedy into the mix. No one is going to die, but hearts may be broken. My own wish is that the film had been less straightforward in the interactions between our leads, gave some depth to their interactions, and more subtlety. It’s still a remarkable movie, and, sadly, we don’t yet see this care given to LGBTQ relationships in mainstream cinema today.