While Brokeback Mountain does deserve its place in cinematic history, little is said of Desert Hearts, Donna Deitch’s 1985 romantic drama.
It is easy to forget that when Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee’s mainstream film about gay cowboys starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, bowed in 2005 that movies featuring homosexual lead characters were still quite the brave endeavor. Jonathan Demme may have broken some ground with Philadelphia 12 years prior, but Tom Hanks and Antonio Banderas maintain a chaste relationship, barely even touching one another. In Brokeback we get to see two very straight leading men kissing and engaging in anal sex. Yet, the specter of homophobia hangs over both those films. I remember that my father, a member of the LGBT community, went to see Brokeback multiple times, elated that he was finally seeing gay characters receiving compassionate and equal time on the screen. Ten years later, gay characters are commonplace in films from Love, Simon to Call Me by Your Name.
While Brokeback Mountain does deserve its place in cinematic history, little is said of Desert Hearts, Donna Deitch’s 1985 romantic drama that paved the way for later cinematic hits such as Carol. Taking place in rural Nevada in 1959, Desert Hearts not only portrays its lesbian relationship in a sensitive and mature light but allows its characters the elusive happy ending that many gay films deny their audiences.
Deitch based her screenplay on Jane Rule’s 1964 novel Desert of the Heart. The American-born writer had become a bit of a celebrity in Canada, where she moved to escape McCarthyism, as lesbian fans devoured her novel. According to Rule, the Canadian media treated her as if she was “the only lesbian in Canada.” Twenty years later, Deitch’s film faced a similar dilemma. Up to this point, homosexual characters were typically played as arch villains or silly sidekicks. Straight actors almost never played gay characters as such casting would typically be the kiss of death for a career.
Desert Hearts begins when tense New York professor Vivian (Helen Shaver) arrives in Reno to secure a divorce. Though the reasons for this dissolution are unclear, it seems Vivian and her husband were never in love, a marriage of convenience. Vivian is met at the station by Frances (Audra Lindley), the salt of the earth owner of the dude ranch where she will stay until the divorce is finalized. En route, they meet Cay (Patricia Charbonneau), the daughter of Frances’ deceased lover by another mother. As Frances drives Vivian down a deserted Nevada highway, Robert Elswit’s gorgeous cinematography already setting us up for a picturesque backdrop for romance, Cay approaches from the opposite direction. She puts the car into reverse and drives next to Frances, sizing up Vivian, before shifting back into drive just before crashing into an oncoming car. So, Cay is a risk-taker.
The first half of Desert Hearts allows Vivian the time to step away from the constricted life she leads in New York and get used to the open space of Nevada. As time passes, she eschews the tight pantsuits and bundled up hairstyle she arrives with for the more casual look that women wear in that neck of the world. She also becomes fascinated with Cay, a firebrand who works in a local casino and sleeps with women. The interest is mutual. Cay, 10 years Vivian’s junior, has been searching for “somebody who counts” and decides that Vivian may fit that description.
Deitch takes great pains to imbue Desert Hearts with dusty authenticity. Shot on a small budget of $800,000, it has the look and feel of a major studio picture but features a story too intimate for a Hollywood that was unready to tackle such themes. Deitch shows us the seedy casinos and open vistas these characters inhabit. And rather than use second-rate country music, Deitch sold her house so she can buy the rights to songs by Patsy Cline, Buddy Holly and more.
By the time Vivian and Cay finally make love, the scene feels realistic and earned. Vivian has resisted Cay’s advances but when they are alone in a hotel room, she gives into temptation. Rather than move the camera away, Deitch shows us the tentative and then passionate sex that these two characters have been dancing around for most of the film’s run time. Even three decades removed, the scene is still powerful in its intimacy and grace.
Desert Hearts is an important, overlooked film in the struggle to get gay characters on the screen. Twenty years before Heath Ledger cried into Jake Gyllenhaal’s bloody shirt, Vivian and Cay rode off into the sunset on a train together. In an earlier scene, Deitch appears as a woman playing slots in the casino. She tells Cay, “If you don’t play, you don’t win.” As Vivian and Cay push and pull towards the film’s climactic moment on the train platform, they both ultimately decide to play. And for its gay audience, Desert Hearts wins.