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Desert Hearts

Desert Hearts

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Desert Hearts is a 1985
1985 in film
-Events:* 3 December - Roger Moore steps down from the role of James Bond after twelve years and seven films. He is replaced by Timothy Dalton.* The Academy Award for Best Picture was won by Out Of Africa, while the highest grossing film was Back to the Future.* Bliss wins AFI Award for best Movie...

Lesbian is a term most widely used in the English language to describe sexual and romantic desire between females. The word may be used as a noun, to refer to women who identify themselves or who are characterized by others as having the primary attribute of female homosexuality, or as an...

-themed romantic
Romance film
Romance films are love stories that focus on passion, emotion, and the affectionate involvement of the main characters and the journey that their love takes through courtship or marriage. Romance films make the love story or the search for love the main plot focus...

 drama film
Drama film
A drama film is a film genre that depends mostly on in-depth development of realistic characters dealing with emotional themes. Dramatic themes such as alcoholism, drug addiction, infidelity, moral dilemmas, racial prejudice, religious intolerance, poverty, class divisions, violence against women...

 loosely based on the Jane Rule
Jane Rule
Jane Vance Rule, CM, OBC was a Canadian writer of lesbian-themed novels and non-fiction.-Biography:Born in Plainfield, New Jersey, Jane Vance Rule was the oldest daughter of Carlotta Jane and Arthur Richards Rule. She claimed she was a tomboy growing up and felt like an outsider for reaching six...

 novel Desert of the Heart
Desert of the Heart
Desert of the Heart is a 1964 lesbian-themed novel written by Jane Rule. The story was adapted loosely into the 1985 film Desert Hearts, directed by Donna Deitch. The book was originally published in hardback by Macmillan Canada...

. Directed by Donna Deitch
Donna Deitch
Donna Deitch is an American film and television director best known for her 1986 film Desert Hearts. The film was groundbreaking as one of the first releases to depict a lesbian love story in a generally mainstream, albeit art house, vein but with positive and respectful themes...

, the film stars Helen Shaver
Helen Shaver
Helen Shaver is a Canadian actress and film and television director.-Early life:Shaver was born and raised in St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada, a small city located near London, Ontario, with five sisters...

 and Patricia Charbonneau
Patricia Charbonneau
Patricia Charbonneau is an American actress, probably best known for playing the part of Cay Rivvers in Desert Hearts, her first film role.Charbonneau was born in Valley Stream, New York on Long Island...

 with a supporting performance by Audra Lindley
Audra Lindley
Audra Marie Lindley was an American actress, most famous for her role as landlady Helen Roper on the sitcom Three's Company and its spin-off, The Ropers.-Career:...


Plot summary

Desert Hearts is set in 1959. Vivian Bell (Shaver), an English
English studies
English studies is an academic discipline that includes the study of literatures written in the English language , English linguistics English studies is an academic discipline that includes the study of literatures written in the English language (including literatures from the U.K., U.S.,...

 professor at Columbia University
Columbia University
Columbia University in the City of New York is a private, Ivy League university in Manhattan, New York City. Columbia is the oldest institution of higher learning in the state of New York, the fifth oldest in the United States, and one of the country's nine Colonial Colleges founded before the...

, travels to Nevada
Nevada is a state in the western, mountain west, and southwestern regions of the United States. With an area of and a population of about 2.7 million, it is the 7th-largest and 35th-most populous state. Over two-thirds of Nevada's people live in the Las Vegas metropolitan area, which contains its...

 to establish six-week residency to obtain a divorce
Divorce is the final termination of a marital union, canceling the legal duties and responsibilities of marriage and dissolving the bonds of matrimony between the parties...

. She stays at a guest house for women waiting for their divorces to be finalized, owned by Frances Parker (Lindley).

Vivian meets Cay Rivvers (Charbonneau), a free-spirited sculptor to whom Frances is a surrogate mother. Cay works at a casino
In modern English, a casino is a facility which houses and accommodates certain types of gambling activities. Casinos are most commonly built near or combined with hotels, restaurants, retail shopping, cruise ships or other tourist attractions...

 as a change operator in Reno
Reno is the fourth most populous city in Nevada, US.Reno may also refer to:-Places:Italy*The Reno River, in Northern ItalyCanada*Reno No...

, and is ending a relationship with Darrell, her boss, because as she put it, she "allowed (her)self to be attracted to his attraction" for her. When Vivian arrives, Cay notices her, and tightly controlled and elegant Vivian in turn is taken aback by Cay's boldness and lack of concern of what others think of her. Cay reveals that she has had relationships with women in the past. Frances notices that Vivian is becoming a bigger part of Cay's life and resents her for it, afraid that Cay will leave her and she will be alone. When everyone attends an engagement party for Cay's best friend Silver, Cay drives a drunken Vivian to Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe
Lake Tahoe is a large freshwater lake in the Sierra Nevada of the United States. At a surface elevation of , it is located along the border between California and Nevada, west of Carson City. Lake Tahoe is the largest alpine lake in North America. Its depth is , making it the USA's second-deepest...

 afterwards and kisses her. Vivian returns it passionately and is so surprised by her response that she begs Cay to take her home. When they return at the ranch in the early morning, Frances has had Vivian's bags packed and a taxi waiting for her, furious (wrongfully assuming) that she has seduced Cay. Cay leaves the ranch immediately and Vivian endures the rest of her stay in a hotel casino.

After some days apart, both Cay and Vivian are clearly confused and hurt. Cay goes to visit Vivian at her hotel and overcomes Vivian's resistance to making love to another woman and they begin an affair. With Vivian's impending finalization of her divorce, they must sort out the future of their relationship, Vivian afraid of what people will think of her, and Cay unsure of what she would ever do in New York City
New York City
New York is the most populous city in the United States and the center of the New York Metropolitan Area, one of the most populous metropolitan areas in the world. New York exerts a significant impact upon global commerce, finance, media, art, fashion, research, technology, education, and...

. Frances and Cay are brought together, and Cay admits to Frances that Vivian has "reached in and put a string of lights around her heart". As Vivian is at the train station to take her back, she convinces Cay to discuss coming with her just until the next station.

Critical reception

Desert Hearts is notable for being the first film to depict a lesbian relationship where both characters enjoy a satisfactory ending, in contrast to previously released films such as Personal Best that focus less on the relationship of the main characters, and where one returns to a relationship with a man.

The New York Times wrote that the film is "so earnest and sincere that it deserves an A for deportment," but criticized the lack of imagination in the writing and characters. However, The Times
The Times
The Times is a British daily national newspaper, first published in London in 1785 under the title The Daily Universal Register . The Times and its sister paper The Sunday Times are published by Times Newspapers Limited, a subsidiary since 1981 of News International...

in London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

 praised the film wholeheartedly, including both actors in the leading roles, writing "Fuelled by vibrant performances and an expert script that articulates feelings without ascending into wordy clouds, Desert Hearts rises far above such pigeon-hole categories as the nostalgic period drama or the lesbian love-story. Deitch's film is a passionate, beautifully controlled drama about making choices and exercising the heart: in a word, about living." The Washington Post also praised the film highly, calling it "polished" and remarking, "Donna Deitch's first feature, touches something about love that few movies even hint at - not the tremulousness, or the hiding and jousting (although there is that), but the way the attraction of two lovers warps the world around them, throws it out of whack," although criticizing some aspects of the cinematography
Cinematography is the making of lighting and camera choices when recording photographic images for cinema. It is closely related to the art of still photography...

. Desert Hearts has an 83% rating at Rotten Tomatoes
Rotten Tomatoes
Rotten Tomatoes is a website devoted to reviews, information, and news of films—widely known as a film review aggregator. Its name derives from the cliché of audiences throwing tomatoes and other vegetables at a poor stage performance...

, and Roger Ebert
Roger Ebert
Roger Joseph Ebert is an American film critic and screenwriter. He is the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.Ebert is known for his film review column and for the television programs Sneak Previews, At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, and Siskel and Ebert and The...

 gave Desert Hearts two and a half stars for the simplicity and directness of the film, but noting the surprising power of the romantic scenes.

In time, however, the film has been recognized for its quality and impact. In 1996, the Sydney Morning Herald declared, "Donna Deitch's 1985 Desert Hearts is widely regarded as one of the best and most significant mainstream fiction films about lesbians." And The Globe and Mail
The Globe and Mail
The Globe and Mail is a nationally distributed Canadian newspaper, based in Toronto and printed in six cities across the country. With a weekly readership of approximately 1 million, it is Canada's largest-circulation national newspaper and second-largest daily newspaper after the Toronto Star...

said of it, "the film is one of the first and most highly regarded works in which a lesbian relationship is depicted favourably."

Helen Shaver claims that Greta Garbo
Greta Garbo
Greta Garbo , born Greta Lovisa Gustafsson, was a Swedish film actress. Garbo was an international star and icon during Hollywood's silent and classic periods. Many of Garbo's films were sensational hits, and all but three were profitable...

 was so impressed with her performance in the film that they attempted to meet but due to Garbo's poor health instead discussed her performance over the phone. Patricia Charbonneau, in turn, learned that model Gia Carangi
Gia Carangi
Gia Marie Carangi was an American fashion model during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Carangi is considered by some to be the first supermodel, although that title has been given to others, including Janice Dickinson, Dorian Leigh, and Jean Shrimpton...

 patterned herself after Cay's character.

Author and lesbian literary critic Camile Paglia praised the movie for its riveting performances, having seen it 11 times in theaters. She claims that Patricia Charbonneau's magic is coming from hormonal glow, as she had found out she was pregnant before shooting began, and was sick on the set. In her landmark work Sexual Personae
Sexual Personae
Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson is a groundbreaking and controversial survey of sexual decadence in Western literature and the visual arts written by scholar Camille Paglia.-Overview:...

, Paglia said the lanky, spirited, mercurial Charbonneau would have made a perfect transvestite Rosalind in Shakespeare's As You Like It
As You Like It
As You Like It is a pastoral comedy by William Shakespeare believed to have been written in 1599 or early 1600 and first published in the folio of 1623. The play's first performance is uncertain, though a performance at Wilton House in 1603 has been suggested as a possibility...


Production notes

It took director Donna Deitch (who makes a cameo appearance as a heavily accented woman playing two slot machines at a time. Her line: "If you don't play, you can't win.") four years to raise the $1.5 million for the film and eventually had to sell her home to make it. She also encountered difficulty finding actors who would portray lesbians so explicitly.

Deitch was surprised to learn 20 years after the film's release that both actors were told by their friends and agents that this film would ruin their careers. In a 1986 interview, Shaver told the story that she was up for a role in Joshua Then and Now, which would have promoted her career much farther than Desert Hearts. Donna Deitch assured her over the phone that she was right for her movie and told her she refused to hang up the phone until she got an answer. And after five minutes, Shaver accepted the role. Shaver explained her feelings about the film. "I was scared, not about the lesbianism — the script said, 'The passion builds' in the love scene, so once I knew how the passion built and where the camera would be, that was fine — but because someone wanted me to do what I'd wanted to do all along, and here it was, and all I had to do was say yes. I had always wanted to carry a movie. Now, if I never make another one, I've done this. For the first time, I feel I've done a complete work on film."

Patricia Charbonneau discovered the day before filming began that she was pregnant, although it mostly didn't show since the filming took 35 days. In an interview in 1986, Charbonneau said, "When I first read it, I thought, 'Well, everything that I've done so far people have taken a risk with me. I wanted to do something that at least people would talk about. Even if they hated it, they'd be talking about it." Commenting on doing such an explicit love scene, Charbonneau said, "Kissing Helen wasn't the hard part, really. The hard part was just walking out on the set naked and just standing there."

Deitch insisted that the lesbian sex scene, rated by many viewers as the best in cinema, not be edited or altered in any way. When producers of The L Word
The L Word
The L Word is an American co-production television drama series originally shown on Showtime portraying the lives of a group of lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people and their friends, family and lovers in the trendy Greater Los Angeles, California city of West Hollywood...

 began production of that television show, they required the actors to view Desert Hearts to show them a well-made lesbian love scene.

Deitch mentioned in the director commentary of the 20th anniversary DVD release that approximately 20% of her budget went to obtaining the rights to the original music in the film. The soundtrack included songs by Patsy Cline
Patsy Cline
Patsy Cline , born Virginia Patterson Hensley in Gore, Virginia, was an American country music singer who enjoyed pop music crossover success during the era of the Nashville sound in the early 1960s...

, Elvis Presley
Elvis Presley
Elvis Aaron Presley was one of the most popular American singers of the 20th century. A cultural icon, he is widely known by the single name Elvis. He is often referred to as the "King of Rock and Roll" or simply "the King"....

, Buddy Holly
Buddy Holly
Charles Hardin Holley , known professionally as Buddy Holly, was an American singer-songwriter and a pioneer of rock and roll...

, Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Jane Fitzgerald , also known as the "First Lady of Song" and "Lady Ella," was an American jazz and song vocalist...

, Patti Page
Patti Page
Clara Ann Fowler , known by her professional name Patti Page, is an American singer, one of the best-known female artists in traditional pop music. She was the best-selling female artist of the 1950s, and has sold over 100 million records...

, Kitty Wells
Kitty Wells
Ellen Muriel Deason , known professionally as Kitty Wells, is an American country music singer. Her 1952 hit recording, "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels", made her the first female country singer to top the U.S. country charts, and turned her into the first female country star...

, Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash
John R. "Johnny" Cash was an American singer-songwriter, actor, and author, who has been called one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century...

, Ferlin Husky
Ferlin Husky
Ferlin Eugene Husky was an early American country music singer who was equally adept at the genres of traditional honky honk, ballads, spoken recitations, and rockabilly pop tunes...

, and Jim Reeves
Jim Reeves
James Travis Reeves , better known as Jim Reeves, was an American country and popular music singer-songwriter. With records charting from the 1950s to the 1980s, he became well-known for being a practitioner of the Nashville sound...

. Deitch asked the studio to extend the rights to the music to release a soundtrack on record or cassette, but the studio declined.

Helen Shaver met her husband, key grip Steve Smith, on the set of this film. They've been married since 1988 and they have a grown son.

Awards and nominations

  • 1987 Independent Spirit Award for Best Female Lead - Patricia Charbonneau (nominated)
  • 1985 Locarno International Film Festival
    Locarno International Film Festival
    The Film Festival Locarno is an international film festival held annually in the city of Locarno, Switzerland since 1946. After Cannes and Venice and together with Karlovy Vary, Locarno is the Film Festival with the longest history...

     Bronze Leopard - Helen Shaver (winner)
  • 1986 Sundance Film Festival
    Sundance Film Festival
    The Sundance Film Festival is a film festival that takes place annually in Utah, in the United States. It is the largest independent cinema festival in the United States. Held in January in Park City, Salt Lake City, and Ogden, as well as at the Sundance Resort, the festival is a showcase for new...

     Honorable Mention - Dramatic
  • 1986 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize (nominated)

DVD release

Desert Hearts was released on Region 1 DVD
A DVD is an optical disc storage media format, invented and developed by Philips, Sony, Toshiba, and Panasonic in 1995. DVDs offer higher storage capacity than Compact Discs while having the same dimensions....

 on January 23, 2001.
A new 2-Disc Collector's Edition DVD, on Region 1, was released in North America on June 6, 2007.

External links

  • Desert Hearts movie trailer at Wolfe Video
    Wolfe Video
    Wolfe Video is the oldest and largest exclusive distributor of gay and lesbian films in North America.Founded in 1985 in New Almaden by Kathy Wolfe, the company began as a consumer mail order distribution company for lesbian VHS videos but has evolved over the years to become a full-service...

  • Hearts Director