Why the Lesbian Classic Desert Hearts Is Still Radical, a Quarter-Century Later

Helen Shaver as Vivian Bell and Patricia Charbonneau as Cay Rivvers.

The Criterion Collection/Janus Films

One of the most talked-about queer films of the year is as hot as its setting. It also happens to be more than 25 years old. In Desert Hearts, Donna Deitch’s 1985 lesbian classic that’s currently enjoying a rerelease and select showing across the country, prim and proper Columbia University professor Vivian Bell takes a train into the shadow of the Sierra Nevadas in 1959. While plenty of people head to the Silver State to get gunshot-married, Vivian is there to get gunshot-annulled. But before she can set her American Tourister suitcase down, Cay, an expelled undergrad-turned-maverick casino gal, puts her black convertible in reverse on a dangerous strip of highway to say hello. A life-altering collision is imminent. Sparks fly.

The Outfest UCLA Legacy Project, a partnership between the Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival and the Bruin’s Film & Television Archive that works to preserve “lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender moving images at risk of becoming lost due to deterioration and neglect,” is largely responsible for Desert Hearts’ renaissance. The Project’s other restorations include The Watermelon Woman, Cheryl Dunye’s seminal meta-feature about cinema and Black queer representation, and Mona’s Candle Light, grainy yet heart-stopping footage of a mid-century lesbian bar that’s not too far removed from Vivian and Cay’s story.

Laura Karpman first saw Desert Hearts while a graduate student at Juilliard. Now an accomplished film composer (Underground, Paris Can Wait) and Motion Picture Academy Governor, she keenly remembers the experience of that first viewing.

“It was life-changing,” Karpman says. “I was living with a woman, but we were both kind of in the closet. I saw it with her. I remember wearing tight Guess jeans. It was the first time I had ever seen anything like that. I almost had to look away and yet I couldn’t stop watching.”

For Karpman, that paradox is a sign that a movie was groundbreaking. “As we look to really bring equality to Hollywood, we see how important it is to see images of ourselves on the screen. Recently when I saw Wonder Woman, I had the same reaction: I didn’t know how much I needed to see what I saw.”

“I think it’s great that people are preserving feature-length narratives like Desert Hearts,” New York-based filmmaker Jim Hubbard (United in Anger: A History of ACT UP, 2012) says. “There’s a huge amount of our history that’s either sitting and waiting to be preserved or quickly deteriorating, depending on the way you look at it.”

Hubbard, whose passion for experimental and grassroots documentary spans 25 years, co-founded MIX: The New York Queer Experimental Film Festival in 1987. Now prepping for its 30th edition, MIX has championed preservation since the beginning and has begun actively salvaging queer work, starting with work by Marguerite Paris (1934–2007). Paris’ filmography includes All Women Are Equal (1972), a touching interview with an older trans woman that Hubbard says is “one of the first, if not the first, interview with a trans person.”

By also securing distribution through Janus Films and The Criterion Collection, Desert Hearts’ reach now extends beyond LGBTQ cult classic aficionados and into the realm of cinephiles. Over its 33-year history, Criterion has cherry-picked a handful of queer-interest titles, including David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho, and Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy. Deitch’s first and only film is in good, and ideally growing, company.

At a recent premiere event at New York’s IFC Center, Deitch, Helen Shaver (Vivian), and Patricia Charbonneau (Cay) underlined the importance of the rerelease by noting how the film almost didn’t exist in the first place. As Donna Deitch’s adaptation of Jane Rule’s 1964 novel emerged, so did the AIDS crisis, the Reagan administration, and a new wave of American homophobia. After spending more than two years fundraising for the film, Deitch found casting to be a hurdle of its own: While being “gay for pay” today often draws acclaim from the Academy and ire from queer spectators, it came with its share of real risk for actors during Charbonneau and Shaver’s era.

“It terrified me and I didn’t look at the script for three days,” Shaver admitted. One of her agents, a gay Canadian, strongly suggested that she not pursue the role of Vivian. “I hope you enjoy it because it will be your first and only film,” Shaver was told.

The furthest thing from a star vehicle, Desert Hearts required guerilla promotion tactics; Deitch herself flyered the cinema in advance of the film. An unsavory early review from the New York Times’ critic Vincent Canby didn’t help matters: His most encouraging remark was that Charbonneau’s standout performance was merely “OK.”

The love that dare not speak its name, while not explicitly addressed in Canby’s review, may have played a role in his aversion. Desert Hearts wasn’t the first film to feature a lesbian love scene, let alone a lesbian love scene orchestrated by female creatives. (Prior depictions of note include Radley Metzger’s adaptation of Violette Leduc’s Therese and Isabelle (1968), Chantal Akerman’s Je Tu Il Elle (1974), Robert Towne’s Personal Best (1982), and an often-forgotten moment between Jodie Foster and Nastassja Kinski in Tony Richardson’s Hotel New Hampshire (1984).) What Desert Hearts was, though, was simultaneously heartbreaking and unbearably erotic.

“The most important thing for me was to tie the emotional and the sexual together,” Deitch said of lesbian desire in the film. “That was a journey that hadn’t been taken before.”

The film’s love scene, shot on the 30th day of a 31-day film shoot, takes place in Vivian’s hotel room overlooking Reno’s commercial district. Desert Hearts is saturated with twangy songs—Cash, Cline, and Presley—but this moment is utterly silent save for the trains outside that chug along like an accelerating heartbeat. While new audiences now find melodrama in some of the film’s more intense moments (see: a scene where Vivian gracefully dismisses a fellow boarder’s gay panic-driven suspicions) given modern advancements in gay and lesbian rights, I still find myself, like Karpman, attempting—and failing—to avert my eyes during this moment of intimacy. All these years later, depictions that can compete with Desert Hearts’ lesbian sex scene can be counted on two hands.

This moving image of two women sharing a strand of saliva premiered the same day that the New York Times recklessly speculated that women could transmit AIDS. Yet honest filmmaking and Xerox marketing actually made a dent in the homophobia of the era: Desert Hearts came mere tickets away from breaking the theater’s box office records and became, according to Deitch, revered as a “Canby Buster” —a film that, despite his criticism, would be destined to stand the test of time.

Desert Hearts’ fans and stars both agree.

“It’s a fucking radical act, this movie,” the moderator of the movie’s IFC Center premiere observed.

“It is a fucking radical act,” acknowledged Charbonneau.

With the help of Criterion and Janus’ release, new generations of queers and cinephiles now get to see where it all began.