Better Sex, Better World

By situating a lesbian love affair in the conventions of classic Hollywood filmmaking, Desert Hearts became a cult favorite.

Nicole Pasulka is a writer and reporter who has contributed to Mother Jones, The Believer...

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Wearing a skirt suit and clutching a brown leather briefcase, Vivian Bell steps gingerly off a train in Reno. It’s 1959 and the New York City English professor has come to Nevada for a “quickie divorce” from her husband.

For the next six weeks, Vivian’s rented a room at the Flatiron Ranch. She plans to lay low, get some work done, then flee, newly single and relatively unscathed. As ranch proprietor Frances Parker drives her from the station through the burnt and blazing landscape of rust-coloured hills dotted with rocks and shrubs, Vivian tells the older woman, “I’ve always lived in the city. I won’t know what to do with all this space.”

Vivian notices the 1957 Ford Fairlane convertible before it appears on screen, passing Frances’s station wagon on a two-lane highway. Tires squeal and a cloud of dust plumes around the car as Cay Rivvers—Frances’s surrogate daughter, who also lives at the ranch—reverses at full speed and begins to drive backwards alongside the older women. Frances, struggling with the steering wheel, shouts an introduction to Vivian.

“Can I call you professor?” Cay yells, amused and inviting behind her aviator sunglasses, wind blowing her dark hair across her face.

In cut-off jean shorts and cowboy boots, Cay Rivvers would look at home on gay beaches and barstools even today. She gives Vivian—in her prim gray suit—a smirking sideways glance. It’s not immediately clear what, exactly, she wants, just that something is on her mind. But any queer woman has likely figured it out: Cay would like to remove Vivian’s dour, professional clothes, unclasp her pearls, and have protracted, emotionally and physically satisfying sex with the older, less experienced professor.

Welcome to the world of Desert Hearts—a film adaptation of Jane Rule’s 1964 novel Desert of the Heart. Before The L Word gave us six seasons of TV about a group of lesbian friends and lovers, before Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon robbed and killed a sadistic mobster and escaped in a cherry red pickup truck, before every awkward “lesbian kiss” on primetime TV, there was this affirming, optimistic romance. Desert Hearts was one of the first movies to centre on a female love story that allowed the women to be together, and it was a revelation when it was released in 1985. Before then, most on-screen lesbians had fallen prey to some combination of murder, suicide, vampirism, nervous breakdown, or heterosexuality.

The story and setting of Desert Hearts suggest that lesbian love and sex existed long before a visible political movement advocated for their rights. 30 years after its release, Desert Hearts resonates more than many overtly political movies with lesbian characters, even those half its age. Deitch uses conventions of romantic love in order to write a new script for lesbian romance. Gay sex isn’t about overcoming some social or political obstacle; it’s a way of becoming a more authentic version of oneself. Desert Hearts continues to have an impact because it reminds us that self-awareness doesn’t just offer better sex, it promises entry into a better world.

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In the late 1970s, a friend gave Donna Deitch a copy of Desert of the Heart. She had already been thinking about making a film about a lesbian love affair, and says she read Rule’s book seven times in a row. She felt the novel was destined to become a film.

Deitch, who is a lesbian, says she set out to make “the movie I wanted to see;” one that was sexy, emotionally compelling, and depicted a convincing and moving relationship between two strong characters in a beautiful landscape. Deitch believes that “the personal is political.” She had never seen this type of lesbian romance in mainstream theatres and if the film were a success it would naturally mean broader representation of lesbian characters. “I had a very definite agenda in making this film: I wanted a fucking lot of people to see this movie. That was it,” she told me.

Raising the money for Desert Hearts took years. Inspired by Broadway producers, Deitch sold shares to investors. “In San Francisco I sold it as politics. In New York as Art. In LA I convinced them it would be a box office hit,” she told a reporter for the Guardian in 1991.

After renaming Rule’s characters—Ann became Cay, and Evelyn was now Vivian—Deitch and screenwriter Natalie Cooper pared down their back-stories and family dynamics, and focused on the themes of gambling and risk. However, the hazards the women face are not violent or socio-political, but emotional. According to Deitch, Vivian has “never been with a woman before and that’s a huge risk for her. For Cay, she’s never been with anybody she considers a peer and who challenges her.”

The production was a labour of love: between Deitch and the material, the director and her actors, and the co-stars. The actors describe a cast and crew who were unusually supportive. Deitch often refers to the people involved in the film as “the Desert Hearts family.”

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Bringing that family together took work. A number of actors refused to audition for the film. Some even turned down supporting roles playing straight characters with no on-screen sex. Helen Shaver told me that plenty of people advised her not to take the part of Vivian. But, “from the first time I opened the script and I got to the description of Vivian Bell—her wide cheekbones and generous mouth—I had one of those moments that doesn’t happen often,” she says. “I hadn’t met the director, didn’t know what the script was, but I intuitively knew I was going to do this.”

Even now, Shaver seems to know this character intimately—the uptight literary woman fleeing a marriage that, she says, “drowned in still waters.” Vivian says “no” often—to innocuous things like rides, walks, meals, drinks, and company. It’s not a big surprise. We’ve seen women like her in films before, ignoring a man’s earnest advances, lobbing insults on the way out of a room, and losing themselves in work or hobbies.

In an early scene Frances is on a screened-in porch needling two other divorcees-to-be staying at the ranch. Vivian walks in looking nervous and apologetic and the women tease her for spending too much time in her room working.

Frances tells them to stop, but in doing so she’s both defending and distancing herself from Vivian. The professor’s work is “too deep for us to understand,” she says.

Struggling to remain polite, Vivian waves off the snide invitation to chat with the women about “sex versus marriage.” (“I’m not an expert in either category.”) As she heads outside, one of the women says she’s heard that academic-types go at it like “banshees.”

“Banshees were folklore women whose wailing foretold death,” Vivian corrects her sharply. “Perhaps you meant to say monkeys.”

This is a clear signal to a knowing lesbian audience: Vivian and Cay will not end up banshees (or vampires or loonies or criminals). They are not animals at the zoo. They’re complex, difficult, and yet fully sexual. Though Vivian’s life seems frozen, she’s full of a brittle, combative spirit. We know that at some point she should or could thaw out—she’s in the desert, after all. The question of how she’ll melt has peaked our curiosity.

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If Vivian is a woman of the 1950s—replacing emotional fulfilment with intellectual pursuits and suffocating within a loveless marriage—Cay could be a harbinger of the decade to come.

Donna Deitch first saw a photo of Patricia Charbonneau at a casting director’s office in New York City. The 25-year-old actress, with her dark hair and angular face, had never acted in a film before. Deitch didn’t care. Charbonneau looked just like she’d always pictured Cay.

Charbonneau was the first person Deitch cast. The two women went to Los Angeles so that Charbonneau could audition with the actresses reading for the part of Vivian. When Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau met, Deitch immediately noticed their chemistry. Over dinner that night, Deitch asked Charbonneau about a moment during the audition when she’d reached out and touched Shaver’s face. “What do you mean I reached out?” Charbonneau asked. The touch had been so natural, she didn’t remember doing it. “It was so obvious that was the right combination,” Deitch told me.

“It such an important, vital, precious moment in my life,” Patricia Charbonneau told me. “Donna was incredible with me. It was a true gift to a young actor who was very naïve and green. I didn’t even know how to hit a mark.”

In the film, Cay, who openly sleeps with men and women, pursues Vivian on a noisy casino floor, across starkly beautiful desert landscapes, and through the cluttered and cozy rooms of the Flatiron Ranch.

The recent popularity of shows like Transparent, Jane the Virgin, and Orange Is the New Black remind us how enjoyable it can be to watch universal stories—of love, crime, family, or faith—with unique characters who live outside the “mainstream.” Thirty years ago, this was Cay. She’s in love with someone deeply different from her. She craves companionship and a bigger, better life. She’s breaking free from the chains of her past and her family while trying to honour both. And she goes through these universal and relatable motions as a wide-eyed soft butch lesbian casino change girl, a singular character in 1985.

Peripheral characters frequently drop disparaging hints about Cay to Vivian. Another divorcée-to-be calls Cay a queer; Darryl, Cay’s former lover and boss at the casino, bitterly suggests that Vivian is “probably doin’ better than I am,” and Frances warns Vivian not to get too close. These implications and the hostility lobbed at the women, and at Cay, in particular, can be tricky to catch in 2015. We’ve become accustomed to cautionary and cartoonish versions of homophobia where the line between victim and bigot is clearly drawn, but in Desert Hearts, micro-aggression and suspicion against the relationship are woven through more poignant and romantic moments.

Depraved images of same-sex attraction among women reflected Hollywood’s efforts “to repress lesbianism in order to give free rein to its endless variations on heterosexual romance,” wrote filmmaker and cultural historian Andrea Weiss. Because these representations were so limited, defined in opposition to heterosexuality, pervasive and subtle homophobia had rarely been seen from a gay woman’s point of view.

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Through most of the movie, while Vivian fidgets and shirks, clearly uncomfortable with her burgeoning desire, Cay’s gaze remains direct and clear. She is infused with certainty, at least when it comes to her feelings. And so, after a late night walk near the lake, Cay stands outside the Fairlane in the pouring rain. She demands that Vivian roll the window all the way down, and leans in to kiss her.

We are deep into conventional Hollywood territory here. In a short essay on the film, media scholar Mandy Merck laments the fact that Desert Hearts uses the language of “popular romance,” where a boy pursues a girl in the face of parental objection, to depict “the seduction of a woman.” The Wild West of 1950s Reno is a fantasy, a beautiful refuge where these women can nurture love and identity that bears little connection to real life for sexual minorities in that time and place.

Still, some traditional obstacles to lesbian love—social and family disapproval, loneliness—follow Vivian’s seduction. According to media and cultural studies scholar Jackie Stacey, these obstacles are minor because Deitch is in a “double-bind.” Unwilling to trot out conventional roadblocks to lesbian relationships—straight guys, death, nervous breakdowns, etc.—the film lacks drama. A man who might come between Cay and Vivian, a stint in a mental hospital, or a suicide attempt would offer more suspense, but reinforce “definitions of lesbianism as a negative category,” writes Stacey.

Deitch didn’t want to punish Cay and Vivian, she wanted us to root for them. The film raises critical questions about the role of art about gay women, and other groups traditionally overlooked in mainstream culture. Are lesbian love affairs just like everyone else’s or do they have the power to subvert romantic ideals and offer new modes of sex and intimacy? And if they are universally appealing can they still be special or distinct from straight relationships?

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At the ranch, Frances, sensing her surrogate daughter’s bond with Vivian has deepened, banishes the professor to the Riverside Casino. When Cay’s desire is challenged, her independent streak surges. She announces she’s moving out. After a few days Cay bangs on Vivian’s door at the Riverside and enters her room. Vivian stands in the corner and downs a drink. The camera follows as she turns to face Cay.

The younger girl is naked in bed. They play their usual tug of war.

“I wouldn’t know what to do,” Vivian protests.

“You can start by putting the ‘Do not disturb’ sign on the door,” Cay replies.

Deitch says that she loves filming sex scenes. She planned this one carefully. It was in Shaver and Charbonneau’s contract that they had to do the scene themselves (no body doubles) and be naked from the waist down on camera. Deitch scheduled the scene for the second-to-last day of shooting. Before now, most on-screen lesbian sex had been in art house films. Even those scenes were often cut or edited down. Audiences saw women hook up in Personal Best and Lianna, which were both released a few years before Desert Hearts, but Deitch was the first lesbian director to get mass audiences to watch a sex scene between women in the theatres.

Charbonneau told me she was “a little uptight” when shooting. “I was uncomfortable being naked with a crew of people there and I had just found out I was pregnant so I was feeling guarded about my belly, but Donna had my back and she really let me go.”

Deitch, cinematographer Robert Elswit, and a boom operator were the only crewmembers in the room with Charbonneau and Shaver. In order for the movie to “work,” Deitch knew the sex, which takes place for five minutes with no music behind it, had to feel “organic to love scenes in our lives.” Deitch wanted “a full scene with a beginning, middle, and end and it had to have some humour in it.”

The actresses move slowly, halting at times. At one point, Elswit told Deitch, “They don’t look like they’re fucking.” Deitch, worried that Charbonneau had heard him, told him to “shut up. You don’t know.”

Shaver told me that when performing in the film, and especially during the sex scene, it didn’t matter that she’d never had sex with a woman before. “At the time, a couple women offered to share their experiences of the first time they had sex with another woman. I said to both of them, ‘that’s not useful to me.’ For me love is love. What Vivian is experiencing is that she’s falling in love and having sexual attraction. If it’s the truth for me, it’s going to resonate with you.”

While filming the scene, there happened to be church bells ringing outside. Deitch got lucky.

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Notable because it rejected tired, homophobic tropes in order to affirm a lesbian love affair, Desert Hearts also garnered several positive, high profile reviews from mainstream critics. (Roger Ebert called it a film of “undeniable power.”) Of watching the movie at a gay and lesbian film festival in 1995, Stacey wrote, “the audience was high on participation and frequently screamed with laughter and pleasure as the conventions of Hollywood romance, which had excluded them for so long, were being used in a lesbian context.”

Though Desert Hearts broke the box office record at the New York City movie theatre where it opened, lesbian film scholars and academics in the 1980s and ‘90s criticized its use of the very Hollywood conventions that charmed film festival audiences. An overt political agenda would likely have drowned out the tentative romance, but queer theorists and lesbian film critics weren’t about to put aside politics to celebrate a successful mainstream representation of love between women. Merck disparaged the movie as “divested of any social or political ramification” and steeped in “the heterosexual tradition of the active pursuit of the reluctant woman.”

But because Deitch’s film transgressed only on the personal level, not on a wider political scale, its relevance and political impact persist. Desert Hearts is an example of the classic notion of personal choice as political action.

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There are women who doggedly track down any and all media focused on lesbians. (I’m convinced this is the only reason anyone has watched Claire of the Moon in the past 10 years.) A lot of these movies are not very good. Desert Hearts is still beloved by many gay and queer women, plenty of whom are younger than the actual film.

Desert Hearts burns brighter than most. A friend in her early 30s was once in band named after the movie. The website AfterEllen has interviewed Deitch several times about both the film and the sequel she’s been writing for years. A Facebook page called “Desert Hearts Mon Amour” collects promotional images, quotes about the film from other lesbian directors, and fan art like “Desert Tarts,” a video send up acted out by Barbie Dolls. Not everyone loves the movie, but those who do are serious about it.

Showing lesbian sexiness without trauma was the movie’s singular accomplishment. Desert Hearts felt good: for the lesbian director who spent years raising the money and writing the script, for the straight women who acted in it, for a generation of younger women who love its retro coziness or how Cay’s legs look in cowboy boots. For Deitch, telling this personal story to a broad audience and striving for universal appeal was an inherently political act. That some critics resented the movie underscores a seemingly unresolvable tension between films seeking wider audiences and those that foster deeper recognition among the communities they represent.

At the end of the film, Vivian is newly divorced and heading back to New York. Cay comes to meet her at the station and their roles have reversed. Vivian is pursuer, entreating Cay.

“Come with me,” she pleads. When Cay resists, Vivian bargains. “Ride with me to the next stop.”

Cay takes Vivian’s outstretched hand climbs onto the train.

Deitch and the actors like to speculate about what happens next. Does she ride with Vivian all the way to New York? Get off at the next stop and return to her life in Reno?

All that’s clear is after the gambling, horseback riding, and sex at the Riverside Casino Hotel is that these two have boarded a train out of the Wild West. They’re headed into the wider world and there are a whole lot of eager women who have come along for the ride.

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