DESERT HEARTS (1986) – AFI Catalog Spotlight – American Film Institute


DESERT HEARTS (1986) – AFI Catalog Spotlight

In celebration of Pride Month, the AFI Catalog shines a spotlight on director Donna Deitch’s 1986 landmark romantic drama DESERT HEARTS, considered to be the first mainstream feature film to depict lesbianism without prejudicial, fetishizing tropes and shame. The 1964 novel by Janet Rule upon which the film is based, “Desert of the Heart,” was written and published at a time in which same-sex sexual activity in Canada (where Rule and her female partner lived openly) was illegal, punishable by up to five years in prison,[i] and it was one of the first overtly lesbian literary works in history to be issued as a credible hardback instead of a pulp paperback. DESERT HEARTS Film Still_Helen Shaver and Patricia CharbonneauTaking place in 1959 Reno, Nevada, DESERT HEARTS follows the budding relationship of an unlikely pair: Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver), a stuffy English professor seeking a “quickie” divorce, falls in passionate love for the first time with a much younger, free-spirited artist named Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau). Though neither actress identified as lesbian in real life, their chemistry onscreen is palpable, and they were willing to perform a love scene (the longest sequence in the film) while many other actresses were fearful of ruining their careers; agents widely refused to consider the property for their clients.[ii] Following in the footsteps of films such as THE CHILDREN’S HOUR (1961) and LILITH (1964) which predictably end in suicide and mental illness, respectively, DESERT HEARTS champions lesbian love and resolves with a queer relationship as triumphant as time-honored, heteronormative romantic happy endings. DESERT HEARTS accomplished “on film what hasn’t been achieved in society – the de-sensationalizing of lesbianism,” as Gene Siskel wrote in his 1986 review, which concluded that the picture was portrayed “in the tradition of classic Hollywood love stories.”[iii]

DESERT HEARTS Film PosterDonna Deitch, who was looking to direct a lesbian love story with commercial potential, was introduced to “Desert of the Heart” at a film industry gathering by a fellow guest, and after reading the novel seven times in a row, she personally contacted Jane Rule in Canada to secure an option.[iv] Rule had been approached by studios previously, but declined their offers in fear that Hollywood would misrepresent her story. Even after Deitch acquired screen rights to the novel, there was interest from major production companies. When studios wanted to reverse the happy ending and hire a male director, Deitch was convinced she had to make the picture independently and set out to raise the budget herself while composing the first drafts of the adaptation.[v] Over the course of nearly four years, an initial goal of $600,000 inflated to $1.5 million, funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts as well as by many private investors, and Deitch ultimately sold her home to cover completion costs. Meanwhile, Deitch teamed with screenwriter Natalie Cooper and the two reportedly met every weekend in Cooper’s hometown of Oakland to review her progress. Deitch wanted the film to present a “twist” on John Huston’s classic THE MISFITS (1961), one of her favorite movies, in which Marilyn Monroe goes to Reno for a divorce and winds up in a romance with Clark Gable.[vi]

After the script was completed, and Charbonneau (in her film debut) and Shaver were cast in the leads, filming began in Reno in August 1984, with a strict month-long shooting schedule that required two scenes each day. Editor Robert Estrin, who previously worked on Michael Ritchie’s THE CANDIDATE (1972) and AFI Alum Terrence Malick’s feature film directorial debut, BADLANDS (1974), had recently established a company that used videotape for editing and DESERT HEARTS marked one of his first projects. Since Deitch could not afford to have Estrin on set every day, as was standard for big budget productions, they innovatively relied on the relatively new technology of video to cut costs.

DESERT HEARTS Film Still_Train scene_Helen Shaver and Patricia CharbonneauIn September 1985, DESERT HEARTS made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and its North American debut at Telluride. Two months later, the movie was shown at the Chicago International Film Festival and was followed up by a screening at Sundance in January 1986, where it won a Special Jury Prize and was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize. Around the same time DESERT HEARTS was released nationally in the U.S. by The Samuel Goldwyn Company in Spring 1986, earning an impressive $2.5 million at the box office, it made an appearance at the first annual London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. DESERT HEARTS celebrated its 30-year release anniversary at the same event (now known as BFI Flare) in 2016 with the special screening of a 35mm print. On that occasion, Deitch announced her intension to start recording the multitudes of stories she heard from women who, after seeing the film, were empowered to come out.[vii] Despite warnings that directing a lesbian movie would end her future chances in Hollywood,[viii] DESERT HEARTS, Deitch’s first fictional feature film, paved the way for a prolific career in television. After seeing the film, Oprah Winfrey hired Deitch to direct the Emmy-nominated TV miniseries THE WOMEN OF BREWSTER PLACE (1989), which was followed by many other directorial gigs on TV series and movies. Deitch has also planned a sequel to DESERT HEARTS for many years, perhaps resolving the question posed at the end of the film: Do Vivian and Cay stay together past the next train station?

As Deitch noted in an interview, now is a time in which Queer film festivals abound, launching the careers of filmmakers who might never have received attention forty years ago, but when she produced DESERT HEARTS she had no assurance that the movie would be seen by wide audiences, as was her goal.[ix] Still, Deitch persevered with the courage and tenacity of a true pioneer, navigating unchartered territory in Queer filmmaking while bringing an honest, relatable story to life without resorting to archaic and virulent stereotypes. DESERT HEARTS remains today not only a cult classic, but a sophisticated and relevant contribution to America’s cinema legacy.

Watch DESERT HEARTS trailer:

Watch director Donna Deitch discuss the making of DESERT HEARTS:

[i] Martin, Sandra. “Jane Rule, 76.” The Globe and Mail, November 28, 2007.

[ii] Keating, Shannon. “Looking Back on the First Major Lesbian Movie with a Happy Ending.” Buzzfeed, March 26, 2016.

[iii] Siskel, Gene. “’Desert Hearts’: A New Story Told in the Old Fashion.” Chicago Tribune, June 6, 1986.

[iv] American Film Institute. Desert Hearts.

[v] Keating (2016).

[vi] Hillgirlz. Donna Deitch.

[vii] Keating (2016).

[viii] O’Hara, Mary Emily. “Filmmaker Announces Sequel to Lesbian Classic ‘Desert Hearts.’” NBC News, December 7, 2016.

[ix] Hillgirlz.



Explore more about DESERT HEARTS and thousands of other films in the AFI Catalog.

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