By Nancy Ford
Looking for the perfect stocking stuffer for that hard-to-shop-for lesbian on your list? Here’s an idea she’s likely to enjoy and appreciate: a DVD (or, for the more technically proficient, a download gift card) of Desert Hearts (1986), my personal best (pun intended) lesbian-themed movie of all time.
Believe it or not, a full thirty years have passed since Desert Hearts hit the big screen. My how time flies when you’re searching for positive, non-stereotypical images of yourself reflected in the entertainment industry.
A little background: As the sexually rigid Reagan era roiled, the 1980s presented a springboard for images of gay men in the movies. Acclaimed feature films Making Love(1982), My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), the amusing yet insulting Partners (1986), and ultimately the award-winning Torch Song Trilogy (1988) provided movie lovers with positive images of and for the guys.
Cinematic choices for lesbians seeking their own on the big screen were a whole lot sketchier. In 1982, Robert Townes’ then-dreadful, now-campy Personal Best spoke stutteringly of The Lesbian Experience but ultimately caved to a more box-office friendly bisexual ending. And acclaimed author John Sayles’Lianna (1983), while more triumphantly lesbic in theme, couldn’t rise above poor performances and spotty production value.
Then came Desert Hearts. Beautifully written, directed, acted and scored, it won the special jury prize for best dramatic film at the 1986 Sundance Film Festival. Wedged between Personal and Lianna, the triumphant Desert Hearts was based on the 1964 novel, Desert of the Hearts. The story is set in 1959. Lesbian author Jane Rule writes of the occupants who stay at a Reno, Nevada dude ranch just long enough to legally obtain quickie divorces before skedaddling off to their next romantic adventure.
Adapted for the big screen by out lesbian independent filmmaker Donna Deitch, Desert Hearts introduced moviegoers to the unhappily married Professor Vivian Bell who is stuck between tines in the fork of her life’s road. Seeking a divorce, Professor Bell checks in at that Reno dude ranch. There she meets casino babe/sculptor Cay Rivvers who, like Vivian, is stuck between the roulette and potter’s wheels of her own life.
As the story unfolds, the two women help each other get unstuck, so to speak. But most refreshingly, the movie doesn’t end by resorting to suicide or the bisexuality loophole. The two simply board a train and chug away into an undetermined sunset.
Celebrating Desert Hearts’ pearl anniversary milestone, here are a few facts about what’s been happening lately with our favorite ladies of Desert Hearts. Enjoy!
- Desert Hearts was the first of many LGBT-focused productions Helen Shaver would act in. Prior to her role as Vivian, Shaver had appeared in smaller parts in several obscure movies and television series; a four-episode recurring role on the early cop drama, Hill Street Blues, was probably the most notable. But 18 years after wowing lesbians worldwide in Desert Hearts, she was wryly cast as a fanatically conservative religious leader in a couple episodes of Showtime’s The L Word. Before that, she popped up in a small role in Common Ground (2000), a highly acclaimed, made-for-TV movie featuring a triptych of LGBT themes. Shaver also played Erica, the first ongoing transgendered character on a network television series in CBS’s progressive dramedy, The Education of Max Bickford.
- Though she steamed up the screen as Desert Hearts’ uber-confident-in-her-sexuality Caye, Patricia Charbonneau was actually pregnant the whole time Desert Hearts was being filmed. Who knew! Unlike Shaver, Charbonneau played it strictly straight in her few post-Hearts performances. She popped up on a handful of Law & Order episodes (who didn’t?) and she’s currently working on a thirty-minute pilot for HBO’s The Land of Hope and Lies.
- Audra Lindley was irresistible in her Desert Hearts portrayal of Frances Parker, Caye’s stepmother. And that wasn’t the only time she played a character named Frances. Friends of Friends will remember her as Phoebe Buffay’s grandmother Frances in “The One with Phoebe’s Dad” in 1995. Lindley passed away in 1997.
- Playing Silver, Caye’s ditzy best friend in Desert Hearts, Andra Akers was actually an extremely intelligent and well-bred actress and philanthropist. A descendent of William Ellery, who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Akers founded Synergy International. SI is a conclave of an interdisciplinary think tank that brought together video and electronic artists, mathematicians, computer scientists and others, for the purpose of exchanging ideas. Akers passed away in 2002.
- Desert Hearts director Donna Deitch went on to become a prolific director of some of television’s most popular network series, including NYPD Blue, Judging Amy, ER, and the previously mentioned Common Ground. Deitch also wrote and directed Angel on My Shoulder, a 1998 documentary about her best friend, Gwen Welles’ battle with cancer. Welles, who died in 1993, had played Gwen, one of Caye’s girlfriends, in Desert Hearts.
- For years Deitch has hinted that she is planning a series of Desert Hearts sequels that
would elaborate on what happened to Vivian and Caye after they (spoiler alert) board that train together in the film’s final scene. Happy holiday, indeed!