“Desert Hearts” returns to the big screen at Out North
by Mel Green
Out North bring the lesbian classic Desert Hearts back to the big screen (free!) this Friday and Saturday, April 6 and 7. This groundbreaking 1986 film is loosely based on the equally-groundbreaking 1964 novel Desert of the Heart by Canadian writer Jane Rule.
Set in 1950s Nevada, Desert Hearts is the story of an unhappily married English professor and a ranch owner’s daughter and the intimacy and emotions that arise between the two.
This ground-breaking 1986 film was revolutionary in many ways. It ushers in a new era of positive images of lesbians as portrayed in the celluloid world — up to that point they were predominantly represented as victims of heinous lives and wretched deaths. Though only an indie film, it set a new standard for the way sex scenes were composed and shot, and an unprecedented (and very impressive) percentage of the budget was set aside for the soundtrack.
And while you many of us have seen this film at home, nothing beats seeing Cay roar across the big screen driving backward in effort to meet Vivian, nor the sensitive and erotic images when the two come together. Sure to please again those of us who saw it the first time, it is an absolute must see for the next generation. Come see this classic on the big screen and participate in the discussion afterward!
Desert Hearts is loosely based on the equally groundbreaking 1964 novel Desert of the Heart by Canadian lesbian author Jane Rule. Rule often visited family members in Reno, Nevada, where the novel is set, and she worked one summer in a casino there in order to research the book. One of the novel’s main characters, Ann Childs (given the name Cay Rivvers in the film) is a casino worker. Rule finished the novel in 1961, but it took three years and about 25 rejections from American publishers before she finally sold it to Macmillan Canada. At the time of publication, Rule was a lecturer at University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and her job was threatened because of the novel’s lesbian theme.
Macmillan Canada took the unusual step of publishing it in hardback: most novels of that era that dealt with female homosexuality were considered lesbian pulp fiction. Indeed, Rule later recalled one publisher who rejected the novel telling her that “If this book isn’t pornographic, what’s the point of printing it … if you can write in the dirty parts we’ll take it but otherwise no…”
The novel’s title quotes a poet W.H. Auden’s his elegy for Yeats —
In the desert of the heart
Let the healing fountain start.
— appropriate for the novel’s other principal character, Evelyn Hall (renamed Vivian Bell in the film), a professor of English literature at University of California. Its resonance for the book comes from what it symbolized in the hearts of both women: for Evelyn, the stark loneliness she feels when as she arrives in the desert-surrounded city of Reno to obtain a divorce; for Ann, also a place of loneliness, but also of rich comfort. As the novel, and their love, progresses, the meaning of the desert changes for both of them.
Desert of the Heart‘s first paperback publication was in 1977 by Talonbooks, an independent publisher of Canadian literature. I bought the copy that I still own at Boston’s Glad Day Bookshop in 1978 or 1979, shortly after my own coming out.
Years later, it took Desert Heart‘s director Donna Deitch four years to raise $1.5 million to make the film — some lesbian residents may remember efforts to help raise money for the film here in Alaska in the mid-1980s. Deitch even sold her home to help fund the movie. Deitch has a cameo in the film as a heavily accented woman playing two slot machines with the line “If you don’t play, you can’t win.”
Besides funding, the other challenge Deitch had in making the movie was in finding actors to play the two principal roles. Both Helen Shaver, who played Vivian Bell (the novel’s Evelyn Hall) and Patricia Charbonneau, who played Cay Rivvers (the novel’s Ann Childs) were told by friends and agents that the film would ruin their careers. But in a 1986 interview with the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail, Shaver told the interviewer,
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.
In another interview, also with The Globe and Mail, 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….
… Kissing Helen [Shaver] wasn’t the hard part, really. The hard part was just walking out on the set naked and just standing there.
Filming the movie took 35 days — a good thing for Charbonneau’s character, as she learned two days before filming began that she was pregnant with her first child, who she still refers to sometimes as her “Desert Hearts baby.” Helen Shaver, for her part, met key grip Steve Smith on the film’s set, marrying him in 1988. Both actors went on to varied careers in theatre, film, and television.
According to Deitch’s director’s commentary on the 20th anniversary DVD release, about 20 percent of the film’s budget went towards obtaining rights to use original 1950s era music in the film soundtrack, including songs by Patsy Cline, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Ella Fitzgerald, Patti Page, Kitty Wells, Johnny Cash, Ferlin Husky, and Jim Reeves.
Desert Hearts received the following nominations and honors:
- 1987 Independent Spirit Award for Best Female Lead — Patricia Charbonneau (nominated)
- 1985 Locarno International Film Festival Bronze Leopard — Helen Shaver (winner)
- 1986 Sundance Film Festival Honorable Mention — Dramatic
- 1986 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize (nominated)
A big hat tip to Maureen Suttman for arranging to bring this great film back to the big screen.
- Date/time: Friday and Saturday, April 6–7, 7:00 PM.
- Location: Out North Contemporary Art House, 3800 Debarr Rd, Anchorage (see map)
- Cost of admission:Free admission, though donations are encouraged as they will support additional film screenings reflecting LGBT and cross cultural themes.