I was thrilled to realize that this classic of queer cinema was set in 1959 so I could give it a review here! Desert Hearts (1985) is a wonderful indie film that I saw several times back in the day and can easily say it stands up today as entertaining, engaging, sweet, sexy, and relevant.
The short summary is that a stuffy professor, Vivian (Helen Shaver) arrives in Reno, Nevada, to get a divorce. In that period, she’d have to live in the state for 6 weeks to establish residency, so she’s staying at guest house ranch run by Frances (Audra Lindley), who often hosts women getting divorces. Also living on the ranch is Frances’ kind-of step-daughter Cay (Patricia Charbonneau). She works at a casino in town and is pretty open about her female lovers. Cay and Vivian slowly connect throughout the story, as Vivian figures herself out. All of this happens to a fantastic soundtrack of Patsy Cline, Buddy Holly, and Johnny Cash.
This is, quite simply, the first full film about a lesbian romance from a lesbian point of view — not from the male gaze, not to sensationalize the story, and not to punish the characters. A few other movies had danced around the idea, some TV shows had “very special episodes” that suggested lesbians could love each other without suffering horrible consequences, but the previous stories out there were either “coded” lesbian and/or had a tragic ending to “prove” that lesbian happiness was impossible. Go ahead, dig around through pre-1985 queer female cinema, it’s pretty dire (not saying it’s been great since, but it was even worse before Desert Hearts!).
Director Donna Deitch made this movie on a tiny budget, but the cinematography is beautiful and enough details are there to evoke the period. She spent almost 25% of that little budget on securing the music rights, which was worth it. Costume designer Linda M. Bass (no relation that I know of!) did a solid job conveying who these characters are in the context of late ’50s Nevada. In a Criterion Collection interview, Deitch said of the costumes:
“What I really wanted here, especially with Cay, was for her to wear things that were not screaming period, not screaming fifties, that could be worn now with an adjustment. The cutoff jeans — you could wear those now! I wanted to make her wardrobe somehow span these different decades. Sometimes, if you stick very strictly to the costumes of the era, it can become cliché and claustrophobic, and you can’t be as expansive with the character wearing them.”
And yet, the director insisted on using some vintage patterns from her own mother, who was a designer and seamstress, saying in the same interview:
“When it came time to get on with the wardrobe for Vivian Bell, I really wanted to use one of my mother’s outfits. So that outfit that she wears when she walks out of the courtroom and at the wedding — that’s my mother’s design.”
A historical view is still there, in spite of that idea of making it look relatable.
Vivian’s suits, hats, heels, and pearls set her apart from the Reno gals — she’s an East Coast lady, a working professor, literally and figuratively buttoned-up at first.
Vivian wears wide-legged, high-waist trousers for horse riding at the ranch. Very practical a la Kate Hepburn. While another ranch guest, Lucille (Katie La Bourdette) wears dungarees, a Western embroidered blouse, and a big bouffant hairstyle while she gossips and said homophobic things about Cay.
As Vivian starts to socialize with Cay, she tries on Western wear, slowly loosening up.
Have you seen Desert Hearts?