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Film / Desert Hearts

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A 1985 romantic drama film directed by Donna Deitch, loosely based on Jane Rule's autobiographical 1964 novel Desert of the Heart.

In 1959, Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver), a repressed, middle-aged English professor from New York City, comes to Reno, Nevada for a quickie divorce. She stays at a local ranch, where she meets Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau), a free-spirited young casino employee-cum-sculptress who is openly lesbian. Cay soon confesses that she's falling in love with Vivian, who's shocked — especially as she gradually admits to herself that the feeling is mutual...

Desert Hearts is regarded as a classic of queer cinema. It's one of the first films to portray a lesbian relationship positively, and its more-or-less Happy Ending pointedly contrasts with earlier movies about lesbians (and gay men, for that matter) in which one of the gay characters either dies or becomes heterosexual. Not surprisingly, it has a strong LGBT Fanbase.


Compare with Carol, another lesbian romance adapted from a novel and set in the 1950s.

Desert Hearts contains examples of:

  • The '50s: Set in the later part of the decade.
  • Adaptation Title Change: The film is based on the novel Desert of the Heart.
  • Bare Your Midriff: Cay often dresses like this, with her shirt tied up just above her navel.
  • The Casino: Where Cay and Silver work.
  • Closet Key: Cay serves as this for Vivian.
  • Coming-Out Story: Part of it involves Vivian coming out to herself.
  • Creator Cameo: Donna Deitch appears briefly as a casino patron.
  • Divorce in Reno: The reason Vivian goes to Nevada.
  • Drives Like Crazy: In an Establishing Character Moment, Cay meets Vivian while they're both in cars headed in opposite directions. Cay doesn't let this bother her, though — she carries on a conversation with Vivian while driving her convertible down the road backwards.
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  • The Ghost: We never see Vivian's husband.
  • Hair-Contrast Duo: Vivian is prim and proper (and blonde), while Cay (brunette) is much bolder and uninhibited.
  • Incompatible Orientation: Cay and her boss, Darrell. Also the reason why Vivian's marriage broke up, although it takes her a while to realize it.
  • Maybe Ever After: When Vivian gets on the train back to New York at the end, she convinces Cay to come with her — at least as far as the next station.
    Vivian: Come with me. Ride with me to the next station.
    Cay: What, are we gonna get settled in 40 minutes?
    Vivian: I'll talk fast.
    Cay: Send me a postcard when you get there. What is it you want?
    Vivian: Another 40 minutes with you.
  • Modest Orgasm: Cay and Vivian are (relatively) quiet during their sex scene.
  • Nice Guy: Joe, boyfriend of Silver, Cay's co-worker. In 50s Nevada he's kind and supportive, and he doesn't mind at all if his girlfriend wants to take a bath with her lesbian best friend. He'll even cook them all dinner. She lampshades how nice a guy he is:
    Silver: Joe. I'm afraid that if it will stay this good... I'll find a way to fuck it up.
    Joe: [fondly] Babe. Don't I always get you through the good times?
  • Reality Has No Soundtrack: The film has no background music, although contemporary hits by a variety of artists (including Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and Johnny Cash) are heard on radios.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Cay is the red, Vivian is the blue.
  • Reveal Shot: A memorable one. After Vivian has left the ranch and gone to live by herself in a casino hotel room, Cay comes to visit her. Upset at how Frances treated her, Vivian vents her anger to Cay and the camera follows her into another room while she's talking and looking for a cigarette. She finds one and lights one, while still talking to Cay in the other room.
    Vivian: I don't have a habit of raising my voice. Or false issues. [smokes; glumly] When I retire, I will simply write short stories for my revenge about this town, these people, these gamblers. [Beat, to herself] My only clear memory is arriving. The rest is a blur...absolute blur.
    [She walks back into the bedroom and finds that Cay is now completely naked and sitting up in bed, looking at her]
    Vivian: Oh, God! What do you think you are doing?
    Cay: [smiling] Waiting for you.
  • Romantic Rain: Cay and Vivian share a kiss in the rain at one point.
  • Snark-to-Snark Combat: This exchange between Vivian and Lucille, a homophobic ranch guest.
    Lucille: Did you know that [Cay] was kicked out of college for "unnatural acts," as they say?
    Vivian: Shall I raise my eyebrows and gasp?
    Lucille: Well, I'm definitely out to lunch when it comes to queers. Aren't you?
    Vivian: I don't think either of us will be sorely missed, Lucille.
    Lucille: Well, nobody said it didn't take all kinds, Vivian.
    Vivian: And you're certainly making a unique contribution.
  • Uptight Loves Wild: Vivian is the uptight, Cay is the wild.
  • Unbuilt Trope: One of the first mainstream Hollywood movies about an LGBT love affair...where neither character dies or converts, there's No Antagonist, and no Downer Ending, sins which many, many gay romance films before and since have fallen victim to.