The Second Life of Desert Hearts and the Difficulty of Telling Queer Women’s Stories
By: Ryan Coleman
In the past two years, there’s been an interesting resurgence of interest in a 1985 film called Desert Hearts. Desert Hearts is an American film that was independently financed, produced, and directed by Donna Deitch. It stars Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau as two women who fall in love in Reno in 1959 despite personal fears, community hang-ups, and retrograde social mores. It features a packed jukebox soundtrack of happy-sad country western songs, fabulous costumes, lush cinematography from future Oscar winner and frequent Paul Thomas Anderson collaborator Robert Elswit, non-exploitative sex scenes, women with complex inner lives, and romance between women taken seriously and not used to set up a rape, deception, or revenge scene. It is a film about gay women, starring an almost all woman ensemble, adapted from a book by beloved lesbian novelist Jane Rule, and was directed and produced by a lesbian woman. In short, it is an astonishing piece of cinema—among independent films as an independent film, among queer films as a queer film, and among lesbian films as a lesbian film.
In November 2017 the Criterion Collection released its treatment of the film, which included a restored 4K digital transfer, new interviews with the director and stars, an accompanying essay by legendary critic B. Ruby Rich, and more. Just over a year later it was announced Desert Hearts would screen at the 10th anniversary of Turner Classic Movies’ Classic Film Festival. 2019 also marks the 25th anniversary of the network. A magnanimous theme was chosen for the occasion: “Love at the Movies.”
Some of cinema’s most indelible love affairs were set to screen—Gone With the Wind, Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and From Here to Eternity among them. TCMFF screened over 100 movies about love this year. Only one of them was queer. Despite tough competition in the time slot (Do The Right Thing at Grauman’s Chinese and the Ida Lupino noir Road House at the Egyptian) I set off to catch Desert Hearts at Hollywood Post 43, the newly renovated and reopened theater in the American Legion building on Highland.
As the film ended and the lights raised toward the stage I looked around the theater. I traced the arched braces along the long sides of the ceiling with my eyes, honey colored in the intimate light. Rows of buxom red seats unfurled toward the screen like the wing of a tropical bird. Deitch and Charbonneau walked on stage for a discussion moderated by director Allison Anders. All around I heard the stifling of sobs tempered by excited laughter. It was the exquisite relief of representation—the room was filled with queer people, mostly women. It’s been over 30 years since Desert Hearts premiered and the adoration is still vibrant, palpable. I talked to women after the screening who told me it’s the only movie they’ve truly seen themselves in—from and since then.
I imagined all the queer people who must have passed through the Legion’s Hollywood theater since it opened on the eve of the ‘20s. The Stonewall riots of 1969 have come to assume such an outsize distinction in the narrative of queer history that we don’t think of anyone being openly gay before them, if we imagine them existing at all. It isn’t true. Especially not in the fantasy factory of classic Hollywood. Directors like Dorothy Arzner and George Cukor and actors like William Haines and Tallulah Bankhead, insulated by extreme wealth and battalions of publicity managers, flaunted same-sex relationships and queer affects without demonstrable fear their careers would be compromised. Of course it was harder, of course the penalty for transgression was higher, and of course a few examples of pride don’t make up for half a century of shame. But as I sat in the theater, basking in the afterglow of a queer film set in the ‘50s in which no one dies, no one is forced back into the closet, and the ending is optimistic without being unrealistic or didactic, I wondered how representation like this can be so hard to find yet right under our noses?
“Sexism,” a friend texted in response to a version of that question a few days later. There might be more to it, but sexism is at the root of various, interrelated problems given rise by the queer representation in film conversation.
Why are so many queer films about gay men?
Why are so many of the writers and directors behind popular lesbian films men?
Why are so many great lesbian films by women and films written and directed by queer women in general so lacking in exposure, accolades, effective publicity campaigns, recognition at film festivals, discussion by film critics, and so on?
There are a million ways to talk around the fact that the industry is still dominated in every area by straight, cis men.
The whiteness of the industry is a further obstacle to queer filmmakers of color. Dee Rees’ 2011 feature Pariah, which depicts the coming of age and first self-identification as lesbian of a 17 year old African-American girl, was met with broad critical acclaim. It certainly made waves among queer audiences of color, many of them women who are now filtering into and helping diversify and enrich a slow to change industry. But among films that centralize LGBTQ stories, white gay men continue to outnumber both in front of and behind the camera.
GLAAD’s 2019 Studio Responsibility Index found that while queer representation in films made by the seven major studios in 2018 increased by 6% since 2017, the racial diversity of queer characters dropped a staggering 15% in the same time frame. Those characters received an average of under three minutes of screen time compared with their straight costars, and transgender characters remain entirely absent. The disparities between queer films by and about white men and queer films by and about women of color can be crystallized in the differences between the rollouts of Love, Simon and Jinn, both queer coming of age features that premiered last year.
Love, Simon was produced by a major Hollywood studio, was given a huge marketing push, did 17 million its opening weekend, and was independently promoted by streaming services after its release. Jinn was produced by cohort of independent production companies on a shoestring budget, has done less than a million cumulative box office, and to date doesn’t have an entry on Wikipedia. Love, Simon is about a white gay teen boy and directed by a white gay man; Jinn is about a black, bisexual Muslim teen girl and was directed by a black, queer Muslim woman. I saw these films in the same month on the same TV, and they are both great. But thanks to a lack of institutional support the ability of the cast and crew of Jinn to parlay the film’s excellence into further opportunities to tell their stories is dwarfed in comparison to that of the cast and crew of Love, Simon’s to do the same.
Representation matters, and not just so that we can feel alive in a movie theater. Stories remind an audience why they live, but they are what allows the storyteller to survive. When every part of a storytelling industry—financiers, distributors, critics, producers, guilds and unions—coordinates to dampen the flames of women’s stories, queer stories, and the stories of people of color, they dampen the flames of those storytellers’ lives.
Desert Hearts finally getting the Criterion treatment makes it the only film directed by a queer woman to take lesbian love as its central story in the Collection’s entire catalog of available titles. This disparity doesn’t simply reflect what’s out there that is Criterion-ready. Neither does it reflect what audiences want to see. What it does reflect is an industry willing to re-litigate and re-litigate the value of films made by convicted rapists while observing with a forlorn sigh that there just “aren’t that many women making movies.” It isn’t true. The old form used to assess “classics” is just dreadfully limited. Desert Hearts is only one movie, but it may really be perfect enough for its second life to effect a change.
Ryan Coleman is a queer writer of film criticism and creative fiction from Los Angeles. When not writing for publications like MovieMaker Magazine, Hello Giggles, Rue Morgue, the Platform Review, and the Anti-Languorous Project, Ryan is waiting for the call to write the 3,000 word oral history of the making of Catherine Hardwicke's Twilight adaptation that the world deserves.