LGBTQI Week: Revisiting ‘Desert Hearts’

This is a guest review by Angie Beauchamp.

We all hold dear particular films that made an indelible impression on us. Somehow they connected to us as a viewer on an emotional or even a spiritual level; we identified with the story or characters in unusual ways; or we appreciated the craftsmanship so much that we could recite lines or remember the sequence of shots and all of the details in a scene. That ability to touch individuals while also reaching very large groups of viewers is part of what makes film such a powerful medium.
DVD cover image of Desert Hearts

Desert Hearts is one such film for me. In the fall of 1986, still a kid of 22 who had just moved to the city from Podunk, Indiana, I went to the theater in a Boston suburb. There I remember looking around at the audience. I had a hard time believing that I was watching a lesbian romance film in a public place. I don’t think I breathed during the love scene. For the first time in my life, in a mainstream movie theater, I watched a film that gave me a model for what love could be. It made me want to fall in love, to find my own Cay or Vivian and hop on the train to start a life together.

For heterosexual women, the movies and television show them every day what a loving relationship is and what the expectations are to grow up, fall in love, and find a handsome prince (however flawed that may be). For lesbians prior to Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts, nothing of the kind existed on screen. We relied on romance novels from mail order houses like Naiad Press and feminist bookstores if we were lucky enough to live in a large college town or progressive city. Desert Hearts had a limited distribution (i.e. it was not shown in Podunk, Indiana), but it did find an unheard of large audience on screens across the country and abroad.

It is a conventional romance, which is one of the reasons that it is so successful. As Jackie Stacey points out, “it uses the iconography of romance films: train stations, sunsets and sunrises, close-up shots, rain-drenched kisses, lakeside confessions, ‘I’ve never felt this way before’ orgasms.” It is those Hollywood conventions that conjure up shared memories of hundreds of heterosexual romances. Thus the filmmaker uses what are sometimes clichés as shortcuts to elicit particular emotions and reactions from the audience. Although the world of 1959 would certainly have been more challenging for these two lovers in the real world, the cinematic world Deitch created signals that there is an all-important happy ending coming up, a romantic Hollywood ending.

Deitch’s use of music also contributes to the romance convention. The country songs of Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves and Johnny Cash are very emotionally evocative. In particular, they conjure up a feeling of wanting that comes from knowing the themes and voices that accompany these artists’ work. The soundtrack, which took up a large portion of the film’s budget, makes brilliant use of the audience’s previous knowledge. We know how we should feel before the scene plays itself out.

Cay and Vivian in Desert Hearts

Placing the film’s setting in Reno also taps into our shared impressions of the West from movies and popular culture. It is a place in which one can start a new life and throw caution to the wind. The chances for romance certainly would not have felt so hopeful without the wide open spaces and bright, beautiful colors of the Nevada desert. Cay’s cowboy boots and western clothes make her the equivalent of the cowboy who sweeps the newcomer to town off of her feet. It’s the wild westerner who charms the shy school marm, just like we’ve seen a million times in the movies.

Others (like Mandy Merck) discuss Desert Hearts as conventional, criticizing it for not being challenging enough, not tackling issues of lesbian identity, for example. For me, that criticism totally misses the point. Deitch intentionally did not make an issues kind of film. She took Hollywood formula and tilted it on its ear, creating a lesbian love story that audiences still crave today.


Angie Beauchamp is a freelance internet marketer, making her living by managing other people’s blogs and social media. She also runs the Lesbian Film Review.