Thursday, April 19, 2012

Movie – Desert Hearts (1985)

Desert Hearts was the first film I ever saw that showed a lesbian relationship as something other than perverse or unhappy.  Instead, it treated the romance with just as much respect as male/female romances in other movies.  Nowadays this might not seem like much, but back in the 1980s it was a huge deal.  The result of this treatment was much praise for the director and actresses, and a moving story for the viewer.

It wasn’t easy to get the film made.  Director Donna Deitch spent four years trying to raise the money for the film.  She finally ended up selling her house to help with the financing.  She then had to convince Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau to accept the two lead roles.  Both of them were warned by their agents that doing this movie would kill their careers.  (It didn’t).

The day before filming started Charbonneau found out she was pregnant, but since the shoot was only a little over a month, she didn’t start to show.  Some people have credited her “glow” with bringing added vitality to the very full of life character she played.

For those outside the U.S., or who are not old enough to have known about this, a divorce used to be much harder to get.  Many states required there be a reason such as physical abuse or cheating by the husband in order for the wife to be granted a divorce.  Very few states had “no fault” divorce.  Nevada was one of them.  In order to get a divorce in Nevada, though, you had to be a resident.  To achieve residency, you had to live there at least six weeks, and then stay until the divorce was finalized.  Because of this there was actually a cottage industry that helped people establish their residency.

In the late 1950s Columbia English Professor Vivian Bell (Shaver) arrives in Reno, Nevada to start the process of getting a divorce.  She is picked up at the train station by Frances Parker (Audra Lindley), who owns the ranch Vivian will be staying at.  While driving her out to the ranch, we get one of the best character introductions I’ve ever seen.

While driving on a long stretch of road, we see a car coming from the opposite direction.  As it starts to go by, Frances just says, “Oh Lord”.  Suddenly, the car screeches to a stop, and starts backing up to catch up with the car Frances and Vivian are in.  A young woman pulls up alongside, still driving backwards just as fast as the other car is driving forwards.  This is the first time we meet Cay Rivvers (Charbonneau).  Cay has sort of been raised by Frances since Cay’s parents were out of the picture.  Cay starts asking questions, introducing herself to Vivian, etc.  Needless to say, the under control Vivian has no idea what kind of person this is, but she knows she’s never met anyone like her before.

Cay works at a casino and is just ending a relationship with her boss because he’s getting too serious.  Over the next several weeks she and Vivian have several conversations and Vivian is startled when Cay casually mentions having had relationships with women, too.  Cay is about the most carefree, full of life person you may ever meet.  Frances is aware of Cay’s preferences and isn’t thrilled when she believes Vivian is getting too close.  She loves her “daughter”, even though she considers what she does “unnatural”.  She believes that it’s the college professor that might be trying to take her daughter away from her.

After an engagement party for a friend of Cay’s, things come to a head.  Cay drives Vivian to a romantic spot and the two kiss for the first time.  Vivian is drunk and responds passionately.  Her own response startles her and she has Cay drive her home.  When they get there, though, Frances assumes the worst because the two have been out all night, so she kicks Vivian out.

Vivian ends up staying at a hotel in Reno.  Cay tries to see her, and after several days, Vivian finally lets her in.  They talk for a long time, with Cay trying to convince Vivian to let her feelings out; to not be so tightly controlled all the time.  The bed in the hotel room starts to loom large behind them.  Vivian has one final protest – “I wouldn’t even know what to do.”  Cay tells her that she can start by putting the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door.  What follows is a tender love scene that is very well played by both actresses.

This doesn’t leave things “happily ever after”, though, at least not yet.  When her divorce is final, Vivian has to return to New York to teach at Columbia University.  Cay, on the other hand, was raised in the wide open desert of Nevada.  She can’t imagine living in New York City.  The ending will be satisfying to some, while others may want more closure.  Personally, I liked it.

This film was loosely based on the novel Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule, who loosely based the book on some of her own experiences in Nevada.  Given the subject matter, it’s surprising that Rule was able to get this novel published in the early 1960s.

Both Shaver and Charbonneau received a lot of positive mail and reviews for their efforts.  Shaver’s two best rewards were receiving a note from Greta Garbo praising her performance, and the fact that she met her future husband on the shoot.  The two have been married since 1988.  Charbonneau found out that model Gia Carangi (portrayed by Angelina Jolie in the 1998 film Gia) had tried to be more like Charbonneau’s character.  The film itself was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and won the Honorable Mention.

There is a sex scene in the film, so if female sexuality bothers you, then this is not the film for you.  For everyone else, if you would like to see one of the first, if not the first, movies to portray a loving, romantic relationship between two women, then this film is highly recommended.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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