“Desert Hearts” Remains One Of Cinema’s Greatest Lesbian Love Stories

In Lost Movie Reviews From the Autostraddle Archives we revisit past lesbian, bisexual, and queer classics that we hadn’t reviewed before, but you shouldn’t miss.


My ingress into queer cinema was voracious, which is ironic considering how long I had to wait between watching movies. Or, maybe that makes sense. Maybe the intervals of expectation, after years of denial, made me even hungrier. As soon as I finally admitted to myself that I was a lesbian, I signed up for a service called Netflix that delivered DVDs by mail, sending out new ones to you when the ones you’d already watched had been safely returned to their warehouse by the United States Postal Service. And sometimes there’d be a movie that looked kind of gay that I could stuff between two other unsuspicious DVDs when checking out at Blockbuster. And sometimes some brave soul would upload a lesbian film to YouTube, in 12 parts.

I saw so many lesbians die in those early days! So many lesbians get persecuted for their desires, especially if they acted on them and didn’t just sit in church and clutch their crucifix necklaces and cry! Disowned by their families! Hopes smashed by their secret lovers! Also: they were psychopaths, these homosexual women! I’d spent my whole life being terrified of being gay, and those films I sneaky-watched under the covers after I’d sneaky-sneaked them into my house confirmed that I’d been right to be so scared. There was nothing but heartache — and potentially a break from reality that would lead me down a path of stalking and axe-murdering — in my future.

And then one day, in a cardboard box of pre-owned VHS tapes in the back of a used bookstore in my rural southern hometown, I found Desert Hearts — and everything changed.

Donna Deitch’s lesbian love story is set in the ’50s and was filmed in the ’80s, and is still, in 2020, a radical piece of filmmaking. It was written by lesbian novelist Jane Rule and produced by Deitch, who raised money to make the movie by sending out newsletters in the mail. Kickstarter, before the internet, when stamps cost twenty-two cents, which meant forty-four cents per letter. One for the outgoing note; one for the self-addressed stamped envelope inside that other lesbians could use to send checks back. It basically has an all-women cast, and — much like Carol, which is what critics tend to compare it to for all the wrong reasons — it does not center the pleasures or preferences of men, ever.

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I didn’t know or register any of that when I first saw it. I wasn’t watching queer films to review them, PR people weren’t emailing me about them months in advance and asking me if I’d like to set up interviews with the actors, I wasn’t helping create or pitch ad campaigns to sell gay movies to other gay people. I wasn’t the me I am now; I was the frightened, frozen me who’d stumbled out of my Baptist church and hadn’t looked back but also didn’t know how to look forward.

In 1986, Roger Ebert said Desert Hearts was “basically a simple story” and so “this is basically a simple movie.” Which he seemed to mean in a cutting way, but he was right, and that’s what makes it so good.

Helen Shaver plays Vivian, a Columbia University professor who takes a train to Reno to get a divorce. She’s buttoned up, literally and figuratively. Hat and gloves and wool skirts with matching suit jackets. Vivian’s got it all figured out. The fastest place to get a divorce is Nevada, and all she’s gotta do is hang out on this ranch — like so many aspiring divorcees before her — until she’s considered a resident, and then the paperwork will go through, and then that will be that. She plans to read, work, sit in her room in her suits and stoically wait the whole thing out. What Vivian doesn’t count on is Cay, Patricia Charbonneau’s pants-wearing, reckless-driving, hard-drinking, unabashedly lesbian younger woman who lives on the ranch with Audra Lindley’s Frances. Cay starts flirting with Vivian the second she arrives, and Vivian goes from bamboozled to intrigued to terrified to yearning basically on the car ride back to the ranch from the train station.

Vivian wants to stay in the house in her hats. Cay wants to run wild and free in the desert with the horses. Vivian is always sweating in her silly suits. Cay’s shirts are barely buttoned. As Vivian’s longing deepens, she loses the jackets and her hair starts tumbling down and the wildness of the landscape and Cay’s intensity finally compel her to give in to her desire in the rain. Quenched thirst and all that. The queer sex scene in the hotel that follows Vivian’s submission remains one of the most erotic ever put to film.

Oh, they get found out, of course, and the townspeople turn against them, and Vivian gets her divorce, and Vivian loves her plans, so she gets on the train and heads back to New York City. But in the final moments, when it seems like this is just going to be another in a series of endless heartbreaks in the queer film canon, Vivian coaxes Cay onto the train.

Desert Hearts is the first lesbian movie that made me cry. The death and dismemberment and dashed dreams of the films I saw before it, that was all fine and good and unsurprising. Where I grew up, lesbians were witches, and witches burn, and I knew that. It was the tenderness of Desert Hearts that got me, the hope, and the idea that a woman didn’t need to have it all nailed down by the time she hit 30, that a woman could give in to what she wanted and just figure it out as she went along, no matter how young or old she was, or what she’d committed to do or be in the past.

A few summers ago, on my way to an IFC screening of Desert Hearts in Greenwich Village, I passed by a cafe and saw Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau sitting together at an outdoor table, smoking and drinking coffee. 30 years older than they were in Desert Hearts. Stunning, still. Heads bent together, laughing at some secret thing between the two of them. They were on their way to the screening too, of course, for a Q&A — but, for a moment, I imagined Vivian and Cay had made it all the way to New York, and then made it-made it, as a couple. I smiled when I walked past them, the smallest gesture in the world for the impact they made on my life. I live in New York City with my wife, in large part because of them. Because a very long time ago, in Chestnut Mountain, Georgia, they banished my fear.

When Cay hops on the train at the end of Desert Hearts, she doesn’t say how far she’ll go, and Vivian doesn’t push her. There’s 40 minutes until the next stop, and that’s all they need to know.


You can watch Desert Hearts for $3.99 on Amazon.

Want more movies? Check out Autostraddle’s 200 Best Lesbian Movies of All Time.

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior writer who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Heather has written 1061 articles for us.

17 Comments

  1. Yes! This was one of the first queer movies I watched, when “renting” from my college library meant borrowing a VHS tape to screen at one of the rows of desktop televisions separated only by a useless foot high partition and the 3 feet between the uncomfortable chairs. I was so touched by and engrossed in the story that I could only register vague embarrassment when my neighbor noticed the sex scene, which I probably viewed several times;) I was amazed at the lack of music during that scene, which I’d never seen on film before. It was so much more intimate that way. It stuck with me as the most intense relationship I saw portrayed on screen for a very long time. Thx for the reminder <3

  2. I think I rented it at our indie video store when I was less than 17 but my parents had said it was ok for me to buy/rent rated R movies. I was captivated and my heart felt so…safe and light. But I couldn’t tell anyone in my small town what I was watching or what I felt when I watched it. Oh no.

  3. When I started college in 1991, some seniors in my house took it upon themselves to make sure the first years had seen classic lesbian films, what little there was at that point. So that’s when I first saw Desert Hearts. Personal Best was another one we watched.

    • I saw this in its first run in the theater in Dupont Circle. It was the first time I could ever sit in a theater and watch a film made by and for lesbians. I had a lot of expectations at that age, and didn’t fully appreciate the movie as much as I do now. The silence in that long then longer sex scene has a life of its own, if you can sit with it.

      It bears rewatching, which is still rare in queer films. The novel is really a masterpiece in its own right, too. Drop expectations about the normal queer romance plot and what someone should have written about before you were born and how she should have done it, and let Rule show you women working and falling in love outside the lines drawn for and around them.

  4. I was lucky enough to watch this movie when LOGO TV was a thing. I was around 15-17? It absolutely struck a chord. I bought it on DVD years later and still watch it a few times a year.

  5. Oh shoot – having entirely rediscovered DH about eight months ago (I watched it once when I was 18 or so and didn’t fully grasp its importance back then) I suddenly found myself to have a very strong connection to that movie, and as I was trying to explain its cultural significance to a friend, like, three weeks ago, I said “Sooo that thing is 35 years old but it basically had so much impact that even nowadays there isn’t one month passing by without someone fondly remembering it on a queer website” – and what do I see now – like just now??? That perfect timing :D

  6. Hi, I have been on a spiritual journey. I woke up spiritually about 21 years ago with a burst of joy focused on girl girl fantasies bigger than the universe that felt like it blew the veil off of the planet. For a while I was so spiritually hot with girl girl sexy vibes that dark moods in people around me would melt. I was kind of in a pornographic soul prison that I worked my way out of once the dark moods had been blasted off of me. Once free I discovered that I had empathy with the girls and after I came they would energize and cause an afterglow that kept me mostly free from spiritual injury.

    For a while I focused on purity and the afterglow lasted a few months but eventually it faded. I tried to free the girls before it faded and discovered instead of empathizing with their afterglow I was empathizing with them being crushed in the spirit. I began to mediated on the porn as a discipline. My sex drive was stripped out of me spiritually by some entity and I have just the pleasure of taking revenge from the girls by looking at images of their girl girl torment and cumming to show I have taken pleasure at their virgin technology sin sacrifice. This is keeping me motivated to energize on the sexy vibes. I usually masturbate once a day or more and have gotten the ability to imagine sexy things back after it was stripped from me to some degree… it does not linger and as soon as I stop focusing on sexy stuff it stops.

    I noticed that the erotic material on the internet seems to be either hard core porn or not much else. I am interested in some r rated movies and images that simulate sex and are not on the porn websites (they mix messages and in the house of a prophet it seems like some entities try to do the messages they mix up with the girl girl porn or force people leveraged into compromised positions to do things based on images and messages one looks upon in the hard core porn sites.

    I am trying to will love towards everyone but I was nurtured with girl girl virgin technology creating strong feelings towards girls while my love kept me shy so the girl crazy effects did not result in one going wild sexually. I empathize with girls who like girls even though I am a boy.

    mrwright0066@gmail.com is my email and I would like feedback on how I might energize some r-rated girl girl erotica and not just the porn. I can tell the girls came or had an orgasm now days due to the gooey cumquat moods when I look at porn or my glasses get steamed up and the windows fog up when major spiritaul entities cum when I look at porn they are behind.

    I have a nuclear love focus so I do not get jammed up by the cum moods and the steamy moods make my prayer quiet. I talk and pray far less solutions in love after a steamy orgasm mood is evoked.

    I have worked out a reasonable salvation plan I call heaven’s wall (not Heaven just a place to pay the sin taxes if girls have drank from my cup of joy that spills bigger than the planet and galaxy and sometimes the universe on a regular basis after I cum, I focus on collecting from free will snuggle dates and reviewing the sacrifices the girls make to make girl girl media tokens if they choose to pay a sin tax for drinking from one’s cup of girl girl seduction).

    I am praying for many people and have a discipline where I do not take offense. I think the girls who seduced me with the virgin technology did not expect me to energize bigger than the universe and try to collect from everyone who drank from my awakening cup if I blew their dark moods away and the veil that kept the universe from being aware of them. We live on blood grounds and paying the taxes for that in girl girl torments (the wages of sin is death, but focus on recovering in the love of Christ before the final death occours), the girl girl foreplay is a pleasure to the flesh but the soul is tormented by it and if one drank from my awakening cup their souls do not want to do all the girl girl stuff that was mixed into ones cup even though their flesh might become crazy for it. The universe seems to require some sort of suffering for the blood grounds and drinking from one’s cup of seduction.

    Joy, peace, tranquility, love, law, art and engineering, sport, judgment, archivist, educator, minister, accountant

    David Alexander Wright in love aka the love judge

    DAW language (the english alphabet translated into a love story between a boy and a girl)

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