“Desert Hearts” gave lesbians their first happy ending

Kissing scene from "Desert Hearts"
Photo: Screenshot

*Warning: spoilers ahead 

“I want an honest life… I want to be free of who I’ve been.” 

This line — spoken to her divorce lawyer — was delivered by actress Helen Shaver while playing Vivian in the film Desert Hearts. A professor of English Literature at Columbia University, Vivian had traveled from the bustling New York City to the deserts of Reno to quickly finalize her divorce from her husband. Nothing dramatic spurned the divorce: Two people had simply grown apart. A few weeks in Reno offered Viv a chance for something quieter, a time for self-reflection to figure out what she’s going to do next. She could never have expected that she’d find the love of her life in Cay (Patricia Charbonneau), someone not just 10 years her junior, but also another woman.

Based on the 1964 novel “Desert of the Heart” by Canadian author Jane Rule (published when homosexuality was a criminal offense), Donna Deitch’s 1984 film is an uplifting, insightful, and remarkable portrayal of lesbian love. 

The first time Viv meets Cay, there’s immediate electricity. As Viv sits in a car with Frances (Audra Lindley), in whose home she’s staying while she hashes out the divorce, Cay appears out of the blue, driving rebelliously backward. It’s an incredible introduction for anyone, and Cay is immediately established as a fiery, excitable woman who does whatever she pleases — a true free spirit. Cay’s glowing smile is one of a woman living her life with complete honesty — something Viv is longing for.

Cay is an incredibly modern woman, particularly for the ‘60s, when the movie takes place (Admittedly, the hairstyles are distinctly ‘80s, but we’re going to let that slide). She is open and honest not only to herself but to her friends.

Darrell (Dean Butler) desires her and can’t understand why his love is unrequited. Confused by Cay’s budding friendship with Viv, Darrell says to Cay’s best friend Silver (Andra Akers), “From where I sit, Cay is steppin’ way out of her range with that woman.” Silver doesn’t hesitate to come to Cay’s defense: “Want a hint?” she tells Darrell, “Change your seat.”

Cay is certain from the moment she sees Viv that she’s attracted to her, but there’s a great deal more uncertainty on Viv’s end. Cay’s infatuation grows by the second, but Viv seems to interpret her desire as a desire for friendship, not romance. The signs that Cay is a lesbian are certainly there — she invites Viv into her house while another woman lies naked in her bed. But Viv, who’s really only starting to become more vulnerable for the first time in her life, doesn’t seem to put all the pieces together. Still, there’s a sneaking sense that there’s a desire on her end too. 

The chemistry between Shaver and Charbonneau is off the charts. These are two tremendously talented women, who are able to convey as much in moments of silence as in their dialogue. It helps their inevitable love feel all the more natural, as Viv’s withholding posture gradually makes way to a looser, freer stature as she finds herself drawn to Cay. 

Their romance officially takes off in the pouring rain. Viv races to the car, but Cay, full of joy to be soaked by the rain, has Viv roll down the car window. She pokes her head in, gently kissing Viv on the cheek. Moments before, she’s made her sexuality crystal clear to Viv. Viv asks her, “Are you trying to shock me?” but it’s clear that Viv isn’t actually all that surprised by the revelation, and there’s a cadence to the question that suggests that she’s satisfied to hear Cay’s confession. 

When Viv is kissed for the first time, Shaver’’s face reflects a woman who’s having everything click into place after 35 years. The two kiss passionately, the camera perfectly still. But not for long, as Viv is overcome by the reality of the situation.

Viv takes a step back and retreats to a hotel. But the ever-passionate Cay has no interest in letting things go and makes her way to her hotel door. Viv initially asks her to leave, but they both know that’s nonsense and after a moment, she lets her in. 

Then begins one of the most beautiful sex scenes you’ll ever see. Deitch’s camera is titillating but not exploiting, favoring extreme close-ups of Viv and Cay kissing and their physical intimacy. There’s so much fear, especially for Viv, around being queer, but that fear is non-existent here. The only thing that exists at this moment is the passion and desire these two women have for one another. It’s absolutely exquisite, and a complete refusal to shy away from queer love on screen.

The dialogue, from screenwriter Natalie Cooper (the only film she wrote), is clever and poignant. When Viv and Cay argue after they first have sex, Viv comments on how stunned she is by Cay’s openness about her sexuality. “No fear, no confusion. So self-assured,” Viv comments. Responding with fire, Cay yells, “I don’t act that way to change the world! I act that way so the god damn world won’t change me!”

In two small lines, Desert Hearts effectively personifies the struggle of queer life: how we have to fight tooth and nail for a place in this world in order to not live our lives in the shadows, for the chance to live openly and authentically. Perhaps Cay would find it unsurprising that for many, this feels no less true today than it did in the 1960s. 

Deitch’s camera is often still, letting her thoughtful shot compositions and the natural beauty of Reno take focus. One can’t help but feel voyeuristic watching Desert Hearts, which often lingers on the quiet, interior lives of its characters. Reno has never looked more stunning on screen, and a shot of Cay and Viv embracing one another, sitting naked on the hotel room floor, illuminated by the bright city lights, is unforgettable.

There is every expectation that this love cannot possibly last – if a history of queer cinema has taught us anything, it’s that happy endings for lesbians do not exist. For a while, it certainly seems as if Desert Hearts is going to follow the same trail. Viv is, after all, destined to return to New York City and go back to her life as a professor. 

But that isn’t what happens. In the final scene, at the train station (the film also opens with an arriving train), Viv pleads with Cay to join her in New York. We can feel it coming: a teary goodbye as Cay remains in Reno and Viv goes back, the two hoping to see each other again someday. 

But that’s not what happens. Viv refuses to let Cay say goodbye, just as Cay refused to leave the hotel. Pleading with Cay to just get on until the next station, Viv says she’ll at least get another 40 minutes with her. Amazingly, Cay agrees, getting on the train as it heads to the next station.

As the film fades to black and the credits roll, there’s not a doubt in the world that Cay and Viv will be together for a whole lot longer than 40 minutes. The veritable queer utopia of New York City awaits them both. Incredibly, Desert Hearts is considered the first mainstream film that gives lesbians their richly deserved happy ending. It’s become a cult classic, but Deitch’s magnificent film is an outright irresistible gem.

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