Reno, Nevada. 1959. Convertible car radios blast the sounds of Elvis Presley and Patsy Cline. At the nearby casinos, eager players contemplate their fate over the shuffle of cards and roll of dice. Downtown, divorce lawyers confer with out-of-state clients.
It is a world considered foreign by thirty-five-year-old Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver), a New York City professor of English literature who, seeking a divorce in Reno, has arrived at the train’s depot. Soon after checking into a dude ranch she meets Cay Rivers (Patricia Carbonneau), a free-spirited young woman who lives at the ranch and works at one of the nearby casinos. Slowly, they come to terms with their feelings for each other. Desert Hearts is a tender and passionate portrait of two very different women as they develop a mutual understanding and friendship, culminating in a liberating experience together.
At a time when the AIDS epidemic permeated the national consciousness alongside rampant homophobia, Donna Deitch’s Desert Hearts offered the queer community—and especially lesbians—a rare opportunity to see themselves as dynamic characters on screen. Up until then, films featuring same sex couples portrayed them as either clinically insane or doomed for a tragic death. Despite a cutthroat review from The New York Times film critic Vince Canby, Desert Hearts went on to gross more than a million dollars at the box office. Preceding lesbian classics like The Watermelon Woman and High Art, Desert Hearts helped catalyze a wave of lesbian love stories and queer faces in film. Deitch went on to direct a number of films and episodic series, including Emmy-nominated The Women of Brewster Place and award-winning documentary Angel on My Shoulder. She is currently working on a sequel to Desert Hearts.
“When Donna Deitch set out to make an adaptation of Jane Rule’s 1964 novel Desert of the Heart, she was hoping to depict an experience she’d never seen represented on-screen: a romance between two women that had a happy ending. Taking on the roles of writer, producer, and director, she crafted a refreshingly modern twist on the Hollywood love story, one that became a trailblazing work of queer filmmaking.”
—Hillary Weston, The Criterion Collection, 2017