It is 1950s Nevada, and Professor Vivian Bell arrives to get a divorce. She’s unsatisfied with her marriage, and feels out of place at the ranch she stays on, she finds herself increasingly drawn to Cay Rivers, an open and self-assured lesbian, and the ranchowner’s daughter. The emotions released by their developing intimacy, and Vivian’s insecurities about her feelings towards Cay, are played out against a backdrop of rocky landscapes and country and western songs.
Desert Hearts is a 1985 American romantic drama film directed by Donna Deitch. The screenplay written by Natalie Cooper is an adaptation of the 1964 lesbian-themed novel Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule. The film stars Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau with a supporting performance by Audra Lindley.
About the Story
In 1959, Vivian Bell, a 35-year-old English professor at Columbia University in New York City, travels to Reno to establish residency in Nevada (a process that takes six weeks), in order to obtain a quickie divorce. She stays at a guest house ranch for women who are waiting for their divorces to be finalized. The guest ranch is owned by Frances Parker.
Vivian meets Cay Rivvers, a younger, free-spirited sculptor whom Frances loves as if she were her mother. Cay works at a casino as a change operator in Reno, and is ending a relationship with Darrell, her boss, because as she put it, she “allowed (her)self to be attracted to his attraction” for her. When Vivian arrives, Cay notices her immediately, and the tightly controlled and elegant Vivian, in turn, is taken aback by Cay’s boldness and lack of concern of what others think of her (and her romantic / sexual preferences).
Cay reveals that she has had relationships with women in the past. Frances jealously notices that Vivian is becoming a bigger and bigger part of Cay’s life, and resents her for it, afraid that Cay will leave her and the ranch, and she will be left alone. Frances sees Cay as her only “family,” even though Cay is not her actual child, but rather the daughter of Frances’ “man” Glenn who has been dead several years.
When everyone attends an engagement party for Cay’s best friend and co-worker, Silver, Cay drives a drunken Vivian to see Lake Tahoe afterwards and kisses her. Vivian returns the kiss passionately and is so surprised by her response to Cay’s advance that she begs Cay to take her home. When they return to the ranch in the early morning, Frances has Vivian’s bags and a taxi waiting for her, furious that (Frances presumed) she has seduced Cay. Cay leaves the ranch immediately, and Vivian takes a room at a casino hotel for the rest of her stay.
After some days apart, both Cay and Vivian are clearly confused and hurt. Cay goes to visit Vivian at her hotel and overcomes Vivian’s resistance to making love with her, and they start a relationship. With the impending finalization of Vivian’s divorce, the two must sort out the future of their relationship.
Vivian is afraid of what people in her academic circle will think of her being in a relationship with another woman, and Cay is unsure of what she would ever do in New York City. At Silver’s wedding, Vivian and Cay are in attendance, Frances and Cay are brought back together, and Cay admits to Frances that Vivian has “reached in and put a string of lights around my heart.”
Desert Hearts (1985)
Directed by: Donna Deitch
Starring: Helen Shaver, Patricia Charbonneau, Audra Lindley, Andra Akers, Gwen Welles, Dean Butler, Katie La Bourdette, Denise Crosby
Screenplay by: Natalie Cooper
Production Design by: Jeannine Oppewall
Cinematography by: Robert Elswit
Film Editing by: Robert Estrin
Costume Design by: Linda M. Bass
Set Decoration by: Rosemary Brandenburg
Art Direction by: David Brisbin
Distributed by: The Samuel Goldwyn Company
Release Date: August 28, 1985