A Very Early Desert Bloom

Patricia Charbonneau and Helen Shaver in Donna Deitch’s 1985 “Desert Hearts.” | JANUS FILMS

Donna Deitch’s “Desert Hearts” became an instant classic of lesbian cinema when it was released in 1985. The film, set in 1959 Reno, respectfully depicted the love that develops between Vivian (Helen Shaver), an English professor waiting out a divorce, and Cay (Patricia Charbonneau, in a remarkable debut) who works at a casino and lives on the ranch where Vivian is staying.

Vivian is prim and proper and wants to “be free of who I’ve been,” while Cay is reckless. When she first meets Vivian, the sexy young woman is seen driving backwards. Their slow-burn attraction heats up when the women kiss in the rain, but their relationship soon has tongues wagging.

Donna Deitch’s classic of lesbian cinema gets new release in Janus restoration

Deitch’s film was a milestone of independent film when it debuted, and the film’s new restoration truly sparkles. The director spoke with Gay City News about making “Desert Hearts” and how the film has endured over time.

GARY M. KRAMER: Why do you think “Desert Hearts” became an instant classic?

DONNA DEITCH: Who knows? Buñuel was my first inspiration as a filmmaker. I read once — and I’m paraphrasing — that he said if you feel you have your finger on the pulse and you feel passionately about something, then go for it. My passion was to make a hot lesbian love story that did not end in a bisexual love triangle or suicide. I made the movie I wanted to see. I spent time thinking about it — should I write it? Then a friend gave me “Desert of the Heart” [Jane Rule’s novel that the film is based on] and that was the story I wanted to tell.

GMK: Do you think the film had more resonance when it came out because it was set in the past?

DD: Absolutely. Initially, I wasn’t thinking it had to be set in the past, but when I came across the book, the metaphor and the milieu — the divorce capital in the 1950s — lent the film the story I wanted to tell.

GMK: Patricia Charbonneau is fantastic in her debut, and Helen Shaver is pitch-perfect. I also really like Audra Lindley and Andra Akers in the supporting roles. What can you say about the casting?

DD: Nobody wanted to be in the movie. No agent wanted this, even if it wasn’t the leads. There was so much homophobia, no one wanted to audition. It was shocking. I think I got the best people to play those parts and that was, in a way, the benefit of all of that homophobia. I didn’t go to anyone known.

I had a fantastic casting director by the name of Tim Flack, who died young, from AIDS. He brought everyone to me. I didn’t know any of these people. I saw Patricia Charbonneau’s 8×10 and this was exactly how I saw Cay. She’d never done a film before. I met her and they said I needed to test her, but I didn’t think I did. I flew her out to LA and I read Patricia with the three actresses I was considering for Vivian, and I saw the chemistry between her and Helen. That was so important in my mind. I needed to see it before I cast Helen, and it was quite magical.

GMK: I love the scene where Vivian removes her ring and then you superimpose Cay’s face over Vivian’s. This moment makes parallels both visually and emotionally between the characters. What observations do you have about the link between these two women?

DD: It’s ironic in a way, and funny, in a way, and totally real. I say that with regards to it being a love story between two people who initially have absolutely nothing in common except that they are the same sex. They each have something in themselves that the other yearns for. That’s the heart of their connection.

GMK: The film’s sex scene is tender and erotic. Can you talk about how you created it?

DD: That love scene is the centerpiece of the film, of course, because it’s a lesbian love story. It needs a love scene. I wanted it to have a beginning, middle, and end, like a dinner scene. I spent a lot of time discussing it with Helen and Patricia. It’s about the emotional journey that accompanies a sexual journey. I scheduled it for the second to last day of shooting so they would know each other and be more comfortable. But equally important was that I had their full commitment to do this scene before they signed the contracts. These two actors were so fantastic and committed to fully realizing the journey.

GMK: “Desert Hearts” has a huge fanbase. What are some of the most unusual responses you received?

DD: I’d have to give that a thought. Nothing is coming to mind right now. People come up and tell me their “Desert Hearts” coming out stories. I should be collecting them on my website.

DESERT HEARTS | Directed by Donna Deitch | Janus Films | Opens Jul. 19 | IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St. | ifccenter.com