Though the big screen resume of writer/director Donna Deitch might not be extensive, the significance of her key film is so great that it is nothing short of alarming that the filmmaker is not discussed today with a more expansive sense of appreciation and reverence. Thanks to enormous shifts in the social-political fabric of most First World nations, the conversation around the importance of diversity in the arts is now a loud one that happily sits at the front of the stage when it comes to public discourse. Even the commercial behemoth that is Marvel Studios listened when it was raked over the proverbial coals for its lack of diversity, and we now have on-screen superheroes of more varied racial backgrounds and sexual orientations. Courtesy of passionate activism and a populist taste for change, the big and small screens are now slowly, surely becoming more inclusive.
Back in 1985, however, the cinema landscape was a far different one, which makes Donna Deitch’s debut feature film Desert Hearts all the more extraordinary. An absolutely gorgeous lesbian romance, the warm, soulful and very sexy film ran counter to the general depiction of (before the term even existed) LGBTQ+ people, who were routinely portrayed as either evil or dangerous or, at best, as complete and utter outliers. Devised as a traditionalist mainstream arthouse independent film, and far from a piece of avante garde experimentalism, Desert Hearts is based on the daring 1964 novel Desert Of The Heart by Jane Rule, and plays out as an almost classic romance.
Born in 1945 in San Francisco, Donna Deitch’s entry into feature filmmaking was through short-form documentary, with the director first helming 1975’s 48-minute non-fiction piece Woman To Woman (which explored the history of “women’s work” in the US) and 1977’s 9-minute The Great Wall Of Los Angeles (about the painting of the world’s then longest mural) until she discovered Jane Rule’s book. “Originally, I was thinking of writing an original script,” Deitch told Northern Nevada Hopes. “I was basically motivated by the desire to make a really hot lesbian love story that did not end in a bisexual triangle or a suicide. That was my initial motivation. And then a friend of mine gave me this book and I read it seven times in a row and I thought, ‘This satisfies the story that I really want to tell.’ So I got in touch with the author and I optioned the book from her.”
The result still stands as a seminal work of queer cinema. Desert Hearts follows Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver, a gifted actress never offered the opportunities that her talent and on-screen presence should have guaranteed), a buttoned down, repressed professor who travels to Reno to file for divorce, and there falls under the spell of Cay Rivvers (the sadly under-used Patricia Charbonneau, who makes a stunning debut here, and should have had a much, much bigger career), a free-spirited young sculptor. Against a backdrop of beautiful Big Sky cinematography (courtesy of the great Robert Elswit, later to become Paul Thomas Anderson’s shooter of choice) and perfectly picked country music classics, Vivian and Cay embark on a warm and very, very sexy romance that still hedges very close to Hollywood’s classics of the genre.
“I was reacting against all the movies that had been made about same-sex love stories, or at least the ones about two women,” Deitch told Criterion in 2017. “They were so negative, and that seemed strange to me…more than strange, it just felt wrong. Because the story of Desert Hearts was so controversial in its time, I thought that it would be best served by having the style be very accessible. I wanted to cloak this film in the garb of a mainstream Hollywood romance. The goal here was to have an audience, because that’s how the Hollywood romance operates, right? I wanted this to be a very accessible movie, not a ghettoized film. So although I used to be an experimental filmmaker, I didn’t want any of that visual language in this film. I didn’t think it suited it.”
Beautifully characterised, authentic, and singing with real emotion, Desert Hearts – which was one of the first mainstream films to centre entirely on a lesbian relationship in a wholly positive light – is rightfully flagged as a landmark piece of queer filmmaking, and still berths regularly at film festivals and in various US revival cinemas. But what of its gifted, wonderfully film literate and obviously passionate director? Since Desert Hearts, Deitch has been working largely in television, directing episodes of popular shows such as NYPD Blue, Crossing Jordan, Judging Amy, Bones, ER and many, many more.
Deitch’s keen interest in gender and social issues, however, has been expressed through a collection of high quality television films. In fine form, the director has tackled the incarceration of women (1991’s Prison Stories: Women On The Inside), workplace harassment (1992’s Sexual Advances), Nazism (1999’s The Devil’s Arithmetic), and homosexuality (2000’s ground-breaking and star-studded portmanteau Common Ground), all with grace, sensitivity and intelligence. Unfortunately, Deitch’s big screen output has been limited to just two films: the 1994 erotic thriller Criminal Passion, starring Joan Severance, and 1998’s Angel On My Shoulder, a documentary about the sad passing of actress Gwen Welles.
Though certainly not ignored, Donna Deitch is most definitely unsung. The importance and influence (even if unknowing) of this deeply humanist filmmaker cannot be overstated. With Desert Hearts, she made a beautiful film boldly and bravely ahead of its time, and she’s kept the flame burning ever since. “I was so obsessively passionate about getting Desert Hearts done,” Deitch told Criterion in 2017, “and somehow I had my finger on a pulse – on a lot of pulses – without knowing or thinking about it.”
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Frank Pierson, Ann Turner, Jerry Schatzberg, Antonia Bird, Jack Smight, Marielle Heller, James Glickenhaus, Euzhan Palcy, Bill L. Norton, Larysa Kondracki, Mel Stuart, Nanette Burstein, George Armitage, Mary Lambert, James Foley, Lewis John Carlino, Debra Granik, Taylor Sheridan, Laurie Collyer, Jay Roach, Barbara Kopple, John D. Hancock, Sara Colangelo, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Joyce Chopra, Mike Newell, Gina Prince-Bythewood, John Lee Hancock, Allison Anders, Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.