The 1986 romantic drama “Desert Hearts” is a landmark in LGBTQ cinema — considered the first lesbian love story directed by a woman — and it’s a landmark that has weathered pretty well over the years.
Returning to theaters thanks to a digital restoration (the results of which debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival), director Donna Deitch’s tale begins when Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) gets off the train in Reno, Nev., in 1959. Vivian, 35, is an English lit professor at Columbia University, starting the process of splitting from her scholar husband — which is why she’s in Nevada, then the only state to get a quickie divorce.
Vivian stays at a ranch owned by Frances (Audra Lindley), a garrulous old gal who runs the place with her hunky son, Walter (Alex McArthur). Avoiding small talk with the other future divorcees at the ranch, the demure Vivian goes for solitary walks — and soon runs into Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau), Frances’ free-spirited stepdaughter.
Cay is a ball of fire, working days making change at a Reno casino, hanging out with her brassy co-worker Silver (Andra Akers) and making sculpture in her cabin on Frances’ ranch. She also is open about sharing her bed with women, though it’s never serious. “One of these days, I’m going to meet someone who counts,” Cay tells Frances.
Over time, as Deitch and screenwriter Natalie Cooper unfold the story (based on Jane Rule’s novel “Desert of the Heart”), it becomes clear to Cay that Vivian, though she’s 10 years older, is that someone. Vivian feels it, too, though she tries to fight the attraction.
Despite some occasionally stilted dialogue, the chemistry between Shaver (then a star with credits such as “The Osterman Weekend” and “The Color of Money”) and Charbonneau (making her movie debut) is white-hot. That’s particularly evident in the tender but erotically charged sex scenes, which surprised mid-’80s audiences and still pack a wallop today.
Both actresses are straight — Shaver met her future husband, a key grip, on the set, and Charbonneau and her husband learned she was pregnant just before shooting started. But having Deitch, a lesbian, in the director’s chair brought an emotionally authentic sensibility, a gentler gaze, that another director wouldn’t have given to this complex material.
Three decades later, it’s easy to forget the impact Deitch’s movie had. For decades, movies about women falling in love usually ended with one of the women either committing suicide or leaving to couple with a man. “Desert Hearts” was an important, and beautiful, first step toward a movie world where LGBTQ couples were allowed unapologetically to be themselves.
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A professor seeking a quickie divorce meets a vivacious Reno cowgirl, in this restored landmark of LGBTQ cinema.
Where• Tower Theatre.
When• Opens Friday, Aug. 4
Rating• R for strong sexuality, nudity and some language.
Running time• 92 minutes.