Desert Hearts (1985) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

One thumb up (Tuna), one thumb down (Scoop).

Scoop's comments in white:

Desert Hearts is a movie that is well known among devotees of lesbian movies, whatever their motivations. It has enough reality and romance for those who watch for the story, and it has enough nudity for those guys who just like to see women touching each other. It probably ranks with "Personal Best" as the two most famous and influential major movies about lesbians.

The basic plot is that a New York professor spends the summer in Reno in order to fulfill the Nevada residency requirements for a divorce. (It wasn't easy to get a divorce in 1955. It was a different world.)

Frankly, it isn't that good a movie, although I like some things about it. The directing style follows a deliberately picaresque narrative. Show a snippet of this incident, end the scene before we see the significance, move on to another scene with minimal information. Some of these scenes are enjoyable set pieces, but others will leave you scratching your head, wondering why the scene was included at all. As I re-watched it and thought about it, there were still three or four scenes that didn't seem to serve any purpose, either as entertainment or plot advancement. Furthermore, there were a couple of other scenes where all the dialogue was drowned out by the background music. This was obviously deliberate technique, but not one that I liked. Pretty much every scene seems to end in the middle. Again, this is obviously a calculated style, because it didn't happen a couple scattered times, but almost every time. I don't know. Maybe I should praise the director for a fresh approach, because it is quite unlike anything else I've seen.

I wasn't much impressed with the acting and character development, either. Patricia Charbonneau was a novice. Some scenes favored her while others did not, but she seemed to deliver a real and likeable character. The Helen Shaver character seemed to be the problem. The actress couldn't quite seem to figure out how to deliver the character. She was supposed to be an elegant and stylish New York lady running away from a loveless and joyless existence, but she couldn't seem to find the right tone to keep this from caricature. She spends the first 2/3 of the movie in kind of a haughty snit, one of those nose-in-the-air, leave me alone, kind of portrayals that come out of community theater. Frankly, she's so aloof, stiff, and disagreeable that you wonder why the little self-confessed lesbian ever fell in love with her in the first place, except for her beauty. I'm not sure if Shaver is really to blame for that. She got such a sketchy back story that she didn't get much chance to show any depth of characterization. She has no past that we can relate to, and she is aloof in the present. There's no problem with the Charbonneau character, because she's in her world interacting, but the Shaver character is never shown in her world. She's just a better looking version of Margaret Dumont, a caricatured Manhattan society dame, there for the benefit of a serious lesbian instead of a silly Groucho.

One thing the two women did quite well was the romance. Their tentative first kiss in the rain and their hesitant love scene were played with a certain clumsy sincerity, played so effectively that those two scenes managed to carry the entire movie, at least as far as it could be carried. I give the film a lot of credit for handling the romance in a natural and sensitive way. Unfortunately, there isn't a lot behind it.

In the IMDb voting, this film probably has the most dramatic demographic split of any movie I've ever seen. Women in general love it, rating it 8.9 (pretty much good enough to be the best movie of all time), while men rate it 6.0 (barely watchable). And the older the woman, the more they like it! This table summarizes:

  Women Men
18-29 7.2 5.1
30-44 7.9 5.9
over 44 7.6 6.6

I pretty much agree with the other old farts at 6.6. It isn't an awful movie. It has some positives, but it's too boring, too sketchy in its character development, and too black-and-white in its attitudes toward the characters.

Last thoughts: 
  • if you like Patsy Cline, this movie is your heaven.
  • excellent ending, very honest and ambiguous, no miracles
  • the production values are quite good for a movie made for $350,000


The breasts of Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau are seen in their love scene. Nothing else is visible.

There is one other set piece where they sit naked together, and Shaver is seen completely naked, but she is sitting, and is seen from the side.

Tuna's thoughts in yellow:

Desert Hearts (1985) is a personal favorite. I rented it the day it was released on New Years Eve as one of several movies, and was totally blown away by it. It is the best lesbian film ever made, and has one of, if not the, hottest love scenes every filmed. Donna Deitch, in her directoral debut, got this character driven drama/love story just right.

Helen Shaver plays an East Coast professor in her 30s who comes to a ranch in Reno in 1950 to establish residency for a quickie divorce. She is finally leaving her husband after 17 years of what was a marriage of professional convenience totally devoid of love or passion. A person who likes things orderly, this is the biggest risk she has ever taken. Enter Patricia Charbonneau as the lesbian daughter of the ranch owner. Charbonneau immediately sees that Shaver is what she has been hoping for - someone who matters, and Shaver slowly realizes that it is not that she is asexual, but rather that she was looking to the wrong gender. Each has exactly what the other lacks, which is the reason for their attraction. Shaver admires Charbonneau's spirit, and the way she is open and honest about who and what she is. By the same token, Shaver has intellectual depth, and the ability to commit which Charbonneau lacks.

The story examines with much sensitivity Charbonneau's conquest, and Shaver's struggle to cut loose. When the two finally get together, the sex, although not that explicit, ignites the screen. It is not just what they do to each other, but the way they do it, and the way they look at each other. Beautiful scenery, good cinematography and decent art direction make this one of my favorite films. Interesting to me, the love scene is done with no score. This had the effect of making me focus completely on the two women and the way they were focused on each other.

The director based the film on a semi-autobiographical book. She raised enough to make the film by selling shares of the film. She was unable to cast Charbonneau's part in LA, and went looking in New York. When she met Charbonneau, she new she had found the right actress, despite the fact that Charbonneau had never been in a film or on television. She brought her back to LA to read with the three women who had made the short list for the other lead, and Shaver and Charbonneau were magic together. Many actresses declined to read for any role in a film about lesbian lovers with a happy ending.

DVD info from Amazon

  • Widescreen letterbox, 1.85:1. The DVD is letterboxed to preserve the original aspect ratio, and is a good transfer, with excellent color saturation and contrast.

  • Full-length director commentary

  • trailer

Deitch toyed with the idea of a sequel, which she eventually dropped, but she did share what, in her mind, happens to the two characters. Charbonneau moves to New York, and the two are together for a time, but Charbonneau ends up with a woman closer to her own age, then stays in New York and becomes a successful sculptor. Shaver finally has the courage to come out as a gay woman, and faces a lot of prejudice from the faculty at her University.

Lesbian sites rank it as the most influential lesbian film of all time. The genre is gay/lesbian drama, and this simple love story has enough universality to be accessible to anyone. It is the chemistry between the leads, in the end, that make the film.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: two and a half stars. Ebert 2.5/4, Maltin 2.5/4,

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.5, consistent with the critical consensus.
  • With their dollars ... virtually undistributed, it took in $2.5 million, which was a reasonable return on a modest budget of $350,000
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, Scoop says, "This film is a C. Specialty genre film with crossover appeal limited or non-existent. It has some moments, but is plagued by mediocre direction and the fact that one of the two major characters is sketchy and cardboard while the other is played by a newcomer. Critical reaction was tepid at best, and the box office was at an arthouse level." Tuna says, "this is a B-. Even if you don't like gay/lesbian themes, you might well enjoy this one."

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