Desert Hearts (dir. Donna Deitch, 1985) has been accorded something of a place of honor in lesbian cinema as a sensitive, romantic coming-out story, in which buttoned-down Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver, pictured, right) finds herself falling helplessly in love with the free-spirited Cay (Patricia Charbonneau, left) while in Reno to get a quick divorce. The Southwestern milieu, the country music, the figure of the sexually empowered woman…these have become standard conventions of the post-Stonewall lesbian drama, and Desert Hearts can be credited—or blamed, as the case may be—as the surprise indie hit that launched a thousand sub-par rip-offs, ex. Boys on the Side (1995), Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (1994), or the gay male variation Big Eden (2000).
Judith Halberstam notes with some disappointment that Desert Hearts diverges from its source material (a novel by Jane Rule) by feminizing the butch Cay, and that while the film intends to usher in “a non-pathologizing lesbian cinema made up of positive images and role model material,” it does so “at the expense of masculine women.” Halberstam goes on to compare Desert Hearts to other, similar films of the 1980s and 1990s, such as Personal Best and Fried Green Tomatoes, all of which downplay female butchness, Halberstam implies, in order to avoid causing straight audiences discomfort. I have less of a problem with the watering-down of the figure of the butch lesbian with which Halberstam takes issue than with the banal feel-good tone of films like Desert Hearts, which take the trappings of the melodrama (or, more specifically, the closet drama) and bland them out. Desert Hearts has its fair share of conflicts and confrontations, but it stages them against a homey, quirky, picturesque backdrop that tells us don’t worry, everything is going to be just fine. I loathe this kind of “small town” movie, in which whimsical locals go about dispensing sage folk wisdom, and where the cold heart of a repressed or wounded outsider (usually hailing from some big, impersonal city) is slowly made to melt. Vivian fits the fish-out-of-water stereotype almost too well: an English professor at Columbia University, she corrects other people’s speech, is incapable of gossiping with straight women about men, and listens to classical music, all of which suggests that she thinks she’s too big for the britches she doesn’t even know to wear.
Gay movies certainly don’t have the corner on this market (straight romantic comedies have been rehashing this plot for decades), nor is it specific to U.S. cinema (see Bill Forsyth’s insufferably quaint Local Hero). But it’s depressing to see gay and lesbian movies take up residence there. Its light erotic love-making scene aside, Desert Hearts lacks energy and spirit, as if the sexual frisson of queerness had evaporated under the Nevada sun.