Lesbian Film Is Released

Desert Hearts was the first positive and widely distributed film portrayal of a lesbian relationship. Its box office success, however, was followed first by another decade of traditional, negative film depictions of lesbians, but the film later inspired independent filmmakers to offer less-stereotypical depictions of lesbians and lesbian sexuality.

Summary of Event

The screening of Desert Hearts in the United States in 1985 marked the first positive representation of a lesbian relationship in mainstream movie theaters. Earlier films with lesbian characters tended to end in tragedy or death. Films such as The Children’s Hour (1961) Children’s Hour, The (film)[Childrens Hour] depicted a lesbian character’s suicide; Personal Best (1982) Personal Best (film) has a main female character leaving her lesbian lover for a man; and Silkwood (1983) Silkwood (1984) ends with the isolation and loneliness of a lesbian character played by singer and actor Cher. [kw]Lesbian Film Desert Hearts Is Released (1985)
[kw]Film Desert Hearts Is Released, Lesbian (1985)
[kw]Desert Hearts Is Released, Lesbian Film (1985)
Desert Hearts (film)
Lesbian sexuality;in film[film]
[c]Cultural and intellectual history;1985: Lesbian Film Desert Hearts Is Released[1630]
[c]Literature;1985: Lesbian Film Desert Hearts Is Released[1630]
[c]Arts;1985: Lesbian Film Desert Hearts Is Released[1630]
Deitch, Donna
Charbonneau, Patricia
Shaver, Helen

Poster for Desert Hearts (1985).

Donna Deitch, the director of Desert Hearts, explained to Ms. magazine in 1986 that “At the time I bought the rights to the book, there hadn’t been a film about a relationship between two women that hadn’t ended in suicide, like ’The Children’s Hour,’ or in a bisexual triangle. I wanted to make just a love story, like any other love story between a man and a woman, handled in a frank and real way.”

Deitch’s quest to film a lesbian romance began in 1979, when she bought the rights to Jane Rule’s Rule, Jane 1964 novel The Desert of the Heart. Desert of the Heart, The (Rule) Although Deitch was a novice filmmaker at the time and had only a few film-school productions on her resume, she knew early on that a major Hollywood production company was not likely to finance her film; so she spent more than two years raising money to make the film by selling $1,000 shares in the movie to interested investors, many of whom were lesbian or gay. Her fund-raising efforts reaped in a budget that reportedly ranged from between $850,000 and $1.5 million, an amount that limited the number of filmable takes and scenes in the thirty-one-day shooting schedule.

Set in 1950’s Reno, Nevada, Desert Hearts tells the story of Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver), a thirty-five-year-old literature professor from Columbia University in New York City, who travels to Reno to obtain a quick, no-hassle divorce from her husband. Planning to stay at a dude ranch for six weeks, Vivian meets the younger, free-spirited, and out lesbian Cay Rivers (Patricia Charbonneau), who works at a local casino. Vivian and Cay are opposites in a number of ways: Vivian is ten years older and represents the more conservative East Coast; Cay represents the open-minded West. Also, Vivian has just emerged from a sexually repressed heterosexual relationship, whereas Cay is out as a lesbian. Vivian is depicted in a more “traditional” role Femininity;lesbians and with long hair, feminine dress, and feminine mannerisms; Cay is shown with shorter hair and a casual self-assurance that mark her as more butch, or masculine, than femme.

Lesbian viewers reacted positively to Desert Hearts, which has become a classic and iconic lesbian film. It was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 1986, but many academic critics dismissed the film as too mainstream and not radical enough in its representation of lesbian sexuality.


Desert Hearts was a box-office success but was not followed by more mainstream lesbian romance films. Instead, in the following decade, films had stereotypical lesbian or bisexual serial killers (Basic Instinct, 1992) and psychopaths (Single White Female, 1991) or had forced female friendships—lesbian subtexts—in films such as Fried Green Tomatoes (1991) or Thelma and Louise (1991).

Some independent films did include positive portrayals of lesbian relationships, including Claire of the Moon (1992), but mainstream box-office success did not return until the mid-1990’s, with the release of several movies featuring lesbian characters. Rose Troche’s Go Fish (1994) is a love story about two young Chicago lesbians that, despite an estimated $15,000 budget, ended up grossing approximately $2.4 million. Maria Maggenti’s Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love (1995) is a teen romance in the tradition of John Hughes that features two girls instead of a straight couple in a classic opposites-attract story line.

In 1996, the Wachowski brothers’ adventure-heist movie Bound features Gina Gershon as a lesbian former convict who falls for a Mafia gangster’s girlfriend (Jennifer Tilly). Lisa Cholodenko’s critically acclaimed High Art (1998) is a drama about a lesbian photographer played by Ally Sheedy. In 1999, Jamie Babbit’s campy comedy But I’m a Cheerleader tells the story of a teen lesbian who is sent to summer camp to learn how to be straight. The year 2004 saw the Sundance Film Festival premiere of Angela Robinson’s action-adventure comedy D.E.B.S., which features a lesbian romance between girls who are also spies. The film was widely released in 2005.

Many of the directors of lesbian films have gone on to work in television instead of continuing to work exclusively in film. Deitch directed the lesbian-friendly television drama The Women of Brewster Place (1989). Similarly, Troche, Maggenti, Cholodenko, Babbit, and Robinson went on to direct or write network and cable television programs. The successful lesbian-themed television series The L Word, which debuted in 2004 and remains a strong draw for many cross-over viewers, featured episodes written by Troche and Guinevere Turner (both of Go Fish fame).

Although Desert Hearts was not immediately followed by more films with positive representations of lesbians, it did signal the beginning of a trend toward films produced and directed by lesbian filmmakers. Desert Hearts (film)
Lesbian sexuality;in film[film]

Further Reading

  • Benshoff, Harry M., and Sean Griffin. Queer Images: A History of Gay and Lesbian Film in America. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006.
  • Berenstein, Rhona J. “Where the Girls Are: Riding the New Wave of Lesbian Feature Films.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 3 (1996): 125-137.
  • Darren, Alison. Lesbian Film Guide. New York: Cassell, 2000.
  • Kabir, Shameen. Daughters of Desire: Lesbian Representations in Film. Washington, D.C.: Cassell, 1998.
  • Kort, Michele. “Independent Filmmaker Donna Deitch Controls Her Whole Show.” Ms., November, 1985, 66-67.
  • Russo, Vito. The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies. Rev. ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1987.
  • Stacey, Jackie. “’If You Don’t Play, You Can’t Win’: Desert Hearts and the Lesbian Romance Film.” In Immortal, Invisible: Lesbians and the Moving Image, edited by Tamsin Wilton. New York: Routledge, 1995.
  • Tasker, Yvonne. “Pussy Galore: Lesbian Images and Lesbian Desire in the Popular Cinema.” In The Good, the Bad, and the Gorgeous: Popular Culture’s Romance with Lesbianism, edited by Diane Hamer and Belinda Budge. London: Pandora, 1994.
  • Weiss, Andrea. Vampires and Violets: Lesbians in Film. New York: Penguin, 1993.

1930’s-1960’s: Hollywood Bans “Sexual Perversion” in Films

March 7, 1967: CBS Airs CBS Reports: The Homosexuals

October 31, 1969: TIME Magazine Issues “The Homosexual in America”

1975: Rule Publishes Lesbian Images

1979-1981: First Gay British Television Series Airs

June 5 and July 3, 1981: Reports of Rare Diseases Mark Beginning of AIDS Epidemic

1985: GLAAD Begins Monitoring Media Coverage of Gays and Lesbians

July 25, 1985: Actor Hudson Announces He Has AIDS

1988: Macho Dancer Is Released in the Philippines

1992-2002: Celebrity Lesbians Come Out

March 21, 2000: Hollywood Awards Transgender Portrayals in Film

September 7, 2001: First Gay and Lesbian Television Network Is Launched in Canada

March 5, 2006: Brokeback Mountain, Capote, and Transamerica Receive Oscars