Two women meet at a ranch in Reno, Nevada. The uptight one is getting a divorce. The wild one has gotten stuck in a holding pattern. They fall in love despite the disapproval of their friends and exes. Angst levels are low and the women make delightful company. Desert Hearts set a high water mark in 1985 and remains a strong entry in the canon today.
This one is worth a rental. But if you don’t mind spoilers proceed to the recap.
Act One: Meetings
Scene One: Reno, Nevada 1959. A dusty road.
FRANCES (Friendly Ranch Owner): Howdy folks! From 1900 to 1970 Reno, Nevada, was the easiest place in the United States to get a “no-fault” divorce. But first you had to stay 6 weeks to meet the residency requirement. I’m driving this lady to my ranch to do just that.
VIVIAN (Nervous College Professor): Vivian Bell. Married 12 years. No children.
CAY (Wild Casino Clerk): (Drives a sports car backwards past them.) PLEASED TO MEET YOU! I’M IRRESPONSIBLE!
FRANCES: Yes. Yes you are.
Scene Two: Ranch at Night
VIVIAN: (Drops a tea kettle) Oops!
CAY: (Carrying an arm full of food) Shh! Frances is asleep. Why are you getting divorced?
VIVIAN: I was drowning in still waters.
Closet case. Say no more. (Drops a jug of milk) Dang it!
FRANCES: Well, I’m awake. Now I’m going to whine about the ranch’s financial troubles.
CAY: What do you want me to do about it? Put on a show like Mickey Rooney?
FRANCES: You’re like a daughter to me. DON’T. EVER. LEAVE.
Act Two: Courtship
Scene Three: Party
FRANCES: We’re halfway through. There’s not much plot. It’s more of a character study.
VIVIAN: I like Cay. Why do people keep telling me to stay away from her?
FRANCES: Overbearing maternal instincts.
RUDE GUEST: Homophobia.
CAY’s BOSS: Jealousy.
FRANCES’s WELL GROOMED SON: I’ve got a crush on you Vivian.
VIVIAN: And yet you dress like the cover of a gay pulp novel.
Scene Four: Rainstorm
VIVIAN: You dated your boss?
CAY: I tried. But it didn’t work on account a I’m a lesbian.
VIVIAN: Are you trying to shock me?
CAY: No. (Kisses her.)
VIVIAN: I’m too repressed to handle that.
FRANCES: VIVIAN, HOW DARE YOU KISS MY DAUGHTER! I’M KICKING YOU OUT!
CAY: I’m not your daughter. If she goes, I go.
FRANCES: It’ll be a cold day in August when I take in another educated tart!
CAY: Who are you? Mildred Pierce?
Act Three: Romance
Scene Five: Hotel
VIVIAN: Go away.
VIVIAN: I’m a type A personality. I can’t handle your chaos. (Turns away. Turns back.) And you’re naked.
VIVIAN: Of course you are. Of course Hollywood will film explicit lesbian love scenes. While the men in films like Making Love and Call Me By Your Name get to be coy. I find the double standards infuriating. Don’t you?
CAY: Lock the door.
(They make love.)
Scene Six: Bar
VIVIAN: Everyone’s staring. You’re too obvious!
CAY: I can’t help that! Let’s break up after one argument!
VIVIAN: Fine! This movie needed some conflict!
Scene Seven: Train Station
FRANCES: I’m sorry I went all Joan Crawford on you.
VIVIAN: The film’s nearly done. Can we get back together?
CAY: You’re going to New York.
VIVIAN: Come with me.
CAY: I can’t.
VIVIAN: You can.
CAY: I guess I can.
VIVIAN: See, screenwriters? It’s not that hard to write a happy ending.
(They board the train together.)
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. ~ Director Donna Deitch.
Compare this ending to 1982’s Personal Best and 1983’s Making Love. The central couples in those broke up, settling for underwritten replacements by the end. That’s nothing compared to the countless films where the LGBT characters died. Cay and Vivian ending the film together was revolutionary. The novel was written in 1964 by Jane Rule. An ex-boyfriend causes some third act conflict there. I like that the film avoided this trope.
Desert Hearts is simple and economical. It has humor and heart. Highly recommended.