I have a confession to make: I’ve only seen about 2 classic lesbian films. I know, I’m a bad queer woman. When I admitted this to my fellow GO coworkers, they were appalled. Two of them quickly listed off at least 10 films I needed to watch right away. I rapidly wrote down the titles (for research, obviously).
And I want to take you all along with me in my quest to review all of the lesbian classics through my Millennial queer lens. Last week, I reviewed the lesbian cult-classic biopic, “Gia.”
This week, I’m diving in to watch “Desert Hearts.”
Though “Desert Hearts” starts off slow—the heated lesbian love affair picks up quickly. Professor Vivian Bell is a woman who wants to be free from a loveless marriage in the 1950s. She arrives in Nevada to go through her divorce proceedings and finds herself slowly falling for a wild-child-lesbian-cowgirl Cay.
This lesbian classic recently turned 30 years old—when filmmaker Donna Deitch released this groundbreaking film in 1985, it was the first film to show two women have a romance onscreen that resulted in a happy ending.
Vivian and Cay couldn’t be more of polar opposites if they tried. Vivian is an uptight professor at Columbia who is not at all accustomed to the wild desert and raunchy the Reno style. Cay is an out lesbian who is self-assured in her ~sexuality~ and desires. She’s constantly being chased after by her boss Darrel—who is a sleazy gross dude. But he knows she’s gay. She makes it no secret to anyone in her life.
What the two women do have in common—is they are in search of true love and not sure they’ll ever find it in their lifetime.
“I want to be free of who I’ve been,” Vivian explains to her lawyer as to why she’s getting a divorce. He can’t possibly fathom that because in 1952 women didn’t simply leave their perfectly “well-to-do” husbands.
Cay is bull-headed and makes no secret of her feelings for Vivian. It’s amazing to see a woman so bold living in a time when homophobia was rampant and dangerous. Which isn’t hidden in the film either, with Cay’s stepmother Frances continually admitting that she’ll never accept “her ways.” And again, when a quippy comment is made to Vivian about “those queers,” I was reminded of how “queer” used to be a slur used to hurt LGBTQ people.
That was a weird moment for me—a self-identified queer person.
Lucille: Did you know that [Cay] was kicked out of college for “unnatural acts,” as they say?
Vivian: Shall I raise my eyebrows and gasp?
Lucille: Well, I’m definitely out to lunch when it comes to queers. Aren’t you?
Vivian: I don’t think either of us will be sorely missed, Lucille.
Lucille: Well, nobody said it didn’t take all kinds, Vivian.
Vivian: And you’re certainly making a unique contribution.
In a backdrop of beautiful mountains and sunsets and cheesy cowgirl shirts—you quickly forget that this was a movie made in different time. Even the annoying misogynistic cowboys could be something in a film of millennial times.
Cay pushes Vivian to take risks and break rules and allow herself to really feel something bigger than herself. Their first kiss is passionately shared in a downpour of rain, afterward, Cay asks Vivian “Where’d you learn to kiss like that?”
About halfway through the film, a smokey hue fills the screen while both women navigate their sadness of being separated. When the whirlwind that is Cay shows up at Vivian’s hotel room (after she’s been kicked out the ranch because of lesbian gossip), she’s confronted with a moment we all know too well.
Cay gets naked in her bed and prompted with the thought of having sex with Cay, Vivian says “Well, I wouldn’t know what to do.”
That was such a relatable moment for all lesbian, queer and bisexual women. Our first time with another woman is usually filled with excitement but also well, how do I even do this?!
The sex scene that follows is definitely edited in true 80s style and would be made far less awkward with a little background music. Vivian’s turmoil at her obvious gayness is visceral but as a viewer, you just wanted her to get over it already and fuck Cay.
When they finally get to it, Cay proposes that “they finally have to get out of here. Go for a walk, have a coke, even window shop.” Another super relatable moment for lesbians everywhere—getting sucked into a 24-hour sex daze that turns into a full-blown love affair.
“You’re just visiting the way I live,” Cay says to Vivian in a moment of hurt. But after that fight, they make amends and allow themselves to truly fall in love.
Final Millennial Queer Thoughts: Honestly, this is like the old-school lesbian version of “Brokeback Mountain.” But less depressing! Overall, this film withstands the test of time and truly pulled this millennial girl along for the rodeo ride.