Thinking Out Loud: Still Waiting for a Great Lesbian Movie

28 years after Desert Hearts, lesbian cinema hasn’t changed much

Now that the excitement of the DOMA case has mellowed, my thoughts have turned to the second most important LGBT pride moment of my life:  the release of Desert Hearts at my local movie theater in 1985. I’d never seen so many lesbians standing in one line as there were that night, buying tickets because they’d all heard that a real lesbian movie was here at last.  What I mean by a “real lesbian movie” is:  There were no vampires, no suicides, no one running back to men, and no psychopaths in the movie. 

Up until then, that’s pretty much what you got if you wanted to see a movie with a bit of lesbian in it. A simple, stylized, and otherwise unremarkable film, Desert Hearts hit it out of the park with every lesbian I knew because the romantic leads were likeable and they stayed together in the end.  Years later, one of the actresses, Helen Shaver, remarked that she will never have to fear becoming homeless, as there are thousands of grateful lesbians who would happily take her in.

In fairness, two years earlier the gentle and cerebral lesbian-themed film, Lianna, beat Desert Hearts to the punch by two years, but that film suffered from one key problem: Director John Sayles, a straight man, bent over backwards to be sensitive to lesbians, right down to the gauze over the lens during the sex scenes.  At least it was a click up on the passion meter from 1980’s Personal Best, which presented lesbian intimacy as nothing more than a naked tickle game (and especially notable for Mariel Hemingway’s whining), so I applaud Sayles for the effort.

By contrast, Desert Hearts was made by a lesbian, and captured a certain lesbian sensibility, humor and even some sweaty sex. What a revelation. Thus began the golden age of lesbian cinema. 

I’m sorry.  I meant to say, thus began a random trickle of cringe-worthy lesbian indie films, and the occasionally redeeming art-house flick.  It seemed that ever after, most so-called “lesbian films” functioned as a kind of home-made therapy device, typically telling coming out stories with such heavy-handed earnestness that all irony got smothered with a lavender pillow, leaving only two-dimensional fantasy versions of lesbian lives.  I mean, how many esteemed closet-case professors can there be out there just waiting for a sexy, brilliant free-spirit to pull them out of their ivory towers?

For many years I dutifully saw each new lesbian flick, hoping for something fresh and challenging, and then nearly always forgot the film moments after tossing my popcorn tub into the trash.  Don’t even get me started on Clare of the Moon.

Today I watched a 2013 Outfest film called Who’s Afraid of Vagina Wolf. I can’t say it was bad, because it had cool lines like this: “I don’t like improvisation. It’s like leaving an open window into your soul and all the little squirrels can crawl in and raid your panties.” At least there’s some room for edginess in lesbian cinema now.  That’s an improvement. But I was still too aware of a self-conscious “Hey kids, let’s make a movie!” quality throughout, which was unfortunate, as the film is about a bunch of people doing just that.

I want a lot more after all this time, which may just be too bad for me. In another unwittingly apt line from Vagina Wolf, a film producer quips, “Gays and lesbians have the same shitty taste as everybody else.” Movies rarely equal art. Back in ’85, I was a newly out baby dyke and desperate to see my most ridiculous lesbian romance fantasies projected on a big movie.  I must have seen Desert Hearts five times the week it came out, but frankly it wasn’t a great film. I didn’t care, because how could I resist an escapist romp with a sexy ingénue who enters the film driving backwards in a convertible, full-speed, to say hello to the brilliant female professor that’s just come to town?

Carry on, all you makers of “lesbian films.” There’s always going to be an appreciative lesbian audience, but can you aim high every now and then?


Abby is a civil rights attorney-turned-author who has been in the LGBT rights trenches for 25+ years. She can be reached through her website:

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