Of all the films made by and for lesbians, none have surpassed Desert Hearts in U.S. box office sales. The 1985 film has been lauded as the first positive portrayal of lesbian love on-screen, and it features a legendary love scene between lead actors Helen Shaver (who played professor Vivian Bell) and Patricia Charbonneau (who played young casino worker Cay Rivers).
This week marks the release of a new DVD of the film, which includes new commentary from director Donna Deitch, interviews with the two leads, and never-before-released footage of the famous love scene.
In honor of the new DVD, AfterEllen.com caught up with Shaver and Charbonneau to hear their reflections on making the film, which was important for both actors for personal reasons as well as professional ones.
It was on the Desert Hearts set that Shaver met her husband, the key grip for the film. They now have a 19-year-old son. And just two days before shooting began, Charbonneau found out that she was pregnant with her first child, whom she still sometimes refers to as her “Desert Hearts baby.”
Charbonneau now has two daughters, the 22-year-old and one who just turned 11.
Desert Hearts may be 22 years old, but the film’s two leads agree that it still it holds up very well today. Charbonneau recalled saying, “Gee, D, it still looks pretty good!” after watching the film this spring with Deitch for the first time in 18 years. She said she hopes a whole new generation of people will now see the film.
Shaver noted one reason for the film’s lasting power: “It’s an evergreen movie. Every day somebody comes to terms with their sexuality.”
Though it may hold a timeless appeal, Desert Hearts was ahead of its time when it was released. “It was well before lesbian chic,” Shaver pointed out, “and it was considered very risqué by a lot of people. And it was the first lesbian love story that didn’t end up in suicide or ménage à trois. It was just a true love story.”
Charbonneau concurred. “It was a completely different time,” she said. “There hadn’t been anything like it.” And she was widely advised against taking the role. “Most people that were working with me, as far as my career at the time, really felt as if I was making a really huge mistake,” she said. At least one person told her they hoped she enjoyed making the film because it might be her last.
Shaver had a similar experience: “One of my advisors at the time was a gay man, and he said, ‘Are you crazy? Hollywood is run by misogynistic men, whether they’re gay or straight, and it’s not like this film is [reflecting] that whole male fantasy of watching two women together. This script isn’t at all like that.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I wouldn’t be doing that script.'”
What attracted Shaver to the role was the well-rounded script and the “real love story.” She recalled telling her worried friend, “I hear you, but I want to do this. I know I’m going to do this film, and I just can’t believe that it’s going to be to my detriment in the long run.”
Charbonneau was also single-minded about taking the role, which she now counts as her all-time career favorite. “I was surprised by the feedback that I got from people in the business,” she said. “I didn’t get what their concern was. It never even occurred to me to think of it as anything but a really great role.”
She had never made a film before Desert Hearts, and in it she saw a fantastic opportunity to play a strong lead character. “Who would not want to play this?” she recalled thinking. “I wasn’t going to let it pass me by if this crazy director was willing to give me a shot at it.” She said nowadays directors go with a surefire bet, and it’s extremely rare to put someone unknown in a starring role.
Shaver recalled being baffled by the reactions she got after people had seen the film: “A lot of people said, ‘Wow, you’re so courageous!’ And I thought, well, jeez, to be courageous I would’ve had to have been afraid, and I wasn’t really afraid to do this. This was a wonderful script and a great opportunity, and I was really glad to take part in it.”
She was also perplexed when she got questions about how she had approached the part.
She recalled thinking, “What do you mean, how did I approach it? I know what being in love is. I just approached it with what I understand of falling in love and letting go, and the fears that come up.”