In the early ’80s, Donna Deitch was a recent film school grad with no feature credits looking make a lesbian romance — one that didn’t end with killing its heroines. Without the help of Kickstarter or industry backing, she launched an unorthodox grassroots campaign that eventually gained the support of Gloria Steinem, Lily Tomlin, and Stockard Channing. The result was a hit at Sundance in 1986 that went on to become a groundbreaking lesbian classic that still resonates today.
Adapted by Natalie Cooper from the 1964 Jane Rule novel “Desert of the Heart,” Deitch’s 1985 film is a poignant romance set in 1959, when straitlaced Columbia professor Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver) arrives at a ranch in Reno, Nev. to get a divorce (the only place one could at that time). She meets the rancher’s daughter, Cay Rivvers (Patricia Charbonneau), an open and self-assured lesbian, and everything changes. Peppered with colorful characters and shot beautifully by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Robert Elswit (“There Will Be Blood,” “Magnolia”), “Desert Hearts” has endured as a classic.
“I had this in my mind that if I could only meet Gloria Steinem, she would really like the script and maybe she’d help me,” said Deitch during a recent interview held at the offices of the Criterion Collection, which sponsored — along with Sundance, Janus, and Outfest — a beautiful 4k restoration of the 35mm print. “I don’t know where I got that idea, and now Gloria and I cannot even remember who in the world introduced us. But someone did, and she read the script, and she really liked it.”
Naturally, Steinem asked Deitch, then fresh from UCLA film school, if she had ever made a film before. She explained that she had, but only documentaries. The young Deitch brought her thesis film to Steinem’s offices and projected it on the wall.
The movie was “Woman to Woman: A Documentary About Hookers, Housewives, and Other Mothers.” Steinem was in. “She could see what track I was on, my perspective,” Deitch said. “She saw that the story hadn’t been told before.”
Deitch set about organizing fundraising parties, which she modeled after so-called “Broadway backer” parties. She began by talking to people in different cities, asking if they knew anyone “with some money” who might want to invest in a movie. Then, she would send them letters with the script and gauge further interest. Once she had about 20 interested parties, she sent out the invitations.
“The invitation would say, ‘Gloria Steinem, Lily Tomlin, and Stockard Channing invite you to meet Donna Deitch and hear about Desert Hearts.'” She sold shares in a limited partnerships for $15,000 per share. All in all, it took two and a half years to fund the film.
The DIY tactics didn’t stop there. A “funky” review from New York Times critic Vincent Canby had Deitch making calls again, this time hitting the streets to paper New York City with fliers advertising the movie. “At that time, if you had an independent movie without stars and you had a not-so-hot review, they could cancel bookings,” Deitch said. “That’s what it was like at the time, because [the critics] controlled so much.”
“Desert Hearts” took home a Special Jury Prize at Sundance, broke box office records, and received worldwide distribution from the Samuel Goldwyn Company following a bidding war. In the 31 years since its release, Deitch has worked extensively as a television director, including an early Oprah Winfrey production “The Women of Brewster Place.” Shaver also directs TV, helming three episodes of “Orphan Black.”
Deitch has enjoyed watching older audiences rediscover her classic film, and hopes younger audiences discover it anew. Over the years, “Desert Hearts” has only ripened with age. “It’s no longer controversial, but it’s still hot, it’s still funny, and it still works. Maybe better,” said Deitch.
“Desert Hearts” plays New York’s IFC Center July 19-25, with Deitch in attendance on the 20th.