Most males tend to go in kicking and screaming when it comes to attending the standard romantic film. It usually becomes a UN type negotiation wherein their ladies' promise one mindless action or horror movie in exchange for one "chick flick". I know, I've been bargaining ever since I was 10 when I promised my sister Ryan's Daughter for Tora, Tora, Tora. But arm-twisting men into the "chick flick" is nothing compared to getting them to watch some lesbian cinema (and no, I don't mean Where the Boys Aren't 16). If one gooey, lovelorn chick is icky, two are really over the top and unacceptable to the intimacy avoiding, red meat eating male fan. But there are some surprisingly top shelf finds, in what is a relatively new genre, that would entertain even though most squeamish, romance dodging, male film fan: There's true crime like Butterfly Kiss; neo-noir like Bound; goofy comedies like Better Than Chocolate and even period piece mini-series like Tipping the Velvet. The best film of the genre however, is one of the earliest entries...
August 1986 - I was headed over to my girlfriend's parent's house in north Fresno as they had recently bought one of those sweet video projector TVs, and I wanted to check out my buddies' copy of Return of the Living Dead. When I arrived, my girlfriend was already watching something on cable that she said would be over in a minute. Turned out she was intentionally scamming me, because the movie went on for another 80 minutes. At first, I heaved loud, put-out, sighs of frustration, but I had to admit, the film was well made, well acted, plus it had Mrs Roper from Three's Company in it. I was soon pulled in completely and won over by all the outstanding aspects of the film.
"I don't act this way to change the world. I act this way so that the goddamn world won't change me!"
Synopsis: A reserved, east coast college, English professor travels to Reno circa 1959 to seek a divorce from her husband. While staying at a dude ranch, she befriends the wild daughter of the proprietor. Sparks ensue.
Director Donna Deitch absolutely knocks it out of the ball park with her first directorial effort which she also went to great lengths to produce. The production value is amazing considering the paltry $350,000 budget, and taking into account the period, the look, the soundtrack, and the talent engaged. That Deitch was able to shoot a convincing period piece drama at all on that budget is remarkable. That it turned out to be not only one of the all time best films in its genre, but a romantic film that can hold its own with the greatest of them, is an even more stunning accomplishment.
The look of the film is accomplished by a one-two punch of Nevada's natural beauty, and 9-time Oscar winner Robert Elswit's skilled cinematography. Fans of Paul Thomas Anderson will recognize Elswit's name. He's also worked as the DoP for the recently released Salt and The Town, in addition to There Will Be Blood and my all time favorite baseball movie Long Gone. He makes good use of the wide open, empty, but still gorgeous, country side in this film, and also does some very impressive interior work in the ranchhouse and at the casino.
The simple, straight-forward story with complex three dimensional characters is accomplished by a sharp script from Natalie Cooper which is based on the novel Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule. Each of the lead characters in the film have what Yogi Berra would call 'deep depth'. Many of them bring personal baggage into the story which effects their behavior throughout the film. The viewer really gets a sense that these characters existed long before the film and will go on in their world long after it ends. In addition, there are no simple answers, there are no epiphanies and the script never cheats the characters of their beliefs or emotions with easy resolutions. As a result, I wound up liking all the characters, even if I felt they were sometimes wrong-headed in their decisions.
Whether it was smart choices or serendipity, Deitch really got her money's worth from the cast. The acting is truly superb, especially by the leads Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau who have great chemistry together. Shaver's character Vivian is emotionally wrung out by her divorce, and ill prepared and resistant to enter another relationship, especially an unconventional one. Charbonneau's character of Cay is a bit wild considering the era, but is immediately taken by the conservative Vivian. Watching Vivian attempting to keep Cay at arms length is one of the highlights of the film and a tribute to Shaver's acting skills. Audra Lindley puts in a fine performance also as Cay's stepmother, who disapproves of her daughter's lifestyle, yet is still very much attached to her. The complex dynamic between the two is another highlite. Finally, Andra Akers plays Silver, Cay's co-worker at the casino and close friend. Her character also adds color and depth to the story. There are several other interesting characters and actors like Alex McArthur and Denise Crosby that add to the richness of the film and really help create a believable fleshed out environment. Again, Deitch was either brilliant or lucky when it came to the casting. When Jeffrey Tambor is one of your uncredited extras, you've done a superlative job or hit the jackpot.
Last, but far from least, is the musical choices, which frame the era perfectly. Patsy Cline, Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, Ferlin Husky and Buddy Holly are all featured on the soundtrack which I would rate as one of the all time best. The only other films I can think of that used so many pop hits so well to establish time, place and tone would be American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused.
The film ultimately went on to win three awards at various venues including Sundance. Had the film been released ten years later, I suspect that total would have gone up dramatically. In any event, Deitch made a film that was ahead of its time, iconic in the genre, and just a great romantic film that fires on all cylinders. I can't stand most chick flicks, but I love this two chick flick a lot.
Very Cool - Shaver has an impressive resume including a guest appearance on an excellent episode of The L Word titled Liberally. She plays a very believable, and even sympathetic, religious whacko.
Not so Much - Although Charbonneau was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for her role in Desert Hearts, Shaver was slighted. Someone must have flipped a coin to determine the nomination as both performances are worthy.
WTF! Charbonneau was pregnant for the duration of the film's shooting time!