Audra Lindley in Desert Hearts (1985) - Supporting Actress Wednesdays: The Overlooked

The list of "overlooked" performances in the 1985 field of Supporting Actress contenders is a broad one. While the nominations (mostly) went to decent performances in high-profile, big-studio projects, distinctly independent films offered some of the best actressing at the edges of any year -- and leading the pack of those "overlooked" by Oscar is...

approximately 19 minutes and 29 seconds
15 scenes
roughly 21% of film's total running time

When Little StinkyLulu first caught a preview for Donna Deitch's lesbian love opus, Desert Hearts, something about the trailer's big laugh line ("I'm handlin' it") just rang familiar.

click image to be routed to trailer

Who was that sunbleached old lady? Had StinkyLulu ever seen her before? 'Twas not until a few scenes into the film, that StinkyLulu realized -- with a electric jolt of exhilarated discovery that Lu remembers to this day -- that that parched lady was MRS ROPER! 'Twas one of those clarifying moments known well to every actressexual -- part of the "coming out" process as 'twere -- and it has caused StinkyLulu to regard this performance (and this film) with especial affection. All of which made StinkyLulu's first revisit to Desert Hearts a bit uncertain. Would the film hold up? Was it even any good to begin with? And what about Mrs. Roper?

20:07 - CAY: I'll leave the keys in the visor.

Made a full 20 years before Brokeback Mountain, Desert Hearts maneuvers similar territory -- a romantic epic of same sex love, set amidst the casual freedoms and blithe cruelties of the Mountain West at midcentury -- albeit on a much smaller scale. Donna Deitch's film adapts a 1964 Jane Rule novel to tell the story of Vivian Bell (Helen Shaver), a literature professor at Columbia, who in 1959 travels to Reno to establish residency before filing for divorce. Vivian finds lodging a ways outside of town at a ranch devoted to the divorcée clientele and run by Frances (Audra Lindley). There, Vivian meets Frances' wildchild "step-daughter" Cay (Patricia Charbonneau). Cay's girl-loving bravado stirs Vivian's nascent lesbian inclinations and the movie tracks the escalation of their attraction from crush to full-body lesbionic love.

Quite frankly, StinkyLulu was surprised to see how well Desert Hearts holds up. Made at the front edge of the queer independent film wave of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the film itself is exceptionally confident. Where the Rule novel used biblical imagery to amplify the literary significance of Vivian and Cay's love*, Dietch deploys Hollywood clichés and a gorgeous soundtrack of 1950s country-pop classics to conventionalize the unconventional love story. There are sunsets and chases in the rain and train station farewells, underscored by Patsy Cline and Elvis longing for loves both lost and found. Deitch's simple and savvy use of these blatant Hollywood romantic tropes gives the movie a surprisingly enduring impact.

Deitch is smart, too, to populate the edges of her film with nifty actressing. (The leads, while undeniably charismatic, offer fairly wooden performances.) Audra Lindley leads this pack of wild women, a group that includes Gwen Welles and Denise Crosby in brief cameos and features the incredible Andra Akers as Cay's best pal, Silver. Akers' Silver -- a big-haired, big-voiced, talent-free showgirl with a heart of gold, who just adores her little lesbian pal -- is the kind of character that just makes StinkyLulu happy.

@ 1985 seconds -
SILVER (to CAY): Joe's in the kitchen. You're in the tub. Jesus. I'm happy.

But its Audra Lindley's performance as the erratic Frances that really classes up the joint, providing a necessary emotional mooring for the piece. Lindley's Frances is the kind of woman who's been offering hospitality all of her life and who's now discovering that people don't want what she has to offer. Her business is drying up. Her kids are growing up and readying to leave. Her beloved "husband" is long dead and gone. Lindley's performance deftly demonstrates how Frances' loneliness and her fear have begun to corrupt the welcoming warmth that has long been her signature.

Crucially, Lindley's Frances adores Cay but hates that Cay's a lesbian. And when Vivian and Cay start getting "friendly," Lindley's Frances turns her wrath on Vivian with a calm, terrifying clarity. Lindley's Frances is still perhaps the best cinematic depiction of the pain, terror and love that collide in a parent's heart upon a beloved child's coming out. Lindley plays Frances -- a woman driven by fear -- with a fearlessness that's both shocking and heartbreaking. It's a scary performance, free of vanity and a generous contribution to the film.

Akers' Silver gives the movie its heart, Lindley's Frances provides its soul.

AN ASIDE: One of the things for which I'll forever be grateful to Donna Deitch? Little Lulu saw Desert Hearts just a year or two before seeing The Women. Which instigated an always delightful fantasy possibility that some of The Women might have discovered their own Desert Hearts in Reno. Indeed, for years I have been practicing a whole set of fantasy narratives which have Paulette Goddard's Miriam becoming a big dyke while at the divorcee ranch in Reno. Ahh good times... Thank you Donna Deitch!


J.J. said...

Never heard of this movie! Thanks for writing about it. It's going in the queue.

StinkyLulu said...

I'll be interested to hear your perspective on it, JJ. I worry that I have generational blinders on.

But I really did like it this time around...