Donna Deitch Captures Desert Hearts With Her Films

During Pride Month, we are taking the opportunity to celebrate some of the many incredible queer artists that we know and love. Our next artist is the iconic Donna Deitch!

Donna Deitch is an American director, best known for her 1985 film Desert Hearts. This critically acclaimed film, set in 1950s Nevada, tells the story of Vivian Bell, a literature professor who arrives in Reno for a quick divorce but finds unexpected love and liberation instead, with a woman. As FF2 Contributor Giorgi Plys-Garzotto describes, “[set] in 1959 and made in 1985, Desert Hearts has all the hallmarks of the Golden Age of Hollywood; films like Chinatown, Bonnie and Clyde, and most strongly Thelma and Louise are invoked by its sardonic dialogue and rugged individualist protagonists.”

Released in the eighties before the boom of queer cinema, Desert Hearts not only challenged societal norms but also became a trailblazer for lesbian representation in film. The film’s tender portrayal of a same-sex relationship garnered praise for its authenticity and emotional depth. It defied stereotypes and showcased a love story that resonated with audiences across various backgrounds. 

Released in the eighties before the boom of queer cinema, Desert Hearts not only challenged societal norms but also became a trailblazer for lesbian representation in film.

Openly identifying as a lesbian herself, Donna knew firsthand the type of love that could happen between two women, even if she hadn’t seen it represented on-screen much at all. Donna was surely able to use her own experiences to capture such a beautiful queer love story. In the words of Giorgi, the film is “a romance well-crafted enough to stand alongside any film featuring Faye Dunaway or Marlon Brando.” 

After the release of Desert Hearts, Donna’s career exploded with opportunities. Shortly after she saw the film, Oprah Winfrey hired Donna to direct the four-hour miniseries The Women of Brewster Place, about a young woman who moves into a housing project (Brewster Place), where she encounters a rich cast of characters, eventually working toward finding community with them. The series was nominated for Outstanding Miniseries at the 41st Emmy awards. Donna went on to direct episodes for many popular TV series, including ER and Law and Order: SVU

In 1998, Donna directed a feature-length documentary entitled Angel On My Shoulder, about the experiences of her best friend, actress Gwen Welles, who died of cancer. The film is both a glowing depiction of Gwen’s wonderfully wacky personality and a devastating account of how a disease can take over someone’s being. Through and through, it is filled with incredible amounts of love.  

With Desert Hearts as her magnum opus, Donna cemented her place in cinematic history as a pioneer of LGBTQ+ representation, but she also cemented her place as one of the most authentic and big-hearted filmmakers out there. Donna is a huge inspiration for filmmakers, queer and otherwise, and will be for many years to come.

© Julia Lasker (6/23/2023) FF2 Media


Read Giorgi Plys-Garzotto’s review of Desert Hearts here.

Learn more about Donna and explore her work further here.


Featured photo: RGR Collection / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: K38KMK.

Bottom photo: AFF / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: 2HYRA2K

Tags: Angel On My Shoulder, desert hearts, Donna Deitch, ER, Female Filmmaker, filmmaker, Golden Age of Hollywood, Law and Order: SVU, LGBTQ, queer filmmaker, The Women of Brewster Place

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As an associate for FF2 Media, Julia writes reviews and features for films made by women. She is currently a senior at Barnard College studying Psychology. Outside of FF2, her interests include acting, creative writing, thrift shopping, crafting, and making and eating baked goods. Julia has been at FF2 for almost 4 years, and loves the company and its mission dearly.
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