Two Movies on Lesbian Love

Against the Current, No 6, January/February 1987

Ann Menasche

BEFORE THE LESBIAN and gay movement, films that depicted lesbian love in a positive way were unknown.

Lesbians, or women who would prefer intimate relationships with other women if they were given real options, were without any role models in the popular media with which they could identify their innermost feelings.

In the public eye, lesbians were either monsters or tragic figures, or, more commonly, they simply didn’t exist. This denial is part of what keeps heterosexuality compulsory for women.

Last spring that silence was partially broken with a feature-length film Desert Hearts, based on Jane Rule’s book–Desert of the Hearts–starring Patricia Charbonneau and Helen Chaver; and with a television movie, My Two Loves, starring Mariette Hartley, Lynn Redgrave, and Barry Newman. One of the two authors of the video is the well-known lesbian author, Rita Mae Brown.

Desert Hearts, set in Reno in 1959, is a beautiful movie with cinematography of the Nevada desert, strong women characters, and explicit and sensual lesbian love scenes. The film is a humorous and touching love story about two very real and likeable wimen.

One of them, Cay Rivers {Charbonneau), a ceramicist with tomboyish good looks, works in a casino and is gutsy enough to live out her lesbian desires, despite the repressive atmosphere of the 1950s {though Cay has a boyfriend for a short time).

Cay pursues quite openly the woman of her fancy, Vivian Bell (Chaver), an uptight college professor who has come to Reno for a divorce.

The women meet when Vivian moves into a women’s boarding house/ranch where Cay lives with her stepmother, Frances.

Frances later becomes jealous of the growing friendship and affection between the two women and throws Vivian out. This merely provides an opening for the romantic coming together that occurs in Vivian’s hotel room.

Vivian’s coming-out transition is naturally and sensitively portrayed. At one point Vivian says, “I don’t have a point of reference for this.” Yet, despite her protests, Vivian eagerly allows Cay’s seduction of her to occur. When they finally make love, it is a mutual experience.

There are some funny lines. In one of the early scenes, Cay invites Vivian into her cottage though it is quite obvious that there is another woman in Cay’s bed. Walter, Frances’ son, who is just outside the cottage pitching hay, calls out good naturedly, “How you get all that traffic with no equipment is beyond me.”

As is typical of the love story genre, the women part, Vivian to her career in New York City, and Cay to her life at the gambling casino, both having been enriched by having known each other.

The strength of Desert Hearts lies in its natural integration of sexuality and emotion. This is altogether a fine movie. By the way, the book is even better.

A Disappointment

By comparison, My Two Loves, is disappointing, though there are some good moments.

My Two Loves stars Mariette Hartley as Gail, a newly-widowed woman with a teenage daughter, who after almost two decades of living a life confined to marriage and motherhood, gets her first job outside the home as a chef.

At work, she meets Margery, a career woman and a happy, well-adjusted lesbian, played by Lynn Redgrave; their friendship blossoms.

Finally, Margery comes out to Gail and confesses her feelings for her. They become lovers or so we surmise from the dialogue, it being difficult to pinpoint exactly when this occurs.

The two women are permitted to share no more than a hug and a kiss on the forehead on screen. They are not even shown in bed together. Predictably, since this is for prime-time television (TV movies are considerably more explicit with heterosexual romance), the message is an old one: women can love one another, as long as they don’t touch.

The other point of the triangle is Gail’s late husband’s best friend, Ben, played by Barry Newman. He is presented as self-centered, chauvinistic man who wants to “take care of” Gail.

Gail is protective of her new-found independence and angered by his patronizing of her. “You are not even interested in what I do,” she complains.

In its effort to get away from stereotypes of the “butch” lesbian, My Two Loves engages in “feminine” overkill. Both women are always seen in makeup and dresses, and never in pants, even during their time off work.

They are usually engaged in (or discussing} some “feminine” activity such as conditioning one’s hair or painting one’s fingernails. We may not all be “butch,” but few of us are quite as “feminine” as all that.

With the onset of the passionate involvement with Margery, Gail is for the first time faced with the harsh realities of lesbian oppression.

She finds that she has to hide her relationship, and she has to deal with her mother’s homophobic tirades (“I didn’t raise you to be one of those people. You’re an unfit mother,”} In addition, her mother threatens to have her child taken away.

The movie ends with Gail breaking up with both her lovers. If the movie had simply presented Gail as being too new to her independence to deal with the consequences of loving a woman, including the possibility of losing her daughter, this would have been an understandable and acceptable ending.

But instead the movie ends disingenuously, “cops out” if you will. Though Gail’s feelings for Margery are clearly presented throughout most of the movie as being considerably more intense than her feelings for Ben (“There’s such joy when I’m with you,” she says, “if I didn’t have you to talk to I think I’d explode”}, this is finally muddied over.

Prompted by her psychiatrist–who tries to convince Gail that she is “bisexual” (“I don’t believe in labels. A percentage of people have had bisexual experience”}, she ends up with little insight into the pressures defining and limiting her present choices. “I loved you both,” Gail says. “Right person, wrong time.”

Unfortunately, viewers who have not the benefit of their own experience as an out-of-the-closet lesbian or gay man to draw upon, would probably come away from this film with the same lack of insight.

To give some credit to the filmmakers, the ending could have been worse. Gail could have “gone straight,” leaving her female lover for a man. This is the favorite ending of most writers that have dealt with lesbianism and was seen most recently in the popular film, Personal Best.

Most importantly, now millions of Americans have seen lesbians on television or at their movie theatre. Maybe they won’t be so shocked or horrified when they discover a member of their family, a friend, or a coworker is a lesbian.

January-February 1987, ATC 6

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