Carol is the New Desert Hearts
What a difference 30 years makes.
I’m talking about the metamorphosis between the day Bonnie and I saw the 1985 premier of the movie Desert Hearts in Washington, D.C. and a few weeks ago when we saw Carol at the Movies at Midway.
That one of my friends joining us at Midway was also along for the Desert Hearts screening made the comparison that much sweeter. But here’s what three decades can do.
I remember the Desert Hearts premier like yesterday (probably better than yesterday, alas), seeing hundreds of women converging on the theater and loitering outside. At that time, except for the 1983 March on Washington, I’d never seen so many lesbians together in public before. Seedy bars in bad neighborhoods, yes, but in plain sight in the nation’s capital? Motorists negotiating Washington Circle had never seen such a thing either, leading to, I swear, several screeching tires and at least two fender benders in the half hour before the theater doors opened.
But it was inside where history happened. The audience had never before seen themselves represented on screen in a positive light, much less in a love story with a happy ending. Previously, all we saw were the few lesbian stories where one lover had to be thrown under the bus—hit by a falling tree, like Sandy Dennis in The Fox or hanging from the rafters like Shirley MacLaine in The Children’s Hour.
With Desert Hearts, the audience watched, transfixed, as prim Helen Shaver and cute Patricia Charboneau, a “hottie” in today’s vernacular, met, intrigued each other and had an affair—including a beautiful love scene.
As the women kissed, you could feel the electricity and sexual tension in the theater. At a literally climactic moment, somebody got carried away and squealed, “Oh my!” The rest of the crowd burst out laughing.
I know that every single woman in the theatre that night remembers the film, that endearing outburst and the historic nature of the evening. Heterosexuals had been watching themselves clasp and gasp on film since Birth of a Nation, but this was our very first chance to experience a filmed love story about people like us. It was magic.
Of course, by comparison, Desert Hearts was G-rated clasping and gasping. Today, the love scene in Carol is as realistic and intimate as any straight love scene filmed these days. And while there was also electricity generated throughout the audience, there was no self-conscious laughter, no feeling of history, certainly no fender benders precipitated by a gaggle of lesbians buying tickets. Although I cannot vouch for incidents now caused by our retirement community’s cataracts or slowed reflexes.
Thirty years ago we were still outlaws in most places, fairly recently declared free of mental illness, with most of us at least partially closeted.
In Rehoboth, homophobic T-shirts unabashedly hung in store windows, name calling and even gay bashing was rife, and tomatoes were still being lobbed into the Blue Moon bar. There was an uneasy and suspicious divide between Rehoboth homeowners and visiting gay tourists. CAMP Rehoboth was five years from its birth and the AIDS epidemic, just starting, made things much worse before they started to get better.
It’s ironic—both Desert Hearts and Carol spotlight really tough times—the 1950s and 60s—for their lesbian characters. Desert Hearts came from a 1964 book by Jane Rule and took place in 1960s Reno, NV. Carol is from a 1952 book by Patricia Highsmith, and highlights the steep price two women pay for choosing to be together. But exactly like Desert Hearts, the film has a really (Spoiler! Spoiler!)…hopeful ending.
Back in ’85 Bonnie and I had no official recognition as a couple, we’d gather with friends in a dangerous part of DC at gay bars with no names on the door, a hefty cover to get in, and a creepy, scary walk back to our car later.
Most of our neighbors wouldn’t even talk to us; we feared telling employers we were gay, lest they (completely legally) fire us for just that knowledge; we were young and having fun, but it was unwise to be too OUT.
It was so rare to see lesbians on film or television, that every time we were featured on TV, I’d tape the episode on my Betamax video tape recorder. There was an episode on Maude with Bea Arthur, a peck of a kiss on LA Law, and a charming episode of The Golden Girls (again, Bea Arthur. Hmmmm?).
These days you’d get dizzy trying to record (digitally, tape’s gone) all the stories, commercials and news reports featuring us.
Now, we’re married seniors, jointly filing taxes, living completely out of the closet. Here in Delaware (but not everywhere in the nation—yet) we cannot be fired just for being gay and I love calling Bonnie my wife.
Is everything perfect? Hell no. There’s lots of work still to be done. But we live in a lesbian paradise, can dine and dance comfortably anywhere we want, and in most cases, our only limitations are the ones we put upon ourselves—for some it’s tough to get used to the broken barriers.
And it sure was fun to join the throng of lesbians and others converging on the Movies at Midway. As far as I could tell, nobody batted an eye at us. Go see Carol. It’s a terrific film. But it’s not a historic experience. And that’s a great thing.
Fay Jacobs is the author of As I Lay Frying—a Rehoboth Beach Memoir; Fried & True—Tales from Rehoboth Beach, For Frying Out Loud—Rehoboth Beach Diaries, and Time Fries—Aging Gracelessly in Rehoboth Beach.