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This article by Jack Florek was prepared for the October 18, 2000
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
In New Hope, a Gay & Lesbian Film Festival
Director Susan Seidelman considers Donna Deitch’s
1986 film "Desert Hearts" to be a landmark film in motion
picture history, the starting point of a quietly successful
Yet if one only considers its artistic attributes, "Desert
doesn’t seem to qualify for much more than the bargain bin. Dogged
by inconsistent acting, some teeth-grindingly awkward dialogue
just reached in and put a string of lights around my heart"),
and a story line as predictable and unbending as a Nebraska highway,
"Desert Hearts" seems to be, at best, quite ordinary. Yet
this ordinariness may, in fact, be the film’s most important
Superficially, "Desert Heart" is the kind of not-so-deep love
story that Hollywood spurts out by the box load. This time it is in
the guise of an uptight university professor from New York City who
becomes fed up with the constrictions of her 12-year marriage and
escapes to the wild west (in this case a dude ranch in Reno, Nevada).
After a series of coy flirtations with an uninhibited cowboy-type,
she finds herself falling in love and ultimately allows herself to
be seduced out of her cold conventional shell. At last she is able
to enjoy the lusty passions she had kept bottled up inside her for
so many New York winters.
But what makes "Desert Hearts" unusual, especially for its
time, is that the cowboy-type who the leading lady falls for is a
"This was one of the first films to explore a lesbian relationship
in a serious and positive way," explains Seidelman in a telephone
interview from her home in New York City. "It certainly broke
new ground, and it is the precursor of a lot of today’s films that
aren’t necessarily `coming-out’ films, but films that just show gay
and lesbian characters doing stuff, living their lives like everybody
else, without having to be pigeon-holed. I think that shows
The New Hope Film Festival, sponsored by the New Hope Arts Commission,
will make "Desert Hearts" the centerpiece of its first annual
film festival focusing on gay and lesbian filmmakers of international
stature. The festival opens Friday, October 20, at 8 p.m., with a
festival reception at the Eagle Firehouse, where most events take
place, and continues through Sunday, October 22.
"Desert Hearts" will be screened at the firehouse on Saturday,
October 21, at 8 p.m. Following the screening Susan Seidelman (whose
first hit film, "Desperately Seeking Susan," starred a
quirky culture-shaker named Madonna) will be joined by Judy Switzer,
a professor at Bucks County Community College, to discuss the growth
and development of gay and lesbian filmmaking during the past 15 years
as well as the historical importance that "Desert Hearts"
has played in helping to facilitate that growth.
Also featured over the three-day festival are be Pedro Almodovar’s
1987 film, "Law of Desire," Friday, October 20; Brian
1997 "Wilde," Sunday, October 22. A video screening of "A
Luv Tale," by lesbian filmmaker Sidra Smith, takes place at the
Cartwheel Restaurant & Bar on Sunday, October 22, at 2 p.m., and Smith
will be in attendance to discuss her work.
Susan Seidelman was born and raised in the outskirts of Philadelphia
where her father was a businessman and her mother worked as a special
education teacher in the Philadelphia school system. She received
her bachelors degree in fashion design from Drexel University, and
upon graduation planned on pursuing a career in needle and thread.
But her love for film got in the way. Always a great fan of Billy
Wilder’s films, such as "Some Like it Hot," "The
and "Sunset Strip," Seidelman packed her bags and moved to
New York City to attend NYU film school. She graduated in the late
Seidelman, who started her film career at about the
same time that Donna Deitch began hers in the early ’80s, made her
first feature film, "Smithereens," in 1983. It is about a
19-year-old girl trying to crash the New York underground punk music
scene. "Smithereens" became an official selection of the
Film Festival (any first time director’s dream), did well at other
festivals, but was not a box office hit. "Back then there weren’t
very many women filmmakers in general, let alone any who could get
the funding to make a controversial film," says Seidelman.
While "Desperately Seeking Susan" has been Seidelman’s most
popular and widely viewed film thus far, her credits include 1987’s
"Mr. Right," the controversial 1989 "She-Devil" that
starred Roseanne Barr and Meryl Streep, and her most recent film,
1999’s "A Cooler Climate" starring Sally Field. Also, for
the past two years Seidelman has been a regular director on HBO’s
hugely successful TV series "Sex and the City."
Although she is not a lesbian, and prefers not to be pigeon-holed
as a feminist filmmaker either, Seidelman has always enjoyed a strong
following by gays and lesbians as well as staunch feminist movie
"I think it’s because I’ve always made films with strong female
characters," she explains. "And I’ve always considered myself
to be kind of an outsider. I’ve never been a straight-ahead,
type person. So I think what those audiences are responding to is
that slightly outsider view of contemporary life that I have."
Since "Desert Hearts" was first released in 1986 there has
been a growing prevalence of positive gay and lesbian images in movies
and television and Seidelman believes this has a directly beneficial
effect on the society at large. "Certainly that is a step forward
because there was a time when there weren’t any gay characters in
movies or television, but now, look at `Will and Grace’ and `Ellen.’
The fact that a gay character can star in a TV show, and be attractive
and appealing to mainstream America is a good sign, a great sign."
And this is true in movies also. "Look at the Rupert Everett
in `My Best Friend’s Wedding.’ He’s wonderful. He is so proudly gay,
and quite sexy to gay men and heterosexual women, too. I think that
kind of cross appeal represents a kind of breakthrough."
Seidelman also sees the growing number of admittedly gay and lesbian
writers, actors, directors, and producers as a powerful change in
the society. "For a long time gay actors wouldn’t play gay roles.
You kind of had the Rock Hudson/Montgomery Clift thing going on,"
she says. "Now, many gay actors are less afraid to declare
and straight actors are no longer hesitant to play gay characters.
It’s everywhere you look. Entertainment Weekly recently ran a cover
story on the many gay movers and shakers in the Hollywood
This is something you never would have seen before."
"In the last two years I’ve been working on HBO’s `Sex in the
City’ produced by Darren Star, who is outwardly gay. The show also
has outwardly gay characters and it’s a huge success, which shows
that audiences are definitely more accepting these days. And look
at Scott Rudin, he is a very powerful gay producer who up until a
few years ago would not have acknowledged or certainly have made a
film like `In and Out.’
"For me these are really powerful signs that society is changing,
and hopefully they will continue to change, and help counter-balance
the negative messages that some young kids are getting from homophobic
hard-core rock music like Eminem, Korn, and Limp Bisket."
Certainly society has not yet healed itself of its anti-gay and
biases, yet media can sometimes offer the opportunity to mark the
changes that have taken place through the years. This year’s first
annual New Hope Gay and Lesbian Film Festival will allow its audiences
to reflect on a time, 15 years ago, when making a simple film with
a predictable love story like "Desert Hearts" was a truly
— Jack Florek
Opening reception for New Hope’s first gay and lesbian film festival.
Music entertainment by the New Jersey Gay Men’s Chorus followed by
the first feature screening, the 1987 film, "Law of Desire."
$10. Friday, October 20, 8 p.m.
will discuss the film with Judy Switzer after the screening. $5.
October 21, 8 p.m.
the Cartwheel features a video screening of "A Luv Tale,"
written, directed and produced by Sidra Smith. Smith will be present
to discuss her film and answer questions. $5. Sunday, October 22,
president of JH Films in New York, leads a follow-up discussion. $5.
Sunday, October 22, 8 p.m.
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