Sharp Shooters – Brief Article
B. Ruby Rich
WITH DESERT HEARTS, DONNA DEITCH FOUGHT TO FILM A LOVE STORY THAT BROKE ALL THE RULES; WITH BOYS DON’T CRY, KIMBERLY PEIRCE BROKE THE RULES AGAIN
When Donna Deitch made 1986’s Desert Hearts there had never been a feature film about women falling in love and living happily ever after, let alone one made by a lesbian director and based on a cult novel by a lesbian writer. By the time Kimberly Peirce made 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry there were plenty of queer films, but none that had broken into the mainstream in such a big way, won its star an Oscar for playing a transgender role, or that was based on a real-life, headline-grabbing modern tragedy.
The two directors couldn’t be more different–or more alike. Both Deitch and Peirce are women-obsessed, driven by the stories they brought to the screen and their determination to break into the business. Both channel the desires and fears of their eras, both have a flawless knack for casting babes, and both left the big cities in which they lived (Los Angeles for Deitch, New York for Peirce) to set their love stories in the mythic terrain of the West (’50s Nevada for Deitch, ’90s Nebraska for Peirce). And both talk with passion about each other’s films.
Peirce likes to reference Carl Jung: “Cultural consciousness moves throughout the world, and we all have connections we don’t know about.” That’s her way of explaining that although her movie and her cultural development have been nothing like Deitch’s, she knows she’s treading a path that was already cleared for her. Deitch didn’t have producer Christine Vachon or the Sundance Institute’s film labs to help her along–just her own true grit and a hard-won Rolodex of lesbian contacts who were willing to pony up the cash to see their fantasies come true.
Peirce was already in grad school at Columbia becoming a filmmaker when she figured out that she liked girls. Her formation was tomboy masculinity, and when she studied filmmaking, it was the male classics (neorealism, Pasolini, Kazan, Scorsese) that took hold. In the middle of that film-school sophistication, though, she still remembers the impact of Desert Hearts in Patricia White’s lesbian-film class at Barnard College. “I was just coming out, and it was so exciting just to see those images!” There was that famous love scene, for one thing. Peirce remembers talking about the movie with a film-programmer friend. “Look, Ma, no hands! They were having sex with no hands!” Of course, Peirce jokes, “I took that to a whole new level with Brandon.”
Deitch didn’t get to take lesbian-film classes in college, but, of course, she could hardly miss Peirce’s film, even without a professor. For Deitch, “gender remains the most divisive division.” She found Boys Don’t Cry to be a pioneering film in the way it crossed those lines with such emotional power. “I actually think that Chloe Sevigny’s Lana is even more interesting as a character than Brandon,” Deitch says. “She represents such a beautiful tearing down of lesbian stereotypes. You could see how she was leched after by the guys and had this deep unhappiness. Yet once she hooked up with Brandon, her problems seemed to go away because she had found love. It seemed not to matter that it was with a [biological] woman. It was like the Beatles sang: `All you need is love.'”
For more on Donna Deitch, Kimberly Peirce, and their films, visit www.advocate.com
Cultural critic and Advocate columnist Rich is the author of Chick Flicks (Duke University Press).
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