Though her feature credits have been scant to date, Donna Deitch has earned a very small but honorable place in American film history. More specifically, she has been a pioneer in the area of gay and lesbian cinematic representation as the producer and director of "Desert Hearts" (1985), generally acknowledged as the first "mainstream" feature to deal sympathetically and realistically with the lesbian experience.
Deitch purchased the film rights to Jane Rule's 1964 novel "Desert of the Hearts" and spent the next five years raising money for the production. She slowly acquired $850,000 through the sale of $1000 units to small investors and friends. Deitch also threw parties for wealthy women and persuaded them to pitch in financially. Their investment paid off as the film went on to critical acclaim and arthouse success. Set in 1959, the romantic story starred Helen Shaver as a repressed, older college professor who arrives in Reno for a six-week divorce and falls for a free-spirited younger cartoonist (Patricia Charbonneau). The lush production values and accomplished performances belied the modest budget. The film inspired a generation of lesbian filmmakers and audience members.
The success of "Desert Hearts" did not lead to a high-profile Hollywood feature directing career for its openly lesbian producer-director. Dissatisfied with the sexually exploitative feature screenplays she was receiving, Deitch accepted an offer from producer-actor Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Productions to direct the TV miniseries version of Gloria Naylor's lesbian-themed novel "The Women of Brewster Place" (ABC, 1989). She found TV to be a more hospitable medium than features and has continued to work there regularly, often directing episodes of such highly acclaimed drama series as "NYPD Blue", "ER" and "Murder One".
Deitch was able to more directly address her feminist concerns in her TV-movie projects. These include "Esperanza", a segment of "Prison Stories: Women on the Inside" (HBO, 1991), about an imprisoned Latina drug dealer whose son is arrested for the same crime. Another such project was "Sexual Advances" (ABC, 1992) which dealt with a female manager facing sexual harassment on the job. Deitch also helmed a female-centered genre piece, "A Change of Place" (CBS, 1994), for "Harlequin Romance Movies" on the "CBS Sunday Afternoon Showcase". Similarly, her direct-to-video erotic thriller "Criminal Passion" (1994) featured a distaff protagonist.
Hailed as one of the defining events in queer cinema, "Desert Hearts" was honored with a tenth anniversary celebration at the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center. Deitch has considered making a sequel but her busy TV career gives her the luxury to wait until she can get it made her way.