A Must-See, Debuts July 23 on HBO
“Vito” is a new documentary that is the story of Vito Russo, one of the founding fathers of the gay liberation movement, author of “The Celluloid Closet” and an early AIDS activist. Vito was politicized by Stonewall and he became a staunch gay activist and critic of the way the LGBT community was represented in the movies. He wrote “The Celluloid Closet” which was the first book to criticize the way cinema portrayed gays on the screen. During the AIDS crisis of the ‘80’s, he became an advocate for justice through ACTUP until his death from the disease in 1990. It is his legacy that is the focus of Jeffrey Schwarz’s new documentary. The film is a detailed look at Vito Russo and features interviews with such important voices as Larry Kramer, Armistead Maupin, Bruce Vilanch and others. Vito was a dominant voice in some of the most important movements in our history and he gained motivation from participating in the demonstrations that took place about the death of Argentinean national Diego Vinales.
Vito had many friends but what really put him on the map was his book, “The Celluloid Closet” in which he wrote about the negativity and innuendo among gay images on the silver screen. The ways gays were portrayed in the 1962 film, “Advise and Consent” affected him deeply.
We see the “real” Vito when we watch the 1973 New York Gay Pride march and during the early days of the AIDS epidemic. This is what brought him to launch severe criticism at the government’s inaction.
I understand that this project gestated during a 20 year period. Schwarz got to know about Vito when he moved to San Francisco in the early 90’s. Vito was already dead but Schwarz studied all that he could and really got to know the man as best he could. He tells us that the reason this project is so important is so that the new generations of gays and lesbians will know Vito’s story and how much he did to advance our community. Schwarz states: “We’re living his legacy every single day, but take for granted the work he did as an activist with the gay liberation movement, trying to create a world where gay people would not be persecuted and live an open life where they would not be hounded by the police, church or other institutions. I did feel like Vito was becoming less and less familiar to people. I would go through the aisles to find history books and wouldn’t find his name in the index. Hopefully, the film will correct this, for my main goal is to rejuvenate his name and legacy. I think if Vito were alive today he would be very involved in a host of issues dealing with human rights, not just gay issues. He would be involved in the health care debate and Occupy Wall Street. He cared about injustice in the world no matter what it was.”
“I would love for everyone to see this film. Vito could particularly be a real hero to the new generation. His story is inspirational. He channeled his rage into action, which can be very valuable. There are all kinds of things we can be angry about in society, but unless we channel that anger into something constructive, nothing is going to change.”
The film moves “among the familial, social and political facets of his subject, benefiting from the fact that these qualities were in sync. Russo recounts in a lengthy interview how he embraced his homosexuality at an early age, refusing to feel religious guilt or social shame. According to Russo’s brother Charles and cousin Phyllis, both featured prominently, the family quickly accepted his gay lifestyle”.
For the rest of this review I am quoting as what has been said has been done so much better than I ever could. However, before I do, we all owe Jeffrey Schwarz our thanks and our gratitude for undertaking the project and making a film with such grace and style. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of the film and I am sure that were Vito Russo alive today, he would agree.
“Following the 1969 Stonewall riots, where drag queens and homosexuals first stood up to police harassment, and the subsequent rise of Gay Pride, Russo assumed a major role in the Gay Activists Alliance. The group staged theatrical protests targeting organizations that promulgated homophobia, from the church to city hall to mass media.
Russo proved a strong voice for inclusion of people with all types of sexual preferences and behaviors when the movement threatened to splinter. Schwarz includes an excerpt from 1973′s Gay Pride Day in which angry lesbian feminists accuse drag queens of degrading women while Russo tries desperately to impose solidarity, finally summoning Bette Midler, a familiar face at the Baths, to placate the crowd.
A lifelong cinephile, Russo also established gay film nights, finding that sharing movies with like-minded audiences created a sense of community (they all laughed in the same places). His exploration of images of gays in films, presented worldwide as a popular illustrated lecture years before “Celluloid Closet” was finally published, was groundbreaking.
Schwarz channels Russo by providing a plethora of vintage silent and early-talkie clips, from a comic bit featuring two laced-trimmed, swishy waiters to a “problem movie” titled “Different From Others,” revealing the range of queer characters that routinely popped up in films before the Hayes Code explicitly prohibited not only their depiction but even any reference to their existence. Code-dictated cinema offered more indirect, metaphoric imagery as homosexuality became increasingly visualized as frightening or tragically self-destructive, Schwarz supplying a rough approximation of the original Russo lecture’s famous gay “death montage.”
After the bestselling “Closet,” Russo became the first official gay celebrity, regularly making guest television appearances and hosting his own public TV program “Our Time.” But AIDS takes center stage in the last section of the documentary, as Russo, now afflicted with the disease that felled countless friends, publicly fights government indifference to the epidemic”.
“’Vito “is a considerable achievement. Its completeness is exemplary; its boldness necessary; its graphic visuals dramatic and moving. It treats its audiences as intelligent, concerned citizenry, capable of assimilating history and making sense of it”.