Credit: Rink Foto / HBO
To LGBT people who came of age in the 1970s and ’80s, Vito Russo is an icon. But among younger generations, Russo is barely known — and that’s something Jeffrey Schwarz set out to change with his comprehensive, affecting documentary Vito, premiering tonight on HBO.
“I felt like making a documentary could help introduce him to a new generation,” says Schwarz, producer and director of the film about the man who was author of The Celluloid Closet, a key player in ACT UP, and so much more.
Schwarz, 42, never met Russo, who died in 1990 at age 44, but the filmmaker has a long history with his subject nonetheless. “Vito has always been a beacon to me,” says Schwarz. “One of the first things I did when I was coming out was read The Celluloid Closet,” Russo’s landmark 1981 book about gay and lesbian images in film.
This was in the late 1980s, but Schwarz had been aware of Russo for several years before that. In 1982, when Schwarz was 12, he saw an episode of the movie-review show Sneak Previews, then hosted by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, about gay-themed films coming out that year, and the critics mentioned Russo and The Celluloid Closet.
Later, after Schwarz had been through film school and fallen in love with the documentary form, he heard that Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman were making a movie of The Celluloid Closet, and he asked to work on it. That 1995 documentary, for which Schwarz was apprentice editor, was his first job in the movie business, and the gig gave him access to archives through which he got to know Russo well.
Vito, which Schwarz began planning about five years ago, will give audiences the opportunity to know Russo well. Through archival footage and interviews with family members, friends, and a veritable who’s who of the modern gay rights movement, the film traces his love of movies along with his anger over their negative portrayals of gays; his development as an activist; his outgoing, outsize personality; and his struggle with AIDS, which eventually took his life, but not before he fought tirelessly for awareness and treatment as a member of the direct-action group ACT UP. Russo’s life is essentially a history of the gay movement from Stonewall through ACT UP, says Schwarz.
In one piece of archival footage, Russo says, “Everything I’ve done I’ve chosen to do. This is the life I wanted. I’m one of the very few people I know who can say I never did anything I didn’t want to do, and I always did exactly what I pleased. Very few people can say that about their lives.”
Born in 1946, Russo spent his early life in New York City and developed a passion for film early on, often tagging along with his cousin Phyllis Antonellis on her movie dates, then recounting the plots to his family. He also developed a passion for men, and “never once for a second believed that it was wrong to be gay,” as he observes in the film, despite his Catholic upbringing. In 1961 his family moved to Lodi, N.J., a suburban town he hated for many reasons, including the bullying he received from high school jocks, but he discovered other gay kids and formed a support system.
He returned to New York as soon as he turned 18, and he was a witness to the Stonewall riots of 1969, but he didn’t become politicized until after a raid on another bar, the Snake Pit. He joined the Gay Activists Alliance, an early gay rights group, and participated in many protests, including one for marriage rights in 1971, with an “engagement party” for Russo and his then-lover, Steve Krotz, at the New York marriage bureau. He also started movie nights for the GAA, showing classic films with gay-beloved divas like Judy Garland and Bette Davis.
As the 1970s progressed, Russo made a living and a name as a journalist for The Advocate and other publications, interviewing celebrities such as Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin, and worked in the film department at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where he discovered many vintage movies with both coded and explicit gay and lesbian images. Out of this came “Celluloid Closet” lectures and eventually the book, documenting how gay characters were consistently either villains or objects of ridicule, and often died in the end.
“He was the first person to write about how Hollywood treated homosexuals,” says writer Bruce Vilanch in the film. Other well-known interviewees include Larry Kramer, Armistead Maupin, Malcolm Boyd, Gabriel Rotello, Jenni Olson, David Ehrenstein, former Advocate editor Mark Thompson, Tomlin, Epstein, and Friedman, along with many others who knew Russo, including members of his supportive family, such as Antonellis (everyone’s favorite, says Schwarz) and his brother Charlie.
“The film couldn’t have been made without Charlie Russo and other people in the family, like cousin ‘Perky’ [Antonellis],” Schwarz says. His first call when he decided to make the film, he says, was to Charlie. In the film, Charlie recalls the strong bond between Vito and their mother as well as the party atmosphere that reigned among the extended Russo family whenever Vito came to visit.
Other “angels” who helped make the film a reality include Bryan Singer, who came on as executive producer, and HBO executives such as Sheila Nevins. HBO got on board after Schwarz showed network officials a 20-minute sample of the film. “I’m still pinching myself that HBO is our partner in this,” Schwarz says. “It’s kind of a stamp of quality when a documentary airs on HBO.”
Schwarz, who has created many short documentaries used as bonuses on DVD releases, has also made feature-length ones on subjects including porn star Jack Wrangler and horror-film producer-director William Castle. By the end of the year, he hopes to finish I Am Divine, a doc about John Waters’s biggest star. Next up is a documentary on gay actor Tab Hunter, then one on antigay activist Anita Bryant and her infamous Save Our Children campaign.
Right now, he’s thrilled to be bringing Vito Russo to a new audience. In addition to making the film, he’s edited a two-volume collection of Russo’s writings, Out Spoken: A Vito Russo Reader,published by White Crane Books.
He was gratified, he notes, by the reception Vitoreceived as the opening-night attraction this month at Outfest, Los Angeles’s LGBT film festival. “The greatest thing about making this film is everyone is talking about Vito Russo,” he says. “It’s going to get people talking about our history. I hope it will inspire young people to go out there and live a life Vito would be proud of.”
Vito premieres tonight at 9 Eastern/Pacific on HBO.