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July 17, 2012


vito 1.jpg

Jeffrey Schwartz - 2012
HBO Documentary Films

First a bit of personal stuff to get out of the way. I use to know Vito Russo. Not well. But we knew each other's names and a little bit about each other. I was a student volunteer at the Museum of Modern Art's Film Department, and Vito was working there at that time, around 1972-73. I remember knowing he was also involved with something called "Gay Liberation" with parades and such, but it wasn't anything I was involved with. The only time we saw each other was at MoMA. Still, it was nice seeing his book, The Celluloid Closet in print, and the documentary inspired by the book, long after I had left New York City. One person from that time in NYC that I also knew at MoMA, Jon Gartenberg, briefly appears in this film.

I have to remind myself that this is a documentary made primarily for people who maybe only know Vito Russo for his book, or may not know of him at all. Within a span of about an hour and a half, the film veers between biography of one person, and a history of GLBT rights from the Sixties through 1990, when Russo died of AIDs, as well as providing a condensed look at The Celluloid Closet. What I also have to remind myself is that there are viewers, especially those younger than myself, who need some of this extra material to provide a greater sense of context for Vito Russo's life, in terms of what he did, and what motivated his life.

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The story is of a slender Italian-American kid who didn't care about sports, but instead had a lifelong passion for movies. Even though he was different in a variety of ways, and never hid those differences, he had the love and support of his extended family. There's mention of Vito as a boy absorbing movie fan magazines, and what we see are covers with male stars who have since publication been identified as gay. I'm not sure about the date of "Movie Life" with Tab Hunter on the cover, but when a side headline reads about why "Tony" Perkins does not bring girls home to meet his mother, I couldn't also help but to also think of Pyscho. There is also some discussion of Russo acting upon a sexual identity of which he had no doubts, and the post Stonewall bar raid that made him an activist. A bit of context here not provided in the film is that unlike some other parts of the U.S., 18 was the legal drinking age in New York.

For someone like myself who is interested in film history, one of the more interesting segments was about the work that it took for Russo to write The Celluloid Closet. What was anticipated to take about a year to accomplish involved five years of watching close to 400 films in various film archives in the U.S. and Europe. It is astonishing to know that the book was rejected by eighteen publishers, especially as it was an immediate best seller once it was first out in print, and still available more than twenty years later.

What one should come away with, from this film, is both Vito Russo's sense of passion, whether about film or about political action, as well as an almost constant smile. Much of the film is made of interviews with Russo's brother and cousins, as well as friends from his role as an activists, most notably Larry Kramer, and Lily Tomlin, who provided her home for Russo as a temporary base while he was writing and researching in Los Angeles. One of the more poignant moments is during a rally in June of 1973, when identity politics was fragmenting the still new gay rights movement, with Russo trying to unify hundreds of people gathered at Washington Square Park, and Bette Midler temporarily quelling the anger by singing "Friends". More important, beyond the specifics of Vito Russo's life and times, is that Vito provides an illustration of how one person can immeasurably impact the lives of others.

Vito is presented on July 20 by the Denver Film Society's Cinema Q Film Festival.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 17, 2012 08:47 AM


Just saw the HBO Film, "Vito" and so much enjoy the story of such a great leader in the Gay cause....what a man he was!

Posted by: La Verne Johnson at July 26, 2012 05:39 PM