Growing up in the New York film community, I knew Vito Russo, and read his influential 1981 landmark book about gay images in the media, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in Movies, which was revised in 1987 and has never fallen out of print. Russo traveled the world with his “Celluloid Closet” presentations. He would have been 66 on July 11.
“A lot has happened since then,” says filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz, who worked on HBO’s film version of “The Celluloid Closet,” and whose HBO documentary, Vito, about the civil rights activist and co-founder of GLAAD who died in 1990, debuted at the New York Film Festival, opens the 30th Outfest on July 12 and launches on HBO July 23. “His message still resonates. His story shows how one person can make a difference. He lived passionately and bravely. He’d be astounded at the truthful images and representations of gay people today, to know that his activism paid off. The work he did in his life helped to father that. We’re all living his vision of an open gay world.”
Russo grew up in the 50s Bronx, preferred reading his mother’s movie magazines with covers of Rock Hudson and Montgomery Clift to playing sports, was bullied as a teen “faggot” in New Jersey, and moved to Manhattan as soon as he turned 18. The 1969 Stonewall uprising politicized Russo, who made it his life’s work to resist being told by anyone, whether the church priest who refused to listen to his confessions about gay sex, the police who arrested him for hanging in gay bars, or the society that considered being gay a mental illness–that there was anything wrong with his sexual persuasion. “I never believed it was wrong to be gay,” he says in the movie. “I always knew they were full of shit because something this natural couldn’t be wrong.”
“Vito” weaves old Russo interviews and film clips with current sit-downs with his family and articulate friends such as Outweek founding editor Gabriel Rotello “(Sexual Ecology”). Schwarz wants this film to serve, as “Milk” did for San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, to make Russo’s life immediately relatable to younger people who don’t know about the founding fathers of the gay movement. “The younger generation doesn’t know our history,” Schwarz says. “I’m hoping the film will put Vito Russo back where he belongs, in the pantheon of gay heroes.”