Vito Russo: from "Celluloid Closet" to cinema star

Fri Dec 23, 2011 2:29pm EST
Email This Article |
Share This Article
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
| Print This Article | Single Page
[-] Text [+]

By Chris Michaud

NEW YORK (Reuters) - More than anything, Vito Russo loved the movies. More than 20 years after the gay activist and film historian's death, he is finally starring in one.

Entitled simply, "Vito," the HBO documentary takes a comprehensive look at the life, loves and battles of the East Harlem native who as a boy eschewed neighborhood stickball games and navigated his way to Times Square where he would revel in matinees and tap the pulse of the city.

As an adult, Russo was a founding member of three pivotal gay rights groups, starting with the Gay Activists Alliance in the early 1970s. He died of AIDS in 1990, age 44.

"Vito participated in every significant milestone in the gay liberation movement, from Stonewall to ACT UP," said director Jeffrey Schwarz. "He was right in the middle of everything, every step of the way."

"His story is also the story of our community," Schwarz said following a recent screening at the New York Film Festival where the director reflected on how he came to cast the story of Russo's life against the backdrop of the gay rights movement.

"Vito" melds archival footage and interviews of Russo's celebrity and activist friends, such as Lily Tomlin, with film clips of stars including Judy Garland, Shirley MacLaine and Cary Grant. Excerpts from interviews with Russo himself lend a poignant touch.

The documentary has been playing festivals in recent months before it airs on HBO in June 2012. A Hollywood Reporter review called it "an emotionally powerful documentary portrait with an impassioned voice that befits its subject."

Among the many protests he helped stage that made headlines was one in which Russo and a group of activists descended on New York City officials for a mass marriage, complete with cakes topped by figures of same-sex couples -- decades before gay marriage became a national issue and, in some states, legal.   Continued...