July 22, 2012

HBO Documentary “Vito” Honors a Gay Civil rights Fighter

 Filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz got some especially gratifying feedback at a recent San Francisco screening of "Vito," his documentary about late gay-rights activist and onetime Lodi resident Vito Russo.
Vito Russo became a noted gay-rights activist and writer; his book 'The Celluloid Closet,' a history of gays in film, was made into a documentary.
Vito Russo became a noted gay-rights activist and writer; his book 'The Celluloid Closet,' a history of gays in film, was made into a documentary.
Russo with his late father, center, and brother Charlie, right, of Glen Rock.
Russo with his late father, center, and brother Charlie, right, of Glen Rock. 
At the time of Russo's death from AIDS in November 1990, he was a legendary figure in the gay community, known not only for his activism but for his groundbreaking 1981 book "The Celluloid Closet," which chronicled how motion pictures had portrayed homosexual characters from the 20th century on. Over time, Schwarz realized, "fewer and fewer people were aware" of who Russo was and what he'd accomplished.
"He was seminal because he was one of the first advocates for gay rights, and also, he was the first person to ever codify the depiction of gay people in movies, which put that on the map as a cultural reference point," says actor and comedy writer Bruce Vilanch, a Paterson native, who knew Russo well and is in the film.
"Vito," which has been on the festival circuit for the last nine months, features many clips from interviews with the charismatic Russo.
"I'm glad that it's gonna hit the mainstream, so that the next generation can see," says Charlie Russo, Vito's brother, a retired Lodi Middle School guidance counselor and longtime high-school athletics coach who lives with his wife, Linda, in Glen Rock. "They need to know who the trailblazers were, who fought through very difficult times to give us the rights we have today, because sometimes we take them for granted."
Russo also hopes viewers will take away from the film "that a loving and nurturing and supportive family is so important."
That Vito Russo's traditional Italian-American family was all of those things is one of the film's most poignant aspects.
"I don't want to make it sound like right from the start everybody was good with this. … But I'm glad we came to it quickly, at a time when other families were not coming to it," Russo says. "My dad was a construction worker, so there was a homophobic environment that he worked in, and he was also a third degree member of the Knights of Columbus [a Catholic organization]. … He had all these pressures of everybody telling him to reject his son, and yet, the love of his son trumped all of them. And it really empowered Vito, because he knew that whatever he did out there, he could always come home and have unconditional love."
The Russo brothers were polar opposites – Charlie, younger by three years, was captain of the football, basketball and baseball teams in high school, while Vito couldn't get enough of the movies – but they had a great relationship.
"There's an old saying, 'To know him is to love him,' " Russo says. "If you met him, you fell in love with him."
The family moved from East Harlem to Lodi in 1961. And, according to the film, Vito Russo did not exactly love living in New Jersey. As soon as he turned 18, the Lodi High School graduate (class of '63) moved back to New York City. "It's very simple. He wanted to be where the action was, and he wanted to be part of theater and around performers," his brother says. "It wasn't so much that he didn't like Jersey."
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, even in Manhattan, Schwarz says, "it was very unusual and avant-garde for people to be out of the closet, and Vito was out, fully, completely out – to his family, to his friends, in his workplace. He wanted to show to the world that you could be out, and the sky wasn't gonna fall on you."
He became involved with the gay-rights movement shortly after the Stonewall riots of June 28, 1969, and became a member of the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), and later, a founding member of ACT UP and GLAAD, which gives annual media awards.
"He was very concerned about how we were being portrayed in the culture, because movies shape the way we feel about pretty much everything," says Schwarz, who never met Russo but read "The Celluloid Closet" in the early 1990s, when he was in film school and "just coming out." His first movie job was as an apprentice on the award-winning 1995 documentary based on Russo's book.
"In that period of time [that Russo studied in the book], we were depicted as psychopathic villains or comic relief – the quote unquote 'sissy' characters. And gay or lesbian characters usually killed themselves at the end of the film."
Says Vilanch, "He was fascinated by this idea that the movies depicted gay people as tragic characters and that that was part of the reason that gay people saw themselves as tragic characters."
"Vito" also shows how in the early 1980s the virus that would soon be labeled AIDS quickly spread through the gay community, as the Reagan administration dragged its heels in addressing, or even acknowledging, the epidemic. After Russo's diagnosis in 1985, Schwarz says, "he put himself out there as almost a poster child for a person living with AIDS." As his mother, Anne Russo, wrote in a letter to the editor published in The Record a week after her 44-year-old "adored son" died, he "fought to the very end for the quicker release of any medicine that would help save lives."
"Vito" will make its HBO debut on the sixth anniversary of Anne Russo's death. Russo's father, Charlie, died the previous year.
Brother Charlie Russo, who has seen "Vito" seven or eight times, says watching it is an emotional rollercoaster ride that takes him from sadness to anger to pride about his brother's accomplishments and impact.
"Some of the issues that he was talking about and fighting 40 years ago are front-page stories today. He fought bullying, he fought for same-sex marriages, he fought for health care," Russo says. "He was such a visionary. … There's a great line in the movie where he says, 'What I'm doing now, I'm doing for future generations so that the kids of the next generation don't have to go through what we went through.' That's such a key line."
Email: rohan@northjersey.com

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