Writing for the Windy City Times "AIDS at 30" series last year I introduced an interview with Michael Schiavi, author of The Celluloid Activist, the first biography of Vito Russo, by noting that any discussion of pivotal figures at the forefront of 20th-century gay activism, gay history and gay culture would be unthinkable without including him.
Russo, whose landmark book The Celluloid Closetpublished in the 1980s and never out of print sincedied in 1990 from the disease he fought so passionately against both publicly and privately. However, his legacy continues to influence queer culture on a daily basis.
Now, out filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz continues to hold a torch for Russo with his new, enthralling documentary portrait of the man, the writer, the queer visionary and, most definitely, the activist. Simply titled Vito, the movie premieres Monday, July 23, on HBO.
Windy City Times: I love that you've gone from a documentary on gay-porn icon Jack Wrangler to Vito Russo, and now have Divine next on your agenda. Aside from the entertainment factor in these filmswhich is very highthey also fill in missing pieces of our queer history.
Jeffrey Schwarz: Thank you for saying that. As well as being fascinated with gay and lesbian history, I'm also attracted to these larger-than-life characters and people who are iconoclasts and rebels who sort of make their own way in the world. If you get a sense of the historical context along the way, then that's just gravy for me. It's really about telling the story of these individuals that made their mark on the world.
WCT: Referring to Vito as a cultural Zelig, as Michael Schiavi did in his biography, seems spot-on. I don't know that people from our community, let alone those in the mainstream, have any idea of the impact of this one individual. Can you talk about this?
JS: It really is incredible. I read a lot of the books on gay history but, surprisingly, when I look in the index a lot times I don't see his name there. So, at a certain point I started to get worried that his [legacy] was going to be forgotten and because he's played such a huge role in our movement from the very, very beginning and some of the institutions that he helped to found or inspire are still very much cornerstones of our community today, I thought it was important to reintroduce people to this incredibly charismatic, passionate guy.
Telling Vito's story was a way to tell the story of our communityfrom pre-Stonewall during the dark days through the gay-liberation movement, through the writing of The Celluloid Closet, attention being paid to how we were being portrayed culturally and, finally, through the AIDS epidemic and the formation of ACT UP and GLAAD. All of these things we take for granted these days and the fact that younger gay people can wake up in the morning and sort of be who they are without having as much difficulty as they would have had 40 years ago is, in large part, because of things Vito was a part of.
WCT: Twenty years ago.
JS: Yes, 20 years ago. Absolutely. There was just sort of no such thing as being openly gay before Stonewall. It was extremely rare and avant-garde to be openly gay, and Vito had a vision that the world could be different. He and his gay-liberation brothers and sisters laid the groundwork for a world in which you could be openly gay and not be persecuted and harassed and condemned. It's still extremely difficult for a lot of people but there has also been a sea change in that area.
WCT: There's a lovely moment in the film that speaks to the impact that both he and Larry Kramer have had on queer culture. It's that story about he and Kramernear the end of Vito's lifewatching the gay pride parade from a balcony and all the participants calling up to Vito and Larry turning to him and saying, "Those are our children down there." I think this sums up his impact in a nutshell.
JS: Yes, yes.
WCT: The movie also gets into his close friendships with some very talented women. [For example, there was] Bette Midler, who he met when she was working at the baths. Then, he was instrumental in including her in early gay-pride celebrations and so forththe footage of her performing in 1973 is riveting, by the by.
JS: It is.
WCT: It's also lovely to see Lily Tomlin talking about Vito.
JS: We approached Bette as well but she was busy doing her Vegas show at the time and couldn't participate. But I'm obviously so thrilled to have Lily in the movie because they were very close for a very long time and even collaborated once in a while.
She did an early Advocate interview with him, which was a very bold thing to do at that time and although she wasn't publicly, openly lesbian until the last few years, she was always dropping hints along the way if you were paying attentionincluding the interview she did with Vito. But he protected her privacy and they adored each other.
Remember, Vito was a journalist and it was very rare for celebrities to talk to a gay publication at all because then it was perceived that you were gay. It's completely turned around but it wasn't the case then. He tried to get a lot of people to talk to him for The Celluloid Closet and they just wouldn't.
WCT: He was also a cultural visionary in many ways. I love the very simple idea he had of gathering gay people together to watch films and the power of the community that springs from that. There's still, in my book, nothing like it.
JS: He certainly knew what he was doing. I mean this was years before there was such a thing as gay and lesbian film festivals. He was able to connect his political activism with his interest in movies and how we're represented culturally. He saw the movies as a way to bring people into the movement that might not necessarily want to go to a demonstration or a march but that they would love to go to a movie or a dance. And he knew the power of the movies and the special relationship that gay people have with movies.
We'd never been given the opportunity to celebrate this communally so at the firehouse in the early '70s [at] the headquarters of the Gay Activists Alliancewhen he started these movie nightsthey were an immediate hit. This power remains today; that's how you feel when you walk out of a movie screened at a gay-film festival, for example. He instinctively knew that.
When we screened Vito at Frameline a few weeks ago a 17-year-old kid in the audience stood up at the Q&A and said, "Last week I had no idea who Vito Russo was and today I think I have a new hero." He was in the process of coming out and that was his first time at a gay-film festival and he was brought there by his mother. That's just incredible.
WCT: I remember a similar experience happening when my Queer Film Society co-sponsored the screening here at Reeling last fall. A young man with his mother came up to you after the screening, saying essentially the same thing. As a filmmaker and as an individual, this must be emotionally very satisfying to see your movie speaking to this new generation of queers.
JS: I remember that, and I certainly hope so. I feel like Vito's story is our story, and this information needs to be passed down for anybody coming out and for anyone interested in our gay history. People certainly won't learn about this in schools, obviously. This is the only way we're going to access this. To do it in the form of a movie about this incredibly charismatic, dynamic guy is giving people a history lesson without them even noticing it.
See www.vitorussomovie.com .