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MOVIES Bruce Vilanch, Cleve Jones discuss Vito Russo, Celluloid Closet
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times

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Any discussion of pivotal figures at the forefront of 20th-century gay activism, gay history and gay culture would be unthinkable without including Vito Russo.

Russo—whose landmark book The Celluloid Closet, published in the 1980s and never being out of print since—died in 1990 from the disease he fought so passionately against both publicly and privately. But his legacy continues to influence queer culture and now Russo ( along with trans activist Sylvia Rivera ) is about to be honored as the latest addition to the Legacy Walk, the historic freestanding museum dedicated to honoring the often unsung heroes of Our People. Russo's bronze memorial plaque, which was vetted by his biographer Michael Schiavi, will be dedicated at a special ceremony on Saturday, Oct. 15, with a pre-reception at the Center on Halsted followed by the dedication of the plaque on Halsted and an after party at Sidetrack.

Two of Russo's close friends—Bruce Vilanch—funnyman and multiple Emmy award winner for the hilarious quips he has put into the mouths of everyone from Bette Midler to Whoopi Goldberg—and Cleve Jones—founder of the Names Project—the AIDS Memorial Quilt and longtime activist, immortalized in the award-winning film Milk and soon to be the subject of an ABC miniseries scripted by his close friend Dustin Lance Black based on his forthcoming memoir, When We Rise—will be in town for the dedication ceremony. In separate interviews, these two towering figures of Our Community—queer icons themselves—chatted briefly about their dear friend Vito Russo.

Windy City Times: I'd forgotten until I saw Jeffrey Schwarz's documentary Vito, which we showed at the Center on Halsted a few months back on Vito's birthday about your close friendship with him. Can you talk about how you first knew him?

Bruce Vilanch: I wish I could remember. [Laughs] It was the '70s and we were all chemically altered and it seems to me that I met him on one of those movie nights in New York. I was living in Chicago, writing for the Trib and Chicago Today, and I was in New York for something. It's all very cloudy. It might have been with Bette Midler who was living in the village and was kinda the queen of the village in those days [laughs] and I was writing for her and I would come in and plot things we were going to have her do in her stage show.

We used to go to a bar called Marie's Crisis, which was a piano bar where it was guaranteed that when you walked in the door you would hear somebody singing "Rose's Turn." I think that's actually where we met. Bette knew him because he'd been involved in what was called the gay liberation movement. I think she did one of the first rallies in Washington Park and he took many pictures of it.

WCT: There's that astonishing video footage, too. I believe he gets up and Sylvia Rivera, too, along with Bette.

BV: Yes, that's right. A dim memory is forming. So I went back to Chicago but we just kept up. I would see him when I was in New York but mostly just socially and we would talk on the phone a lot.

WCT: The first thing I knew about Vito was what a lot of people knew—the groundbreaking The Celluloid Closet. Did he share stuff with you when he was working on it?

BV: Absolutely. I was somebody who he would call and we would talk about old movies and how people how been depicted in movies. It was hard to see these things—you know, there was no Turner Classic. We actually had to go to revival houses to see these things and you had to dig them up in some cases out of collections and libraries. I was one of those people and we actually did it together. We all had opinions about Franklin Pangborn and Edward Everett Horton—the all-stars from the Golden Age who carried the banner of gayness.

WCT: That sort of hiding in plain sight.

BV: Exactly.

WCT: So many gay people had—and have that same camaraderie over movies which of course, I love. So, in the ensuing years when you both had such enormous successes—did you ever turn to each other and say, "Who would've thought?!"

BV: No; I don't think either of us viewed our successes as being that gigantic because we knew people who had truly gigantic successes—people we had known beforehand and now they couldn't go out. I mean Barry Manilow could not go to Macy's to buy something because there would be a trail of screaming women because he'd become that kind of pop star. We had a bunch of those in our bag. What we had wasn't that—we were well known in our circles. We were not impressed with ourselves in that regard.

WCT: Can you talk about the importance of Vito's legacy from the film aspect?

BV: He identified the role that gay people were playing onscreen which nobody had done before and he pulled it out and categorized it in the way that other people were writing about Black people in the movies and other ethnic groups in the movies and he was legitimizing the portrayal and participation of gay people in the movies. He was the first one to actually do that. It caught on and in addition to doing that he was an activist. It was a very potent combination because he used that thing he did in the cultural world to influence politics as well. He created a study that nobody knew was out there.

WCT: It must be lovely to see that your dear friend is being remembered for his hard work.

BV: It is and it's also important—I don't know exactly what the chronology is—but it seems to be that all of these gay film festivals flow from the closet door that was opened when he wrote his book and the subsequent documentary. His book was about visibility and once it became clear that we had been invisible, a lot of us said, "That's the end of that—now we're going to be as visible as we can be." Leading to my favorite line from Mike Nichols, when he said, "It used to be the love that dare not speak its name and now it's the love that won't shut up." And that was directly because of Vito and what he did.

WCT: We're thrilled to have you here in Chicago for this momentous occasion.

BV: I am thrilled—any excuse to be on the streets of Chicago. [Laughs]

WCT: When did your friendship with Vito begin?

Cleve Jones: It was back in the gay Jurassic when he was developing The Celluloid Closet. That began as a series of lectures and he did one of them at the Roxy Cinema in San Francisco and I remember meeting him there. He was also one of the people featured in the documentary Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 1989. My connection with Vito was primarily activism though before I decided to focus on activism I had briefly been a film major so we did have a little bit of a connection there.

I really loved what he did with The Celluloid Closet; we connected around AIDS activism and one of the things that I was particularly grateful to him for—you know ACT-UP and The Names Project both started around the same time—and while I think everyone involved in The Names Project supported ACT-UP as well, there were people within ACT-UP who were extremely hostile to the Quilt—who thought it was kitschy; who thought it was passive; who would say stupid things like, "You can't fight AIDS by sitting around making quilts" when we understood that the Quilt was actually a doorway to bring people into activism.

WCT: Of course.

CJ: And Vito from the beginning understood that and one of the great things about Vito was that while he was passionate in his convictions he could listen carefully to people and he was never confrontational just for the sake of being confrontational. He was a very thoughtful man; he reasoned things out.

So, at a time when a lot of the people in ACT-UP were saying really mean and stupid things about the Quilt, he was really working on building bridges and helping people understand that the Quilt was part of our larger struggle and that all of these different strategies were useful. Thinking about Vito is always very poignant for me but I think what people should know about him is that he was extremely intelligent, he was a political radical, he believed in direct action, he believed in the power of popular culture to transform people and wanted us to pay attention to the way the people we now called LGBT were portrayed in the cinema and had just a real love for telling those stories about what at that time was still a kind of hidden queer presence within cinema.

WCT: So, as we come to honor this extraordinary individual whose life touched so many—how do you think Vito would feel about where the movement is now?

CJ: I don't want to speculate too much but I think if Vito were alive today he would be doing what so many of us are doing—which is to try and inform the young people of what life was like when we were young; what life was like for those who came before us; what life was like before the plague, how we struggled, what we won, what we lost and he also loved telling stories. That's something I have in common with Vito. In a way, Vito is still telling those stories and that's part of why I'm so excited about the Legacy Project doing this. Of all of these efforts that are going on around the country to memorialize our history and make it accessible to the generations that are coming up, the Legacy Project is without question one of the most effective. I'm really proud of Victor [Salvo, founder of the Legacy Project] and all the folks that worked so hard to make this happen. You have to be all in to do something like this.

WCT: And you should know!

CJ: Yes. What else to say about Vito? I had enormous love and respect for him. He is someone I still think of frequently and wish so much that he was here today to see all this that has happened. That is a constant source of sorrow for me that so many of these great heroes didn't live long enough to see the victories of recent years. He would be the first to admonish us that we still had a long way to go but he would also want to celebrate what we have accomplished. .

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