After a successful early run on the festival circuit, Vito will premiere this coming Monday evening on HBO, giving millions of viewers a chance to learn about one of the 20th century’s most influential leaders.
Directory Jeffrey Schwarz’s film is a fascinating look at the man himself and the passions that drove his work during a tumultuous period in the LGBT community’s history. Vito Russo recognized the power the media had to shape public perception of LGBT people, not to mention its power over the way we viewed ourselves. That understanding and his love for the cinema led Russo to write The Celluloid Closet, which detailed how LGBT people were portrayed on the silver screen and had a tremendous impact on film studies and history. The book was later made into an award winning documentary (that Schwarz actually worked on) that still stands as one of the best LGBT themed documentaries to this day.
However, it was that same recognition of the media’s influence that also led Russo to cofound the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation 26 years ago. In 1985, after a constant stream of articles about HIV/AIDS in the New York Post which dehumanized so many living with HIV/AIDS and were outrageously anti-LGBT, Vito took action and began GLAAD to begin to create a media landscape that not only fairly and accurately reported on issues, but grew acceptance and understanding. Now, every year GLAAD bestows an award bearing his name at the GLAAD Media Awards onto an openly LGBT person who has made an outstanding contribution to images of our community in the media. Russo was also a founding member of ACT UP, and a remained a major force in the movement for many years before his untimely passing in 1990.
In advance of its July 23rd TV premiere, Schwarz spoke with GLAAD about what led him to tell Russo’s story in the first place and examine the legacy he left behind.
What first drew you to Vito Russo as a documentary subject?
My first job in the movie business was working as an apprentice editor on the 1995 Peabody Award-winning HBO documentary adaptation of Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. That was where I really got to know Vito, just a few years after he passed away. Rob and Jeffrey had all of Vito's research materials, articles, videotapes, lectures and most importantly, extended interviews with Vito himself. I learned about his life as an activist within the early gay liberation movement, how he integrated his love of movies with his critique of how they represented LGBT people, and of course his personal story of the years he spent battling AIDS. In recent years I started thinking about how a new generation of LGBT youth is coming of age without knowing about pioneers like Vito Russo. Vito participated in every significant milestone in the gay liberation movement – from Stonewall to the founding of GLAAD to ACT UP – and his story is also the story of our community. A documentary could offer a personal account of how he and our community were able to help overcome homophobia and oppression, and emerge from invisibility to liberation.
Much of Russo’s life work – including his cofounding of GLAAD - focused on how the media’s portrayal of the LGBT community affected both the way society viewed us and the way we viewed ourselves. How do you think the relationship between the media and the LGBT community has evolved since Russo’s time, and what role do you think the media plays in the LGBT movement today?
As an activist, Vito knew that one of the keys of full equality and acceptance was visibility in the mainstream media. He understood the power of movies and television to convey who we are, and this was his life's work - to critique, encourage and champion fair and accurate portrayals of LGBT people. I think there's a misperception about his work sometimes, in that he was looking at images purely as "positive" or "negative" portrayals. He just wanted balance. He would have no problem with a gay villain, for example, as long as the character's homosexuality wasn't what made him so detestable. All in all, I think Vito would be very pleased with the progress we have made in LGBT visibility in the media. Of course he would never be satisfied. For every Milk, Transamerica or The Kids Are All Right there are still plenty of stereotypes and f*g jokes. GLAAD was originally formed to speak out against the New York Post’s horrific coverage of AIDS in the 1980s. As one of the founding members of GLAAD, Vito understood that we needed to directly confront defamation. It’s something that GLAAD successfully continues to this day.
What influence did The Celluloid Closet have on you as a filmmaker or as a film fan?
Part of my coming out process in the early 90s was devouring Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet and trying to see as many of the films Vito talked about as I could. That book was incredibly empowering for me personally because it fused my passion for film with my burgeoning gay identity. It made me aware of dozens of films I had never heard of before, and also allowed me to look at films I thought I knew in a different way. It showed how the dominant culture portrayed gay and lesbian people as twisted villains, pathetic victims, or easy comic relief. The book helped me understand how important it was to make films that deal with our own history. It inspired me to tell stories about queer lives, and to pass along these stories to the next generation. That’s what Vito did for me, and in my own way, I’m trying to follow in his footsteps.
Vito is also a compelling portrait of a very critical period in LGBT history. Do you think there are any lessons LGBT people can take away from the period and events your film examines?
There are many people in our community who probably aren’t aware of the incredible struggles and sacrifices that the men and women of Vito’s generation made, so I hope this film can help be a corrective to that problem. Vito envisioned a world in which it would be possible to live openly, to not be harassed, persecuted, and condemned. Later during the AIDS crisis, we saw how Vito and his brothers and sisters in the movement took care of each other when our enemies were practically dancing on the graves of people who were dying. Even though we’ve made enormous gains over the years, the pendulum could swing back again and we can quickly lose our freedoms. I hope the film will empower our community and help us all to remain vigilant.
What were some of the more surprising things you learned in the process of researching and filming Vito?
I had known the basic trajectory of his life through the research I'd done, but in speaking with his friends, family, and fellow activists I was able to get a much better sense of Vito has a person. He did not suffer fools, and could be critical of the gay community. He was impatient with those who would not get involved and contribute. He wanted the community to support LGBT films, but a lot of them would rather go see Batman for the third time. He wanted the community to become politically engaged, but found that, pre-AIDS specifically, a lot of guys thought the battle was over because they could party to their heart’s content in the gay ghettos. During the epidemic, even though he was battling the disease and had lost his partner, he fought harder than anyone. He used to say "If I can be at that demonstration, YOU can be at that demonstration." He wanted everyone to be as passionate as he was. I also found out that Vito was born on the same day as porn star Jack Wrangler, the subject of my last film, which was pretty astounding.
What do you hope viewers will take away from the film?
When Vito airs on HBO on July 23, I hope it inspires the kids finding their place in our community – to show them how he helped make it possible for us all to live proudly and openly in the world. Vito's message of standing up, speaking out, and living passionately and bravely in the face of adversity is something we can all aspire to.
Vito premieres this Monday, July 23rd, at 9pm on HBO.