Less than a month after Entertainment Weekly devoted a cover story to how gay actors today have a fairly easy time coming out of the closet, HBO remembers a largely forgotten maverick who attacked homophobia head-on four decades ago in “Vito,” a documentary premiering Monday, July 23.
Produced and directed by Jeffrey Schwartz, the film profiles Vito Russo, a New York film student who was in the crowd watching as a Greenwich Village bar brawl between patrons and police gave birth to the American gay rights movement. Russo spent the next 20 years working as a critic, journalist and gay activist until his death from AIDS in 1990. Today he is remembered primarily for writing “The Celluloid Closet,” a book about how gays and lesbians were portrayed in films.
“Today’s gay and lesbian young people don’t necessarily know how we got to the point where they can wake up in the morning and just be who they are, just take it for granted that they are not going to be persecuted or harassed or arrested,” Schwartz tells Zap2it. “Those were things that earlier generations had to deal with every day of their lives.
“I don’t think people today like to think about that, and that was partly why I wanted to restore Vito Russo to his proper place in the pantheon of gay civil rights heroes. I also wanted to tell the story of the gay and lesbian civil rights movement through his eyes.”
Schwartz didn’t even come out himself until a year after Russo died, but his first professional job in the film community coincidentally was working on the groundbreaking documentary adaptation of “The Celluloid Closet,” so he had access to extensive interviews with Russo, as well as his original research materials. The film includes commentary by family, friends and colleagues of Russo, including gay icons Lily Tomlin and Armistead Maupin.
“I do think Vito would be very pleased with many of the advances we have made,” Schwartz says. “He also would be very interested in the ongoing health care debate, because he spent so much of his time dealing with the AIDS epidemic.”