Vito Russo: from "Celluloid Closet" to cinema star

NEW YORK Fri Dec 23, 2011 2:29pm EST

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - More than anything, Vito Russo loved the movies. More than 20 years after the gay activist and film historian's death, he is finally starring in one.

Entitled simply, "Vito," the HBO documentary takes a comprehensive look at the life, loves and battles of the East Harlem native who as a boy eschewed neighborhood stickball games and navigated his way to Times Square where he would revel in matinees and tap the pulse of the city.

As an adult, Russo was a founding member of three pivotal gay rights groups, starting with the Gay Activists Alliance in the early 1970s. He died of AIDS in 1990, age 44.

"Vito participated in every significant milestone in the gay liberation movement, from Stonewall to ACT UP," said director Jeffrey Schwarz. "He was right in the middle of everything, every step of the way."

"His story is also the story of our community," Schwarz said following a recent screening at the New York Film Festival where the director reflected on how he came to cast the story of Russo's life against the backdrop of the gay rights movement.

"Vito" melds archival footage and interviews of Russo's celebrity and activist friends, such as Lily Tomlin, with film clips of stars including Judy Garland, Shirley MacLaine and Cary Grant. Excerpts from interviews with Russo himself lend a poignant touch.

The documentary has been playing festivals in recent months before it airs on HBO in June 2012. A Hollywood Reporter review called it "an emotionally powerful documentary portrait with an impassioned voice that befits its subject."

Among the many protests he helped stage that made headlines was one in which Russo and a group of activists descended on New York City officials for a mass marriage, complete with cakes topped by figures of same-sex couples -- decades before gay marriage became a national issue and, in some states, legal.

"He was a true visionary," said his brother, Charles. "Same sex marriage, anti-bullying -- these were things he talked about 40 years ago, and they're on the front pages today."

MADE IN THE MEDIA

Russo also was a key voice in the creation of both ACT UP, the AIDS activist group credited with revolutionizing the federal approval process for new drugs, and the influential gay and lesbian media watchdog, Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, or GLAAD.

"He saw that changing images through media was more important than changing laws," Charles Russo said.

But to many, Russo is perhaps best known as the cinephile author of "The Celluloid Closet," which Schwarz calls "the bible of gay film."

Russo's 1981 book chronicles the history of depictions of gay people in film, and it was made into an award-winning documentary. The book found its origins in movie nights Russo organized in the early 1970s, when he combined the things he loved -- community and cinema.

The formula was simple -- hundreds of gay people and a beloved movie, yielding a night of enthusiastic audience participation during which strangers reveled in shared tastes.

At the time, with the Stonewall riots a fresh memory, such gatherings were political acts. For many, these precursors of gay film festivals were a first involvement in gay community.

Russo's cousin, Phyllis Antonellis, recalled that for his family, Russo "opened up a world to all of us that we never would have known otherwise." She might just as easily have been talking about the gay men who flocked to Russo's screenings to applaud favorite lines of dialogue with like-minded folk.

"The Celluloid Closet" came out just as AIDS began its devastating, unrelenting march into the lives of many individuals. Seeing entire circles of friends die, Russo returned to his activist roots and devoted himself to education, support and making as much noise as possible.

Schwarz sees the street protests of those days, for which Russo pulled together factions from an often-divided community, as forerunners of the present-day Occupy Wall Streeters, which have similarly tapped groups ranging from labor to students.

Like many a Hollywood tearjerker, "Vito" ends with the star's premature death. But Russo was no fictional character in a studio movie, even as much as he adored the archetype. His death was real, and still has resonance two decades later.

(This story was updated to correct the spelling of director name Schwarz throughout)

(Reporting by Chris Michaud; editing by Jill Serjeant and Bob Tourtellotte)

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