â€œThe things that you think are going to take 10 years take 100 years,â€ said gay rights activist and film historian Vito Russo. He said it to a camera, with some measure of lament, during an interview that took place more than two decades ago, but feels as if it happened a thousand years ago.
Russo, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1990 at 44, never got to see this fast-forwarded age of gay rights. In just the past decade, same-sex couples gained marriage rights in several states (and the District) and, in the past week, a Facebook petition frenzy soured appetites for Chick-fil-A, whose religious owner has donated a small fortune to the anti-gay marriage effort. Youâ€™d have to wonder what Russo would have made of all this â€” would he see satisfying social progress (Anderson Cooper! â€œRuPaulâ€™s Drag Race!â€) or would he still be in the thick of a bitter fight?
Jeffrey Schwarzâ€™s moving documentary, â€œVito,â€ airing on HBO on Monday night, is a portrait of the kind of hot-and-bothered activist who seems to exist less and less in this era of black-tie fundraisers and â€œModern Familyâ€ quasi-acceptance.
Russo, a New York native who was born outspoken, overcame a bullied childhood and found refuge at silver-screen matinees. At the time of the Stonewall riots, in 1969, he was a sexually voracious young man with a determination to change the world.
â€œVitoâ€ nearly parallels Russoâ€™s life and times with that of the early gay-rights movement. At the bawdy St. Markâ€™s baths in the 1970s (where Russo befriended house chanteuse Bette Midler), Russo began hosting movie nights for the clientele, but rather than porn, he showed classics from the 1930s and â€™40s.
The audience discovered â€œthat we all laughed at the same parts,â€ as one participant recalls for Schwarzâ€™s documentary. Russo found his lifeâ€™s calling in this shared sense of camp and double entendre, brought vividly to life by the likes of Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and Judy Garland. He was the original â€œfriend of Dorothyâ€ and spent the better part of a decade diving deeper into film archives to pinpoint and chronicle the history of gay characters and themes in the movies â€” subliminal or otherwise.
â€œThe Celluloid Closet,â€ Russoâ€™s 1981 book, became an important work of scholarship and a bestseller, showing how Hollywood had coyly stereotyped homosexuals all along. Russo also began hosting a weekly gay-themed talk show on a New York cable television station, becoming a sort of primordial version of Bravoâ€™s Andy Cohen (only with a higher IQ). His interest in film history, popular culture and the burgeoning gay-rights movement were perfectly intertwined.
As such, the first half of â€œVitoâ€ plays almost like a 45-minute â€œIt Gets Betterâ€ ad, as Russo embraces his identity, tastes success and is adored by his family and friends. â€œVitoâ€ is lush with fascinating archival interviews and footage, including scenes from a 1973 pride rally at which a young Russo struggles to keep the peace among a rowdy crowd of feminist lesbians and militant drag queens.
Then the heartbreak of AIDS intrudes in the â€™80s. Russo loses the love of his life, watches his own health decline and joins Larry Kramer and others in a desperate and outraged cry for research dollars and government action. Here, â€œVitoâ€ exchanges its subtle storytelling technique for a sobering session of gay-rights homework, resembling a recent raft of documentaries about the early years of the AIDS crisis. (Even some of the stock footage is the same as that seen recently on PBSâ€™s â€œWe Were Hereâ€ and other projects.)
â€œVito,â€ like most films about gay history, becomes obsessed with the idea that younger generations live blissfully unaware of the struggles of yesteryear, which isnâ€™t always true. The tone of the film shifts from elegiac to stern, as Schwarz looks for a landing. It ends, of course, with Russoâ€™s death and a bunch of people wishing like crazy that he was still here, fighting the fight and taking his friends to the movies.
(95 minutes) airs Monday at 9 p.m. on HBO.
- Out Now: Vito (bootlegbetty.com)
- Outfest: ‘VITO’ Clips, Interview with Director Jeffrey Schwarz (bilerico.com)
- Films: The Best Of Outfest 2012 Preview (bootlegbetty.com)