a film by Jeffrey Schwarz.
2011 | 93 mins | US.
including contributions from: Charles Russo / brother, Phyllis Antonellis / cousin, Denise Romanello / cousin, Rob Epstein / filmmaker, Jeffrey Friedman / filmmaker, Bob Hawk / film curator, Arnie Kantrowitz / friend, vice-president GAA, Larry Kramer / author and activist, Eric Marcus / author, Making History, Armistead Maupin / author, Tales of the City, Michael Schiavi / author, Celluloid Activist, Lily Tomlin / actress and friend and Bruce Vilanch / writer.
Official Synopsis: "In the aftermath of Stonewall, a newly politicized Vito Russo found his voice as a gay activist and critic of LGBT representation in the media. He went on to write The Celluloid Closet, the first book to critique Hollywood's portrayals of gays on screen. During the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, Vito became a passionate advocate for justice via the newly formed ACT UP, before his death in 1990."
Seldom do I use the expression "not to be missed." Then again, this is truly a not to be missed portrait of the celebrated gay rights activist and film historian and a man who personally, I have always held the highest respect for. Only here I am not alone, as this compelling documentary is beautifully intercut with a series of glowing tributes to the all too brief life of Vito Russo; namely a man who incessantly challenged homophobic minds and the ingrained prejudice of the time.
For whilst fondly remembered as the author who meticulously shone a spotlight into the darkened corners of Hollywood's Celluloid Closet, Vito was foremost ever marching for the cause. And no wonder when you recall times that once were, that of the pre-Stonewall era in which to be gay was to be ashamed on your very self, hidden away in back alley bars that were repeatedly subject to raids by the police, followed by arrests and due exposure - think shame, in the press thereafter. That Vito was always proud of who he sexually was, goes without saying. But society, reflected in negative cinematic imagery, made many at the time feel otherwise. Until that is, such groups as GAA (Gay Activists Alliance) and GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) formed to march for change. Playing his pivotal part in both, Vito would come to see such organizations have issues of their own, as factional infighting took to the stage, only to come up against those, Vito and The Divine Miss M included, determined to reunite all as one big happy family.
The celebrated gay rights activist and film historian Vito Russo.
Yet more pressing concerns lay in the years ahead, as Vito, along with Larry Kramer and others of ACT UP mind, were to take on the US Government, rightly furious over President Reagan's downright appalling mishandling of an epidemic that was killing his fellow Americans. Unleashing his activist wrath, Vito and thousands of other like-minded individuals courageously took to the streets and Wall Street in particular, in protest against overpriced drugs and an overlong drug testing program, courtesy of an administration indifferent to the gravity the AIDS crisis warranted. Such however was a personal crusade that Vito, alongside his partner Jeffrey Sevcik and sadly all too many quilted names, was not to win, having succumbed to the virus on the 7th November, 1990, aged just forty-four.
Vito Russo - ever marching for the cause.
Before then however Vito had researched, joyously lectured on and saw published his groundbreaking book, The Celluloid Closet. Written at a period before the advent of the internet, let alone the home cinema format; be it VoD, DVD and in days of yesteryear, the bitter battle between the VHS and Betamax tape formats, Vito literally crossed the film archive globe in his quest to detail how Hollywood had depicted gay and lesbian characters, over the decades. And it is here that we are treated to a summary styled version of the film representation of his book, as a series of wondrous clips from features well known and some perhaps not so, hit the screen in all of their glory. Yet the true glory lies with Vito Russo himself and to his credit director Jeffrey Schwarz of Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon fame, here vividly brings to life the times and very personality of the man behind many a poignant word.
Crosscut with a myriad of personal photos and archive footage and complete with an almost endless sequence of fascinating recollections from friends, family and alliance members, in addition to many a celebrity comment and cue the like of Larry Kramer, Armistead Maupin and Lily Tomlin to name drop but three, together with a series of inspiring direct-to-camera words from the man himself, this insightful feature makes for a deeply moving and long overdue tribute to a man who and in his own words, got involved in the gay rights movement, so as to fight "for the generations that are going to come after me, so that young gay people who are fourteen or fifteen won't have to grow up the way we do." Frankly, that says it all.
Gay Visibility - overt.
Nudity - from the waist up.
Overall - file under ... 5 stars.