Jeffrey Schwarz’s involving biodoc on Vito Russo, leading gay activist, film scholar and author of “The Celluloid Closet,” portrays a vibrant, charismatic, remarkably consistent individual, as generous in his personal life as in his political engagements. Via interviews, rare clips and miles of archival footage (Russo always at the forefront of gay rallies, protests or celebrations), Schwarz also makes his subject a dramatic focal point in the history of gay rights from the Stonewall riots to the AIDS epidemic. Docu preemed at the New York fest, launching further fest rounds and possible theatrical play before broadcast on HBO.
Schwarz freely shifts among the familial, social and political facets of his subject, benefiting from the fact that these qualities were in sync. Russo recounts in a lengthy interview how he embraced his homosexuality at an early age, refusing to feel religious guilt or social shame. According to Russo’s brother Charles and cousin Phyllis, both featured prominently, the family quickly accepted his gay lifestyle.
Such was emphatically not the case of society at large in the ’50s and ’60s, even after Russo moved to Greenwich Village. Montages of newsreels and newspaper headlines attest to the stigma, raids, arrests and suicides that ruled the day.
Following the 1969 Stonewall riots, where drag queens and homosexuals first stood up to police harassment, and the subsequent rise of Gay Pride, Russo assumed a major role in the Gay Activists Alliance. The group staged theatrical protests targeting organizations that promulgated homophobia, from the church to city hall to mass media.
Russo proved a strong voice for inclusion of people with all types of sexual preferences and behaviors when the movement threatened to splinter. Schwarz includes an excerpt from 1973’s Gay Pride Day in which angry lesbian feminists accuse drag queens of degrading women while Russo tries desperately to impose solidarity, finally summoning Bette Midler, a familiar face at the Baths, to placate the crowd.
A lifelong cinephile, Russo also established gay film nights, finding that sharing movies with like-minded audiences created a sense of community (they all laughed in the same places). His exploration of images of gays in films, presented worldwide as a popular illustrated lecture years before “Celluloid Closet” was finally published, was groundbreaking.
Schwarz channels Russo by providing a plethora of vintage silent and early-talkie clips, from a comic bit featuring two laced-trimmed, swishy waiters to a “problem movie” titled “Different From Others,” revealing the range of queer characters that routinely popped up in films before the Hayes Code explicitly prohibited not only their depiction but even any reference to their existence. Code-dictated cinema offered more indirect, metaphoric imagery as homosexuality became increasingly visualized as frightening or tragically self-destructive, Schwarz supplying a rough approximation of the original Russo lecture’s famous gay “death montage.”
After the bestselling “Closet,” Russo became the first official gay celebrity, regularly making guest television appearances and hosting his own public TV program “Our Time.” But AIDS takes centerstage in the last section of the docu, as Russo, now afflicted with the disease that felled countless friends, publicly fights government indifference to the epidemic.