Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz. STC. 93 min. Opens July 20.
If not for the valiant efforts of film historian Vito Russo, Hollywood’s homoerotic tendencies might have gone undetected. Well, the volleyball scene in Top Gun perhaps tipped off a few more people about the existence of a certain undercurrent, but it was Russo who furthered a wider awareness of the history of queer representation on movie screens (both explicit and covert) with his pioneering study, The Celluloid Closet. Nearly as influential were the popular screening events he held in American cities before and after the book became a surprise bestseller in 1981.
Yet Jeffrey Schwarz’s enlightening bio-doc proves that there was much more to Russo’s life than his cinephilia. In fact, the New Yorker was a key player in both the gay-rights movement that was galvanized by the Stonewall riots at the end of the ’60s, and the even angrier wave of protests and actions spurred by the Reagan administration’s sluggish response to the AIDS epidemic in the ’80s. Until his own death from the disease in 1990, Russo was one of the community’s most outspoken figures and—as the co-host, writer, and producer of Our Time, American TV’s first gay-themed current-affairs show—one of its most visible.
Thanks to Russo’s own media savvy (and ever-fabulous moustache), Schwarz has a wealth of archival material from which to draw, though many of Vito’s most moving moments are to be found in new interviews with friends and cohorts such as Larry Kramer, Lily Tomlin, and Armistead Maupin. There’s also valuable input from Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, the filmmaking team whose efforts include The Life and Times of Harvey Milk and the screen
version of The Celluloid Closet.
Since Russo was a man who recognized few boundaries between the personal and the political, it’s of little surprise that Schwarz’s film simultaneously serves as an affectionate (though not always flattering) portrait and a succinct primer on gay activism in America through its stormiest decades. That Vito makes for such rich and rousing viewing is also fitting, given how much its subject could see whenever he looked into a movie screen.