Vito Russo (1946-90) was one of our community's most important figures during the two decades that followed Stonewall. An eyewitness at the Stonewall Uprising in 1969, Russo was an important member of the legendary Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) New York from 1970 until 1973.
A lifetime film buff, he combined his love for movies and gay activism with a series of movie nights he organized at the GAA Firehouse, which quickly evolved into a "Celluloid Closet" lecture series about LGBT people in mainstream movies. Russo's lectures became the basis for the 1981 book The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, still the most important book ever written about gays in popular culture. In the 1980s this "cultural Zelig" became a prominent AIDS activist and a founder of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD). Russo died from AIDS complications in 1990.
Russo is the topic of a long-overdue biography by Michael Schiavi, Associate Professor of English and Coordinator of English as a Second Language at New York Institute of Technology's Manhattan Campus.
According to Schiavi, Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo, published by University of Wisconsin Press, "came about by accident":
In 2006 I was planning to write an article about the status of The Celluloid Closet, Vito's master work, in current film and queer theory. To get some "inside" information, I called Vito's best friend, author and activist Arnie Kantrowitz, and Arnie's life-partner, Dr. Larry Mass. On the phone that day, Larry said to me, "You know, it's nice that you're writing this article about The Celluloid Closet, but somebody really should write a full biography of Vito." And I thought to myself, "Yeah, somebody should!" So I did.
In order to fulfill his worthy goal, Schiavi interviewed literally hundreds of people who knew Russo, from his brother Charlie to Lily Tomlin. Schiavi also tried to interview Bette Midler, but the diva replied that she was "too busy."
"America has an awfully short memory of its heroes. Gay America, I'm afraid, is even guiltier of this," Schiavi said. Though in his day Russo was one of the best known (and best loved) figures in the community, he remains unfamiliar to an LGBT generation that came of age after 1990. Schiavi:
Vito's name had fallen out of common parlance for a couple of reasons: 1) his film critiques stop with films that are now more than 20 years old. At the time he was writing, Hollywood's generally hateful treatment of gay themes and characters had everything to do with how the LGBT community was viewed in popular culture. But the notion of popular culture has changed immeasurably in the Internet age, and the titles that Vito obsessed over are now historical.
2) Vito is also associated with the early days of AIDS activism. He was a founding member of ACT UP and one of its most eloquent, beloved speakers in the late '80s. But that, too, is a bygone era. Young people today do not remember a time when AIDS was an everyday life-and-death reality; they see it as a manageable disease at worst. So a figure like Vito, who was out there screaming bloody murder against a government that let thousands of gay men die, seems very alien to them.
Though Celluloid Activist gives Russo his due, it does not shy away from its hero's less admirable qualities. Schiavi describes Russo as "Brash. Hilarious. Ballsy. The quintessential New Yorker. The biggest Judy Garland queen in history. Man-crazy. Obsessed with gaining visibility for the LGBT community. Obsessed with denouncing and obliterating governmental indifference to AIDS. Someone who loved living with all his heart and body." On the other hand, Schiavi said:
Vito never had any interest in assuming leadership roles, even in organizations that he co-founded. I think he liked to help get organizations off the ground, liked to give stirring speeches and benefit lectures/ screenings, and then move on. Professionally, his first love was always writing, and that requires considerable solitude and space.
As great as Russo's contributions to LGBT and AIDS activism are, his contributions to gay film criticism are unique and invaluable. Schiavi said:
The Celluloid Closet more or less invented the field of gay and lesbian media studies. Through his Celluloid Closet lectures and, eventually, book, Vito was determined to read film much more practically. He knew that the way LGBT people are portrayed on screen has a direct impact on how they are treated in society.
So he set about finding every possible mainstream American film, from the silents through the '80s, that purported to represent our lives. The sheer grunt work of his task is overwhelming. Through international archives and the advice of countless friends, he tracked down and analyzed over 400 movies that had never before been considered together. Collectively, they presented the almost universally vicious portrayal - clowns, victims, villains, murderers, perverts, destroyers of society - that had been our popular representation for over 75 years.
Unfortunately, "Vito's brand of activist criticism isn't practiced today. The current era of activism lacks the edge and urgency that typified all of Vito's writing."
Schiavi described Russo - who was born, lived most of his life, and died in Manhattan - as "the quintessential New Yorker." Back in the '70s, arguably Gay New York's greatest decade, Russo asserted that Manhattan was "the best place in the world to be alive, well, and gay."
This, Schiavi added, "was a conviction he held his entire life":
He often stated how lucky he was to grow up in NYC and realize, long before Stonewall, that he was surrounded by gay people. He knew that unlike the majority of LGBT folks his age, he did not have to grow up in isolation. He also loved living in a city where, as he put it, 'Every time you head out the door, it feels like something's gonna break out in headlines!' Vito's personality was like one enormous capitalized headline, so he needed an environment up to his energy level.
Celluloid Activist is the biography that Vito Russo deserves, one that matches his energy level.