It’s practically impossible to discuss a documentary film without summarizing what it’s about and revealing specific “plot twists”, particularly when it comes to the biographical kind. Vito; however, is that rare case where, after the movie’s over, you actually want to tell more people about its subject. Said man was none other than Vito Russo, the somewhat unknown pillar of gay rights, co-founder of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the film historian behind one of the greatest movie books ever made.
The documentary follows Russo from his childhood in New Jersey where he was miserable upon realizing he was so different than everyone else, then follows him to his sexual awakening at the tender age of 14 (he learned about cruising in parks and public spots at an early age) and reaches a gossipy climax upon his arrival in New York City, where he found a promised land of culture, parties and sex. Once he enters college—Russo studied film in NYU—Vito turns towards darker subjects and we see how this feisty young man developed a social conscience.
Russo describes how he witnessed the Stonewall riots from the sides, quietly judging the drag queens and homosexuals who were spoiling the nightlife, instead of feeling identified with their cause. It wasn’t until a later riot sent a young man to the hospital that he felt that he too was a part of this. After this epiphany, we are led to understand that Vito wouldn’t stop being an activist and standing up for the causes he believed in. He went from gay rights advocate, to AIDS activist until his untimely death—from complications of the disease—in 1990, in the process becoming one of the most important, unsung heroes for both causes.
But perhaps the most significant of his contributions—without meaning to undermine the others—was his seminal book The Celluloid Closet, which became the first book where media studies met queer theory. The documentary shows us how American society went from reading books in which homosexuality was established as a disease, to having a bestseller that elaborated how classic Hollywood films were filled with homosexual references, mostly hidden and repressed in order to adhere to the vicious Hays Code. Vito’s aunt explains in an interview how she was shocked to discover Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn movies overflowed with homosexual undertones. The book changed the way in which Hollywood was presented as a beacon of heteronormalcy and even dissenters can’t help but acknowledge that it’s one of the finest books on film history ever made.
As directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, this documentary often achieves a very intimate tone. Through the use of archival footage, interviews and movie clips he somehow makes us believe as if we’re listening to this story from Vito himself (it helps that there is a wonderful interview with Russo that seems to have been purposely recorded for posterity). Schwarz, whose first movie job was assisting in the editing of a documentary based on Russo’s seminal The Celluloid Closet, has made a career out of producing nonfiction films about camp icons and queer subjects. It’s wonderful to see him come full circle with this remarkable film that educates as much as it inspires.
It’s a shame to realize that even if you knew about Vito’s media studies, not that many people are aware of his importance in the battle for gay rights and his outspokenness during the fascistic Reagan regime. The film features archival clips that break the heart and make us wish Russo had lived long enough to see that his work eventually made a difference. Besides being an invaluable biographical document, this film is a reminder of a time when fighting for one’s rights meant going out in the streets, being arrested and actually putting your life in danger to defend a cause you believed in. To say that it should be required viewing is an understatement. Few films about real life people have the capacity to move and educate in the same way.
It’s a real pleasure to discover that the folks at First Run Features have also done a wonderful job in bringing Vito to DVD. The transfer is adequate enough and the film has a decent selection of bonus features, most of which concentrate on Vito’s work. The disc includes several clips of Russo’s television work, in which he discussed all kinds of different subjects, with the intention of keeping the gay community together. It’s a pleasure to see that such a package was put together to honor the legacy of a man who, after all, was a passionate movie buff. It might sound like a cliché, but the documentary makes us feel like Vito would approve of having his life’s teachings be transmitted in movie form.