‘Vito’: An Ideal Activist

“Gay sensibility is not something we have or share or use. It isn’t even something that only gay people express. It’s a blindness to sexual divisions, an inability to perceive that people are different simply because of sexuality, a natural conviction that difference exists but doesn’t matter; that there’s no such thing as normal even when a majority of people think so.”

There’s no such thing as “normal”. Vito Russo’s description of “gay sensibility”, written in an afterward the second edition of his groundbreaking study, The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, underscores an enduring, vital, and too often forgotten idea. It is forgotten, he notes, when “a majority of people” work to enforce their beliefs — whether under the name of religion or politics. This enforcement takes many forms. Russo focused his attention on movies.

Russo’s primary insight, made clear again in Vito, had to do with how movies reflect and shape the world. Premiering on HBO on 23 July, Jeffrey Schwarz’s documentary is part biography, part celebration, and part broader history, as Russo’s story is inextricable from the social movements he helped to shape and the battles he fought so fiercely against homophobia and AIDS-phobia. The film is also a welcome reminder that Russo’s work was not only revelatory, but also smart and funny and empowering. That work was, says Richard Barrios here, “Sort of like a person in the desert without water, stumbling onto an oasis.” Russo began this process of revelation with “movie nights” in New York, where, remembers Arthur Evans, cofounder of the Gay Activists Alliance, “We discovered that we all laughed at the same places.”

Russo’s research — initiated while he was working at the Museum of Modern Art’s film distribution office — evolved. As he saw more films, he saw how representations had evolved. And as he was working out his book’s structure, Russo took his show on the road, so to speak, with a lecture called “The Celluloid Closet” that included clips from 100 years of movies. He showed early images like the two men dancing for Thomas Edison’s camera in 1895 and the “harmless sissies,” as Armistead Maupin calls them, the “fluttery flibbertygibbets” like Edward Everett Horton or Franklin Pangborn.

He also showed the monsters who emerged under the Production Code (1933-1961), the murderers in Hitchcock movies and other “deeply evil” types who had to be “punished.” And he showed those ambiguously gay characters played by Cary Grant or Rock Hudson and Tony Randall, Marlene Dietrich and Bette Davis, the characters who helped audience members to laugh at the same places.

During the 1970s and early ’80s, such building of community took place alongside protests and organizations, and Russo was early on involved with all of it. The film parallels the evolution of gay pride and his coming to consciousness, and showcases — in some extraordinary footage from a rally where factions of the movement — gay white men, lesbians, gay people of color, and transvestites — are arguing, not a little viciously. He brings out Bette Midler, who does, briefly, wow everyone.

Again and again, the movie shows Russo’s remarkable gift for moving people, individuals and crowds. “I’ve always been an activist,” he says in an archived interview. “A gay activist and an AIDS activist. It was gonna be something because there are too many things wrong.” Indeed, Russo’s AIDS activism was of a piece with his cultural and political sensibility. Early during the crisis, when the Reagan administration so infamously did so little, Russo spoke out — repeatedly. “People are dying of homophobia, they’re dying of Jesse Helms, they’re dying of Ronald Reagan,” he says in another interview. “They’re not dying because we can’t find a treatment or a cure for this disease. We’re not trying. And we’re not trying because the right people are not dying. We’re not trying because it’s only fags and junkies and nobody gives a shit.”

By the time this interview appears in Vito, you’re well aware of the costs of ignorance and fear. Russo became a founding member of GLAAD in 1985, in an effort to combat media representations, specifically, in his neighborhood, homophobic New York Post headlines (“I would like to put them out of business,” he tells one audience). By the time his lover Jeff Sevcik died in 1986, Russo was diagnosed as positive as well, but he determined to continue battling.

He and Larry Kramer founded ACT-UP in 1987: the film provides footage of marches that resonate still (“Health care is a right!”). Kramer remembers that even as Russo became increasingly frail, he made himself visible: “He was sick and his role was to let us see him suffering,” to display the devastation of the disease and the humanity of the victims. If there is no such thing as “normal,” there is, in Vito Russo’s extraordinary story, an ideal to which we might all aspire.

RATING 8 / 10