Vito

Vito debuts tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern.

Gay rights issues such as same-sex marriage have gained a lot of traction in the last few years, even as those opposed to widespread social acceptance and legal protection of gays have become, if not more numerous, at least louder. So it’s all to the good that the last few years have also seen an increase in the number of TV documentaries reminding people of just how hard it was to be gay in America just a few decades ago—films such as Stonewall Uprising on the PBS series American Experience, and HBO’s new Vito, a warmly loving profile of the gay activist and revisionist film writer Vito Russo. Directed by Jeffrey Schwarz, whose credits include films on the exploitation-gimmick filmmaker William Castle and adult film star Jack Wrangler, Vito has a hero whose life, which was cut short when Russo died of AIDS-related illness at 44, spans the pre-Stonewall days of legal repression of homosexuality to the kick-out-the-jams ‘70s to the horrors of the ‘80s AIDS epidemic. It also has the right title: Nobody interviewed here has a bad word to say about Russo, who seems to have been on a first-name basis with the entire gay population of New York and San Francisco, and parts of New Jersey as well.

Russo grew up in East Harlem, to a family that greeted his coming out with nothing less welcoming than bemused acceptance. His brother, Charles, who reminisces about Vito while wearing the grateful-but-dazed expression of someone who still can’t quite believe what passed through his living room, remembers discovering his brother’s orientation when Vito was in his mid-twenties and he visited him in Manhattan, catching him engaged in a “total lip lock” with some guy in the street. Charles says that Vito was always getting teased and picked on as a kid, but he’d just chalked it up to the fact that he wasn’t interested in sports. Instead, young Vito was a movie junkie. His cousin Phyllis talks about his passion for going to the pictures and for movie magazines. There’s a ticklish montage showing covers of glossies from the era, each showing a different dreamboat photo of a different young romantic lead who happened to be gay and closeted. Phyllis says that, when Vito was picking out a cover to swoon over, “it was always Rock Hudson, not Ava Gardner.”

Vito himself, featured here in generous amounts of interview footage from the end of his life (as well as news footage of his exploits and clips from his New York public television series Our Time), says that he realized he was gay when he was 10 or 11, and subsequently made so many confessions about it at church that the priest told him to either just cut it out or stop coming to confession until he had some new material. Taking the hint, he hightailed it for Manhattan. Schwarz shows what he had to put up with there with a bleary, black-and-white clip of a hammerhead shrink describing homosexuality as “a mental illness which has reached epidemiological proportions,” scenes of men roistered from a gay bar trying to hide their faces from the camera as they’re loaded into the paddy wagon, and a bone-chilling collection of newspaper headlines about men who committed suicide after they’d been outed via police raid. One witness to the times, Reverend Malcolm Boyd, talks about his own encounters with men who took their own lives, adding, “So you had to… process that information.”

Russo’s reinvention of himself as a political activist came after he’d been caught up in a raid, along with a man who, trying to escape from police custody, dove out a window of the precinct house onto a spiked gate. He joined the Gay Activists Alliance and appointed himself spokesman for the movement; the film critic David Ehrenstein describes him in this period as “fully loaded and equipped with ideas and arguments, and he was ready to take you on.” With GAA, Russo took part in actions that were part political protest, part street theater, such as throwing a same-sex engagement bash at the office of New York’s gay-baiting city clerk, having sent out “a full barrage” of invitations in the clerk’s name. (“All are welcome, dress optional.”) They also jammed the offices of Harper’s after the magazine ran an article by Joseph Epstein containing the charming sentiment, “If I had the power, I would wipe homosexuality off the face of the earth.” A TV news clip shows the man with the microphone explaining for the viewers at home that “the homosexuals  considered [this] oppressive.”

Russo really found his groove when he was able to bring together his campaigning for social justice with his love for movies and entertainment. (As a young writer and critic, he befriended Bette Midler and Lily Tomlin and helped make them heroes within the LBGT community.) He began to organize all-night movie marathons at the firehouse that served as GAA headquarters, with people relaxing on the floor in sleeping bags, and he sensed that he was on the verge of an important cultural discovery when he noticed that, as Arthur Evans puts it, “we all laughed at the same places.” Russo, a natural showman, began to plow his observations about the “gay” cinema into an illustrated lecture series in 1972. After years of research, which involved tracking down rare films in archive vaults and overseas in the days before Google and online streaming, he published his landmark book The Celluloid Closet in 1981. In the process, he documented a whole secret history of Hollywood, cracked codes, and pinpointed the way movies charted the rising and falling tides of social attitudes towards homosexuality. (Vito includes one hilarious clip, from the 1968 The Detective, showing William Windom expressing “the thought of involuntarily turning into one of them” by making a face like he just drank sour milk.)

Thanks to Russo’s overlapping passions and how he came to reflect Ehrenstein’s contention that “the essence of gay liberation [is] politics you can dance to,” the first hour or so of Vito is actually fairly rollicking. Not just the fun but the freshness drain out in the last third, which is devoted to the tragedies that pile up at the end of Russo’s life: First AIDS claims his lover, then it comes for him.  The last half hour is a familiar collection of signposts—Larry Kramer playing the prophet of caution and doom to an unappreciative audience, Ronald Reagan not getting it, Jesse Helms being an asshole on the floor of the U. S. Senate, angry and grief-stricken faces taking to the streets—and the movie tries, with limited success, to make the case that Russo was every bit as much at the center of the struggle as he had been twenty years earlier.

Although Russo made some speeches and attended as many rallies as his strength would allow, one witness trying to place him at the forefront of the movement can do no better than to give him credit for being the first person in the Chelsea area to wear shorts in summer when he had KV lesions on his legs. (It’s too bad some of this couldn’t have been trimmed a bit to make room for more about Russo’s ideas on film. But maybe somebody figured that, since The Celluloid Closet was adapted into a documentary back in 1996, that movie had already been made.) Still, there’s a very touching climactic scene describing how, at the last gay pride march he attended, Russo stood on Larry Kramer’s balcony, listening to the crowd below chanting his name. (Remembering this, the well-armored Kramer is actually seen to smile wistfully, which may be a portent of the coming end of days.) Near the start of the film, Russo himself says that he lived a good life, one in which he managed to do pretty much what he set out to do, and many people who lived twice as long would probably be willing to trade in some of their time on Earth to be able to say as much.