Film Reviews

Vito Russo and reel destiny

This writer first encountered the truly groundbreaking book The Celluloid Closet, a decade-long-researched tome on the history of gays in American films, in l98l. Written by Vito Russo, it quickly became a surprise bestseller. Much of the material had never been collected and commented upon before, and the book had the effect of a revelation.

Gay characters in movies, stereotyped or not, appeared frequently in early film, before a new censorship code in l934 prohibited their overt presence. This prohibition only lessened in the mid-ʻ40s, at which point overt gays, particularly lesbians, were to be portrayed as “evil” and “sinister”–and, in most cases, doomed to die within the confines of the film.

An obscure writer and gay activist for some years, Russo suddenly became famous–as television commentator and much-in-demand public speaker–and gained some political power, which he employed with uncommon intelligence.

As an activist for gay civil rights, Russo was a placating force, often calming disagreement among various factions. This was in the early ʻ80s, before the deadly shadow of the AIDS pandemic appeared and flourished. Activists like Russo and Larry Kramer mobilized, creating marches, protests and media coverage.This new documentary covers the story in bullet-point fashion, with archival footage, fresh interviews and never-before-seen censored film clips, compressing and highlighting with great skill. (The producer is Bryan Singer, director of The Usual Suspects.)

Vito is a considerable achievement. Its completeness is exemplary; its boldness necessary; its graphic visuals dramatic and moving. It treats its audiences as intelligent, concerned citizenry, capable of assimilating history and making sense of it.

The 23rd annual Rainbow Film Festival (May 3l — June 3 at the Doris Duke Theatre) Vito plays on Thursday, May 3l, at 4:30 pm. Next week, the Weekly offers an overview,including movies, galas, and receptions.