Jessica Max Stein

Vito Russo: The Celluloid Activist

Filed By Jessica Max Stein | May 07, 2012 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Gay Icons and History
Tags: ACT UP-NY, Celluloid Closet, gay activists, gay authors, movies, Vito Russo

Inspired by the renewed energy of the 25th anniversary of ACT-UP/NY? A great place to start learning about that history is Michael Schiavi's excellent biography of ACT-UP co-founder Vito Russo, a finalist for gay memoir/biography in next month's Lambda Awards. images.jpg

"AIDS is a test of who we are as a people," Vito Russo (1946-1990) declaimed in a 1988 ACT UP speech. "When future generations ask what we did in the war we have to be able to tell them that we were out here fighting."

"Future generations" are lucky to have Michael Schiavi's comprehensive, meticulous and frequently hilarious biography of Russo, who - if AIDS was a test of gay people - certainly passed with flying colors. But Russo was able to respond so adroitly to the AIDS crisis because, as Schiavi shows, it was in some ways a culmination of his decades as a New York gay activist.

The dense narrative jumpstarts about a quarter of the way through, when Russo shinnies up an elm tree to watch the Stonewall Riots from a safe vantage point. Russo soon joins the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), "zapping" Mayor Lindsey and occupying the offices of Harper's Magazine.

Seizing his times, Russo brought together nascent gay liberation with the burgeoning field of film criticism, curating a film series at the Firehouse, the GAA's Soho community center. His "Firehouse Flicks" turned into a national lecture tour, which then grew into his seminal book The Celluloid Closet, published in 1981. Russo's "edgy but funny" voice combines activism and criticism - some said too much - to exhaustively chronicle the depiction of gays and lesbians in Hollywood film. Thirty years later, critic Richard Dyer says The Celluloid Closet "hasn't been surpassed, really."

But Russo's gay media sensibilities brought him to other groundbreaking projects as well: He made TV history in 1983 with WNYC's short-lived "Our Time," the first gay-themed TV news show; he co-founded the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD); and he was not just active on ACT UP's media committee, but co-founded the group.

With ACT-UP, in some ways, Russo came full circle. The chaotic, passionate meetings "reminded Vito of GAA's - often to a wearying degree." One ACT-UP colleague describes Russo as charismatic "good cop" to Larry Kramer's "bad cop," an intriguing dynamic.

Schiavi has a terrific eye for such detail; I particularly enjoyed an anecdote about two lesbians so affronted by a naked man at the Firehouse dances that they knitted him a "wool penis-cozy". I did sometimes find myself wishing for a broader lens, the smaller stories more explicitly linked to a larger one, more commentary to shape the chronology. But these are small criticisms of a big and valuable book.

This article was originally published in the spring/summer 2012 issue of make/shift magazine.

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