Celluloid Activist: Finally the Biography Worthy of Vito Russo.

Posted on May 10, 2011
Filed Under Book Review, Strong Recommendation | 1 Comment

VitoI knew Vito Russo.  And I suppose that’s part of the reason I shed a a few tears at the end of reading Celluloid Activist:  The Life and Times of Vito Russo. I’m not going to say that I was actually friends with Mr. Russo or that I was particularly close to him, but I distinctly remember his presence at ACT-UP meetings in the nineteen-eighties. He was, I thought at the time, the definition of the fierce gay. His almost-constant smile was laced with a thread of anger: a determination to fight for his happiness. Behind this I sensed a hint of melancholia–a sadness that he had to fight at all. And in his eyes, there was a sweetness that was indescribable. Michael Schiavi accurately renders these almost-anarchic Monday night ACT-UP meetings. They were a free-for-all. And it wasn’t always pretty. We were angry. And sometimes we took it out on each other. There was yelling and screaming and whistling. But when Vito talked we all listened. And everybody loved him. I honestly had no idea just how ill he was at the time. There were so many things I didn’t know about him until I read Celluloid Activist. By the end of it, I felt as though I had gotten to know Vito personally–that I had made a friend. And lost him.

The hospital room where Vito Russo died was not entirely devoid of joy. Near the end, then-Mayor David Dinkins paid a surprise visit.  Common Threads producer Rob Epstein arrived from San Francisco and promptly parked his Oscar on Vito’s bedside table. The private room was filled with visitors. And Vito responded to it all with his characteristic sense of humor. But this was not what he wanted.  Not by a long shot.  A short time before, he ironically remarked:

I wish I could just stop worrying about it all the time.  After all, it’s such a little thing. Horrible painful death in the prime of life.  What’s the big deal?

Before AIDS defined both his body and his activism, before his participation in the Gay Activist’s Alliance re-defined Queer Identity, Vito Russo was a passionate lover of film. He owned a movie projector as a child and spent most of the rest of his life accumulating films. But more than anything else, he loved screening them.  Perhaps nothing gave him more satisfaction than showing movies to other people. It was of course a natural for him to screen the movies for the GAA’s post-Stonewall Firehouse Flicks series. After the success of the first screening: Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers, Vito Russo became convinced that there was value to gays watching movies together. Years before these films–and more–would be re-defined and deconstructed in his classic book The Celluloid Closet, Vito was doing what he was always doing: showing movies to his friends and laughing along with them.

And yet it is impossible to think of him as a film historian who was way ahead of his time without thinking of him as an activist. The Firehouse Flicks screenings were, after all, an indirect effect of the Stonewall Riots.  And while Mr. Russo did not participate in these riots, witnessing them in person had a profound effect on him.  From then on, he was an activist.  He would remain an aficionado of New York’s cabaret scene.  And he, of course, continued to love film more than almost anything else.  But whenever a major queer political event arose, he more often than not was there.  Like the time a New York City Gay Rights Ordinance didn’t make it out of committee–one of numerous disappointments, which never seemed to discourage Vito. When someone on the other side taunted the gay men by saying, “Goodbye girls!”  Vito’s response was instantaneous:

We’re not girls.  We’re men who fuck men and you’d better get used to it!

The message was clear:  We might have lost this round, but we’re not going back to the old days. Stonewall changed all that.

The portrait that Mr. Schiavi paints isn’t always flattering. He reveals that Vito Russo could be abusive to his lovers–in at least one instance, physically abusive.  He also illustrates how he used his position at The Advocate to help closeted stars–like Peter Allen and Lily Tomlin–stay in the closet.  Sometimes he was star-struck and allowed this to prevent him from being the activist he always aspired to be.

But a hagiography wouldn’t have done Vito Russo justice. Instead Mr. Schiavi presents us with a real human being. Three-dimensional and imperfect. And a much-beloved person.

I strongly recommend this book.

Celluloid Activist:  The Life and Times of Vito Russo by Michael Schiavi is published by The University Of Wisconsin Press.

UPDATE May 17, 2011:  Check out Band of Thebes’ take on this book. Along with a link to this review, it also features an excellent (and much longer) review by veteran journalist Doug Ireland.

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