Entertainment :: Movies

Celluloid Heroes Never Die :: Vito Russo Doc Premieres on HBO

by Tony Phillips
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Sunday Jul 22, 2012
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The catalogue of Buffalo Bill’s various effemera includes: "His miniature poodle named Precious, his chiffon scarves, his made-up face, his nipple ring, and his murdered boyfriend." Art history professor Douglas Crimp then sums the tranny psycho killer of Jonathan Demme’s 1991 Oscar-winning film thusly: "Maybe these features don’t have to add up to a homophobic stereotype with the complex alignments of sexuality and pathology represented in ’The Silence of the Lambs,’ but they most certainly do within the history of their deployment by Hollywood, the history Vito Russo wrote."

The half-dozen high school students’ at Gramercy Park’s School of the Future eyes have glazed over and they are staring at me blankly. I look back down at my notes. There’s no more spit left in my mouth. Bryan Currie, who manages Live Out Loud’s youth programming, has asked me to prepare 20 minutes on a queer activist for the fourth chapter in Live Out Loud’s after-school programming entitled "Our Story Is Your Story: Exploring LGBTQ History." He’s nodding vigorously just beyond our circle of chairs, either ignoring or oblivious to the fact that I’m bombing in front of the School of the Future’s gay/straight alliance.

"Most of these kids were born in the mid-90s," echoes in my head from a preparatory phone call Bryan and I had a few days before the speaking engagement. The troika of films I want to talk to them about today--’Silence of the Lambs’, ’Philadelphia’ and ’Cruising’--are like activist Vito Russo’s greatest hits, all films he had a major beef with and organized protests against, but they were all released well before these kids were even born.


Common ground

Panicked, I decide to back out of my material and course correct slightly. By a show of hands, none of these kids has even heard of, much less seen, any of the films I’d planned to address. Finally, mercifully, a sharp kid with a magenta streak in his hair gives me the patented, Hannibal Lecter, "pfff-pfff-pfff." We have at last found the common ground between a group of high school students born in 1996 and a gay activist and author who died in 1990.

Finding common ground was something that Vito Russo was particularly adept at, as detailed in Jeffrey Schwarz new documentary called "Vito: The Life of Gay Activist Vito Russo" which premieres on HBO on Monday night after a successful run on the film festival gauntlet. Witness Russo corralling his pal Bette Midler to Washington Square to reunite the crowd after a 1973 gay pride rally turned contentious in the many, excellent archival assets this film employs. Bette sings "Friends," natch.


Spirit still there

The first thing Schwarz does last fall after his film spools for press at the 29th annual New York Film Festival is thank the lady who signs his checks. "I want to thank HBO documentary films and Sheila Nevins in particular," Schwarz says, "they have history with Vito. They were the network that produced ’Common Threads’ which won the Oscar in 1991 and featured Vito. They were also the network behind ’The Celluloid Closet,’ which was a documentary made out of Vito’s work." All of the events Schwarz mentions happened after Russo passed.

"The first phone call I made was to Rob Epstein," Schwarz continues of the genesis of ’Vito,’ "he made ’Common Threads’ with Jeff Friedman and also ’The Celluloid Closet,’ we were very close friends. I had worked on ’The Celluloid Closet,’ it was my first job in the movie industry as an intern. When Sheila Nevins green-lit it, they hired me as an apprentice, so I had a really good relationship with Rob and that’s when I got to know Vito. He’d just passed away, but his spirit was still there. I had access to all Vito’s research materials so I was able to listen to audio tapes of all these interviews he did for the book, extended interviews, so I learned about his activism."

"The motivation," Schwarz continues, "besides wanting to tell Vito’s story, was to tell a larger tale about the LGBT civil rights movement from the dark days of pre-Stonewall era through gay liberation and the gay community’s emergence from invisibility to visibility and all the history of the AIDS crisis and ACT-UP. It was a way in. Every single step of the way, Vito was there. Our editor tried to find the balance between Vito’s personal history and this very vast, epic tale. Our first cut was about three hours."

"We could make one hundred documentaries about Vito and the gay civil rights movement," editor Philip Harrison adds, "there were so many stories that we couldn’t tell, but hopefully they’ll be available on the DVD. It was a matter of combing through the material and stay ground emotionally through the stories that were being told."


Not about outing

Unfortunately, one of the stories the film does tell is not actually factual. It asserts that Lily Tomlin, a friend of Vito’s who narrated and also executive produced ’The Celluloid Closet’ after his death, came out of the closet in the 1970s. Of all of the astute talking heads the film corrals, including Tomlin herself, the filmmaker chooses activist and former sex-worker Richard Berkowitz to corroborate the claim. His credentials appear to be nothing more than hard-core Lily fanboy. But to what end: putting the film in line with that other HBO documentary whose cred hinges on Tomlin’s stated sexual preference?

Almost twenty years ago, when Rob Epstein and Jeff Friedman took the same stage to talk about their posthumous film adaptation of Russo’s ’The Celluloid Closet,’ they were asked the same question point-blank. "The film is not about outing," was Epstein’s response, "but about the evolution of gay stereotypes in Hollywood movies. We just found Armistead Maupin’s telling of the story irresistible. Harvey Fierstein presents himself as gay. People here are either gay, or not; they simply have an insider’s--or incisive--knowledge about the productions they’re talking about."


Out in the ’70s?

A few months later, I run into Maupin at the 24th annual Lambda Literary Awards where Olympia Dukakis is bestowing one of Lambda’s Pioneer awards upon him. The publicist for the event squirrels us into the gift bag room for a quick chat. Maupin, like Tomlin, is also credited with narration on the film, but admits his role was to actually write her lines.

"I know he and Lily were very close," Maupin says of Tomlin and Russo, "but I couldn’t comment on their relationship. I didn’t know Lily at all except for the few times that I dealt with her when we were doing the dialogue. We lived in different cities for the most part."

"No, she wasn’t," is how Maupin answers the direct question of whether or not Tomlin was out in the 70s. "I got into a fair amount of trouble in the 90s when I said that I wish she were more open when she made the film, but that’s long gone and she’s, you know, out now. I know that Vito wanted her to be more open. I can tell you that. He was asked that question often in public appearances in San Francisco and I think it troubled him a little bit that she wasn’t more open, but she certainly went to bat for the film and I know she did that out of love for Vito."


The right thing to do

"I think she gave him a great deal of support," Maupin replies when asked if Tomlin could be classified as Russo’s benefactress, "I didn’t know their relationship, but from everything I gathered from him and elsewhere, they were good friends and he really valued their friendship. Like a lot of us who are openly gay, we have a point when we have to confront our friends who aren’t and say, ’I think this would be the right thing to do.’ Ian McKellan came to me in ’88 and asked me if I thought he should be out of the closet and I said, ’You know the answer to that question already.’ And he proceeded to come out shortly thereafter.

"We all need that support from someone," Maupin continues, "and I’d like to think that when Lily finally made that full step, and I don’t know that she said it so many words, but it’s always been about her and Jane and she’s always been celebrated by the community because privately everyone knew that she was gay. I knew a lot of folks who approached her all wide-eyed about appearing on their gay and lesbian calendar and it was politely declined."


The institutionalized closet

When asked what Russo would be on about if he were standing in the gift bag room with us, Maupin replies, "I think he’d still be grumpy about the way the closet is completely institutionalized. There’s a lot of folks in the closet who go to the GLAAD Awards. They think that’s going to keep the heat off them. And much of the money-making side of Hollywood is still telling young actors to keep quiet about it. Money will always drive the industry and money will always say you can’t be gay."

"My only response to that," Maupin continues, "is you cannot be in the closet and continue to be happy. There are a lot of blazing examples of that right now. John Travolta must look at people like Neil Patrick Harris and think I could have had that life. I could have been singing and dancing and being celebrated for who I am and not be victimized by the gossip press and the last guy that gave me a massage."

"I say that out complete sympathy for people who find themselves in that situation," Maupin asserts, "I’m not questioning the reality of anyone’s love. It’s perfectly possible to marry someone you love a great deal and do it because you want to have children and love that person, but if you are being secretive about the gay life, it’s not going to remain hidden in this world, it can’t be any more."


The morality of outing

"There was a case in the New York press just recently," Maupin adds, "in which it was ruled that it is no longer slanderous to call someone gay. I’ve been waiting for that case for thirty years. Many years ago I wrote a piece of the L.A. Times and I said something to the effect that gay people can just as easily resemble Richard Chamberlain as they could resemble Richard Simmons and the L.A. Times said I couldn’t run it because it was slanderous to Richard Chamberlain. My response to that was I did not call anyone gay as an accusation. It’s a matter of fact or belief, but as long as it continues to be legally an accusation, we will continue to be second class citizens."

It’s a legal issue Russo confronts directly in the introduction to his book "The Celluloid Closet," writing that movie-goers ought to "be aware of the sexuality of gay actors just as it is aware of the heterosexuality of the majority. I do not believe that such a discussion is nobody’s business, nor do I believe that it is one of a sexual and therefore private nature. Discussing such things in a book without the knowledge or consent of the people in question is, alas, immoral and libelous. It is immoral because unless people by their own choice come out of the closet, the announcement is valueless; it is libelous because such information has been known to destroy people’s lives. Some of us will change that in time."

"The fact of our lives has to be just as ordinary as anyone else’s," Maupin sums, "we’re not there yet, but we will be eventually. And Vito fought for that on the ground level and in the streets. He was up on a platform shaking his fist. His greatest gift will always be an intellectual one because he changed the way people think. Vito changed so much about the way everyone looks at the cliches that we were saddled with. He educated the film world from the ground up. Once you realize that, like a lot of minorities, we were always depicted as either clowns or killers, that changed things right there."


PC-images required?

Back at the School of the Future, the students of the GSA have perked up. We’re discussing Russo’s critique of the gay killer and how that trope was turned on its head by what film critic B. Ruby Rich dubbed "new queer cinema" in 1992, two years after Russo’s death. It’s hard to tell if the students are impressed by the subversion or just excited that guns have been introduced into our discussion. Either way, they are alert and happy to be discussing the gun-toting, HIV-positive Thelma and Louise at the center of Greg Araki’s "The Living End" and Tom Kalin’s film "Swoon" which is based on the notorious queer killers Leopold and Loeb who murdered 14-year-old Bobby Franks in a case that coined the term "thrill kill."

"One of the questions last night," Tom Kalin says over breakfast at the Provincetown International Film Festival last month, "is was is it responsible in this day and age of trying to get trying to get equality of marriage and all the rest to have a representation of a couple who were also murders, a negative representation that can cause damage?"

It’s a question he got used to answering when "Swoon" debuted, but one that surprised him after the 20th anniversary screening in Provincetown. "We should have the right as queer filmmakers to make a film noir if we want to that shows dark obsession between these characters that leads to murder and know that that’s not going to topple homosexuality or say something us that can be withstood," Kalin asserts.


A little Vito story

"Vito is thanked in the credits of my movie," is his response to how Russo would have felt about new queer cinema re-appropriating the gay killer, "he embraced me through my entire career in the most unbelievably generous way. I was making this AIDS video, the first piece of work I’m known for, called ’They Are Lost to Vision Altogether.’ And Vito was the source of a lot of footage. Without blinking, he gave the three-quarter original sources masters and said, ’Do what you want.’ And later, in showing that piece, I noticed in a clip of a Bette Davis movie, and there was Vito in the darkness whispering dialogue line by line. So we were in contact. He did not see a completed version of ’Swoon,’ but he knew what I was up to and understood it, I think. I stand on his shoulders."

I’ll tell a little Vito story," Kalin continues, "in Homewood, Illinois, where I grew up I went to the public library to check books out every week because I was a book worm. When I was ten or eleven, I got up the nerve to look in the old wooden card catalog and typed out I found the header ’Homosexual.’ And the only card in that section was one that said, ’Russo, Vito.’ And there was a book, but it was kept behind the desk because it was a homosexual book. I did not have the nerve or the ability at age eleven to get it. I told that story to Vito when I met him and his response was, ’That’s nice, dear.’"


Tony Phillips covers the arts for The Village Voice, Frontiers and The Advocate. He’s also the proud parent of a new website: spookyelectricproductions.com.

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