On June 27, 1969, a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a New York City gay bar, took a surprising turn when patrons decided it was time to fight back. As a riot erupted in Greenwich Village, a new era in the gay rights movement was born.
Among the crowd that day was 23-year-old film student Vito Russo. In the aftermath of the infamous rebellion, a raid on an after-hours bar he frequented ended with a young gay man impaling himself on a fence while trying to escape the police. This is when Vito found his voice as a gay activist and critic of homosexual representation in the media. Over the next 20 years, until his death from AIDS in 1990, Vito Russo was one of the most outspoken and inspiring activists in the LGBT community’s fight for equal rights.
Recounting the life of one of the founding fathers of the gay liberation movement, the inspiring documentary Vito debuts Monday, July 23 (9:00-10:45pm ET/PT), exclusively on HBO. Other HBO playdates: July 26 (4:00pm, 12:50am), 29 (8:30am, 5:10am) and 31 (12:45pm), and Aug. 4 (3:00pm) and 8 (9:15am). HBO2 playdates: July 25 (8:00pm) and Aug. 12 (11:45am) and 17 (2:30pm).
HBO Documentary Films presents another summer series, debuting provocative specials every Monday through July 30. Other July films include: Hard Times: Lost on Long Island (July 9); Birders: The Central Park Effect and The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom (July 16); and About Face: Supermodels Then and Now (July 30).
Directed by award-winner Jeffrey Schwarz (Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story, Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon), Vito paints a touching portrait of this outspoken activist in the LGBT community’s struggle for equal rights, using period footage and film clips to capture a vibrant era of gay culture. “If you’re going to talk about the gay-rights movement, you’re going to talk about Vito,” says journalist David Ehrenstein.
The documentary features rich archival interviews with Vito, as well as insights from gay rights activists, including: Larry Kramer and Arthur Evans; film scholars, among them former MoMA film curator Jon Gartenberg; and journalists/writers such as Michael Schiavi and Gabriel Rotello. Vito also offers personal accounts from his many friends, including Lily Tomlin and Bruce Vilanch, and his family members, including brother Charles Russo and cousin Phyllis Antonellis.
Raised in the Italian neighborhoods of East Harlem, Vito’s family moved to suburban New Jersey in the 1960s, which he hated. At 18, Vito moved back to New York City, where he was enthralled with the sexuality and positive energy of gay liberation. He progressed to activism, and as Marsha P. Johnson, a transgendered gay rights activist states, “the energy became channeled into organizations.”
Vito was one of the pivotal players in many of these gay rights organizations during their formative years. He was an early member of GAA (Gay Activists Alliance), whose goal was to secure basic human rights, dignity and freedom for all gay people. He was one of the co-founders of GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation), which was formed to ensure that media representation of gays and lesbians was accurate. Towards the end of his life, he was one of the founders of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), a guerilla activist group whose goal was to bring legislation, medical research, treatment and policies to ultimately eradicate the AIDS epidemic.
An accomplished journalist, Vito befriended Lily Tomlin, who supported his work as a writer and activist. She notes, “He never really tried to motivate me to come out in a big way, but I knew he would have liked it.” In 1975, TIME Magazine offered her the cover if she would come out. Tomlin recalls consulting with Vito about the offer and agreeing instead to an interview with Vito for The Advocate, explaining, “When they offered it [the TIME cover] to me I called Vito and I said, ‘You know, it feels like I was being bought.’ They wanted somebody, and they were just out fishing around to get somebody. That’s why I wasn’t afraid to do The Advocate interview with him, because I felt his humanity was so evolved that it wasn’t like he was out to make points.”
Vito’s love of movies guided him to a job in the film department at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), where he began taking note of gay characters in early films. The result of his research was The Celluloid Closet, an entertaining and informative lecture and clip show that combined his love of show business and radical gay politics, which he took on the road to gay film festivals and college campuses. His seminal 1981 book of the same name explored the ways gays and lesbians were portrayed on film, what lessons those characters taught gay and straight audiences, and how those negative images were at the root of society’s homophobia. The book was later adapted into the 1995 HBO Peabody Award-winning documentary The Celluloid Closet, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman.
At the 1981 Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in San Francisco, Vito met and fell in love with Jeffrey Sevcik, a young theater hand. Though opposites in many ways, they shared a love for film. At the same time, the AIDS crisis was spreading through the community, and friends were disappearing from what was first known as “gay cancer.” Once it was determined that the disease was spread through sexual activity, it stirred up a lot of anxiety within the gay community. Even though people were becoming rapidly sick, the federal government would not acknowledge AIDS as an epidemic. ACT UP used a variety of attention-grabbing techniques, including members chaining themselves to the VIP balcony at the New York Stock Exchange to protest the high price of AZT, at the time the only approved, effective AIDS drug.
Said Vito, “Everything I’ve done I’ve chosen to do. This is the life I wanted. I’m one of the very few people I know who can say I never did anything I didn’t want to do, and I always did exactly what I pleased. Very few people can say that about their lives.”
In the early 80s, Jeffrey was diagnosed with HIV and Vito became his caretaker through his passing. In June 1985, Vito noticed a dark spot on his own leg, a sign of the disease. Undeterred, he continued writing, lecturing and speaking out – helping form ACT UP and GLAAD – until just months before his own death from AIDS on Nov. 7, 1990.
Vito had its world premiere at the 2011 New York Film Festival and has screened at numerous film festivals across the country, opening the 2012 Frameline Film Festival at the Castro Theater in San Francisco, the same place Vito met Jeffrey more than 30 years ago when he performed The Celluloid Closet. Vito was also the opening night selection at the 2012 Outfest Film Festival in Los Angeles on July 12.
Director and producer Jeffrey Schwarz won a 2007 AFI Fest Documentary Audience Award for Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story, about the Hollywood showman. He is currently in production on I Am Divine, an independent feature documentary about John Waters’ muse.
Vito was produced and directed by Jeffrey Schwarz; executive producer, Bryan Singer; co-producers, Philip Harrison, Lotti Pharriss Knowles; editor, Philip Harrison; director of photography, David Quantic; composer, Miriam Cutler. For HBO: supervising producer, John Hoffman; executive producer, Sheila Nevins.