HBO’s Vito Unites The Personal And Political Passions Of Activist Vito Russo

Vito Russo was like the Zelig of the gay community, or maybe its Forrest Gump. He was there at Stonewall, there at the Gay Activist Alliance’s “zaps,” there for the founding of GLAAD and there as ACT UP challenged the mainstream to address the AIDS epidemic.

But instead of just witnessing history like those fictional characters, Russo helped change its course:  In the new HBO documentary Vito, premiering Monday night at 9pm, we see the late activist and film historian emerge as an unlikely leader for his gay generation and learn how he shaped not just how LGBT people saw themselves on screen, but in the real world, as well.

If Russo is know by today’s gays it’s generally for The Celluloid Closet, his seminal discourse on queer representations in film from the silent era to the 1980s. Operating at a time before DVDs or the Internet, he put forth the shocking proposition that gay people had a right to both celebrate and question how we were portrayed in movies—and made us realize that such depictions had a profound impact.

“He introduced me to a whole world of images I had no idea existed, and helped me see films in a new way,” says Vito director Jeffrey Schwartz. “As an activist, Vito knew that the key to acceptance was visibility and [he] championed sympathetic and realistic portrayals of our lives.

But Russo was hardly just a film buff. Ditching his family’s home in New Jersey as early as he could, he quickly became a part of New York’s vibrant queer-activist community in the 1960s and ’70s. And Vito the movie gives us an incredible look at a sizable chunk of gay history we often forget (or never learned) about: the growing years, after the initial explosion of Stonewall but before the AIDS crisis. The documentary benefits tremendously from footage culled from the New York Public Library’s LGBT archives, including the Gay Activists Alliance’ takeover of City Hall to protest for marriage rights and impromptu parties held at the firehouse community activists occupied in the early 1970s.

Not all the imagery is positive: I was stunned to see a gay-rights rally in Washington Square devolve into name calling and acrimony as lesbians, gay men and drag queens each fault each other for the movement’s stagnation. Even the timely arrival of Bette Midler—courtesy of Russo—couldn’t save the day.

While Russo is depicted as a peacemaker and unifier in many parts of Vito, in the final reel he emerges as an angry firebrand, unafraid to confront indifferent (or outright hostile) government agencies and medical professionals as the AIDS epidemic ravages thousands—including Russo himself. The ACT UP takeover of FDA offices in 1988 is another forgotten historic moment we are thankfully made privy to.

We also learn about the personal side of Russo—his friendships with people like Midler, Larry Kramer and especially Lily Tomlin (who is interviewed for the film and executive produced the HBO documentary version of Celluloid Closet); his close connection to his supportive Italian family; and even his rocky relationship with lover Jeffrey Sevcik, whose death preceded his own.

As Schwartz says, Russo’s story “was also the story of our community” and neither must be allowed to be forgotten. Vito Russo might not have lived to see gays in the military, a president supportive of marriage equality or the tremendous breakthroughs in AIDS treatments, but he paved the way for the freedoms we enjoy today and those we will celebrate in the future.

Vito will resonate with anyone who lived through the grassroots years of the LGBT movement, and should be considered required viewing for anyone who didn’t.

Vito airs July 23 at 9pm on HBO

Click through for more archival images of Vito Russo from the New York Public Library



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  • Michael Bedwell

    LONG overdue tribute. I was honored to meet him in 1975 when his “Celluloid Closet” presentation—which he, then, could only schlep around on a closely guarded reel of 16mm film—was a sensation at that year’s Gay Awareness Conference at Indiana University which I helped organize and chaired, and Vito wrote about for “The Advocate.” If the documentary has actual video footage of the ’73 NY pride confrontation during which Midler sang “Friends” accompanied by Barry Manilow on piano, I will be additionally thrilled as one of my treasures all these years has been the audio he sent me of her performance, and comments about listening on the radio on her way there, and it sounding like people were beatin’ each other up.

    And while I adore her, I’m also intrigued to see how Lily Tomlin will be introduced, and what she’ll say. One of Vito’s frutrations he shared with me in ’75 was her refusal to listen to his urgings to publicly come out; fearful, as I recall, of hurting her family. In 1977, covering the American Film Institute’s 10th Anniversary Gala for a DC gay rag, I said Hello to her, asked for her autograph on the program, and, as she was signing, mentioned I knew Vito. She immediately looked me in the eye, her eyes frozen with fear, but saying nothing. I simply said Thank You, and moved away, both shocked and saddened. Given—no matter HOW many ways she tries to spin it—she didn’t finally come out to MSM until 11 years after he’d died. I’ve often wondered how his never living to see it makes her feel.

  • Drew


  • Paul Jenkins


    GAY PRIDE…have it and know our communities amazing history. Just because the heteros want you to be ignorant to it doesn’t mean you have to be.

  • Marianne Seggerman

    I had the privilege of attending a lecture and demonstration he gave in the early 90’s. Watching Bugs Bunny cartoons with his commentary – unforgettable.

  • David Ehrenstein

    And I had the privilege of working alongside Vito in the “Media Comittee” of the Gay Activists Alliance back in the day.

    I also had the privilege of appearing in this movie.

  • Brandon

    Sad he couldn’t be still around to witness the historic day in San Diego of our military men and women proudly marching in the parade.

  • Matt

    Beautiful brave man. I used to be soo ignorant to our LGBT communities rich history, struggles, champions, poems, art, history until a few years ago when Prop 8 failed. It woke me up, and made me a farrr better person to be educated on our history and realize how beautiful our story is. Everyone should experience that same feeling.

  • quinamo


    The sad thing is that the same fight is still going.. with different shape.. but the same fight

  • smithsmith30

    I meant the book’s was.

  • EvonCook

    @Drew: Who? Whatever you mean by that. Vito Russo who? Live and learn and perhaps, just perhaps, you’ll be spared from making the same mistakes. Those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it. Vito was a friend and fine person, a great community leader and someone who should be known, remembered and respected in the annuals of gay history.

  • LadyL

    “A bigot is someone who resents losing control of a world he thought belonged to him.”–from “The Celluloid Closet.” Truer words have never been spoken.

  • Michael Bedwell


    The author of your “so-called critique of The Celluloid Closet,” reads like nothing more than a bitchy queen whom Russo might have refused to trick with. Or, if not old enough to have been in that category, simply someone pissed to her green gills because someone else is famous and she is not. As for her cherry picking whining about Russo leaving out Visconti and Fassbinder, his focus was on the influence of films that the average American MIGHT HAVE ACTUALLY SEEN. “Shoddy scholarship at best” describes the article far more than its subject.

  • John D., LV

    This new HBO documentary on Vito Russo is a must see. He is an inspiration to all and his life story is an example to those struggling to find acceptance and equality. HBO did amazing work with very detailed accounts of gay history. Again, I couldn’t stop watching and brought tears of pride and respect. Thank you Vito Russo, a modern day crusader, and a hero! John

  • red

    Must see documentary! Saw it yesterday and I was left in awe.

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