Like many just coming out, Jeffrey Schwarz turned to Vito Russo’s landmark book “The Celluloid Closet” to find depictions of others like him. Decades later, he directs “Vito,” a look at Russo’s life premiering in Atlanta on Wednesday as part of Out on Film’s 25th anniversary year.
Russo (top photo) was known for many things – journalist, historian and AIDS activist – but he is best remembered for 1981’s “The Celluloid Closet,” the first book to critique the history of how Hollywood portrayed LGBT characters in movies. A film buff, Russo spent years researching and watching movies to see how gay people and themes were depicted – some of it negative, some positive, some subtle and some before its time – before chronicling it in the book and making history.
Schwarz (bottom photo) read “The Celluloid Closet” and not long after, came out.
“I knew it was the Bible of film,” he says. “I tried to see as many of those movies as I could to see how we were portrayed on screen.”
Schwarz’s first film job, ironically, was on the movie version of “The Celluloid Closet.” He contacted filmmakers Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman and moved to San Francisco to work on the project as an apprentice. After the success of the book, Epstein and Freidman wanted to make a film version, which was something Russo had always wanted as well.
Working as an apprentice, Schwarz got access to all sorts of information, like interviews and audiocassettes of Russo, that he later tapped for his own film documentary on Russo’s life.
“I felt that I got to know Vito through this, even though I never got to meet him,” Schwarz says. Russo himself passed away in 1990, six years before the film was released.
After that project, Schwarz stayed busy, but being able to tell Vito’s story and remind people of his significance remained important to him.
“The younger generation might not know about him,” the director says. “The kids don’t know the history of the gay movement, even if they benefit from the end of it. They don’t understand the perils. To be openly gay was a radical thing, and Vito was so involved in gay liberation – he was part of ACT UP and helped form GLAAD.”
GLAAD has continued in Vito’s tradition and now consistently monitors representation of LGBT characters in all forms of media. Each year, the organization gives out an award in Russo’s honor to an openly gay or lesbian person fighting homophobia.
For the “Vito” documentary, Schwarz got the folks he wanted, including Friedman and Epstein, Armistead Maupin, Bruce Vilanch, and most fittingly Russo confidante and “Celluloid Closet” narrator Lily Tomlin, to talk about the man and his life.
Schwarz premiered “Vito” at the New York Film Festival last fall and has now shown it around the world. Making movies about prominent figures has become a forte for him. He discusses the film during a film festival screening (video).
His first film was about director William Castle (“Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story”) and his second was about gay porn legend Jack Wrangler (“Wrangler: Anatomy of an Icon”). Later this year, he will be working on the documentary “I Am Divine,” which looks at the life of John Waters’ muse and frequent star Divine. He is still raising funds for it and hopes to unveil that film in 2013.
Jim Farmer is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and public relations professional specializing in film promotions. He has been a theater and pop-culture critic for more than a dozen years and is the director of Atlanta’s annual Out On Film LGBT film festival.