While many people discovered a way to look at film history in a decidedly queer way by reading Vito Russo's book The Celluloid Closet, and later watching the film adapted from it, director Jeffrey Schwarz realized an entire generation of younger LGBT people had no idea who the pioneering writer and activist was. He embarked on the project to tell the history of the lesbian and gay civil rights movement through the story of one prodigious man's life. Although he died at the age of 44, he accomplished much in that too-short timespan. This week the documentary, Vito, premiered on HBO as part of its summer series. We spoke to Schwarz about whether he hopes that this film helps elevate Russo to a gay hero, the evolution of Lily Tomlin from glass closet to comfortably out, and the affect of having four strong documentaries all focused on a similar time period of our recent past.
How did you get involved with the project?
Like a lot of people, part of my coming out process was reading the Celluloid Closet, and that book meant the world to me. It was the early '90s, I was still in college, and I read Vito's book and it really opened up a whole new world, all these movies I'd never heard of before, or had heard of but allowed me to look at them in a new way. It was very empowering. Since I was still in college, I felt very disconnected from the gay community, although there was so much stuff going on, with ACT UP.
Were you in New York at the time?
I was in New York, but I was in Westchester, away from everything.
I didn't know much about Vito personally. I knew about his work, but I didn't know about his life. Then I read a piece in The Advocate by the filmmakers, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, and it said they were developing a movie based on the book, The Celluloid Closet. and I was excited because I loved the the film, The Times of Harvey Milk and Common Threads also, which Vito was in. And I called them up and asked if I could work on it, and they said yes, so I packed up my things and moved to San Francisco. And my first job in the movie business was working, first as an intern on the Celluloid Closet, then when HBO came in with the financing for the film, I actually got hired as an apprentice editor.
It kind of all started on Dolores Street, across from the location that Hitchcock filmed Vertigo. I worked on The Celluloid Closet, and I really got to know Vito.
Although he had just passed away, I had access to all of his original research materials for Celluloid Closet, all his journalism. Most importantly, all his extensive interviews that Rob and Jeffrey had developed while they working on Common Threads and developing Celluloid Closet. It was in these interviews with Vito—it was hours and hours of stuff—he told his entire story: from growing up gay in New York City, the gay liberation movement, his whole journey of writing Celluloid Closet, and then his struggle with AIDS, personally and with his partner Jeffrey. And then, of course, ACT UP and channelling all his grief and rage into his activism.
So that's how I first got started and about five years ago, I started thinking about Vito and how his memory was starting to fade. A lot of people, especially the younger gay and lesbian kids coming out now, don't know who he is. Not only do they not know who Vito is, I felt they were very disconnected from our history. So I felt that telling Vito's story was a great opportunity of telling the whole story of the gay and lesbian civil rights movement—from before Stonewall, through ACT UP—just through one man's point of view.
That's what I find really fascinating to me is that, through the film, Vito is elevated to a hero status. To a Harvey Milk sort of status. And you were working with this material with Celluloid Closet, but they didn't make a documentary about him. Do you think they were too close to the material to see him in that way?
Well they did make Common Threads, that Vito was in, and that was a very current and present moment. That was a film about the Names Project and the AIDS Quilt and Vito was in the film as the representative of the activist community. A little bit of Vito's story, about his boyfriend Jeffrey, is in there.
But when they were making Celluloid Closet, they talked about making part of Vito's story the narrative. I remember, i think it's OK to talk about this, I remember they did a test shoot and they had an actor playing Vito, who was sort of watching the movie, experiencing them. And Vito's narrative was going to be woven into it. But it didn't really work for them. And Vito's dream was to make Celluloid Closet into a film, while he was alive, but AIDS sidetracked everything. But he didn't want to be in the film. He was thinking, there is this great British actor Ian McKellen, maybe we can get him to do it. He wanted it to be a That's Entertainment of gay and lesbian movies. At the very end there's an image of Vito but I don't think most people even know the context of that.
So I feel this is a great companion piece to that film, because Celluloid Closet is about his work, and this film is about his work and his life.
You start out at the beginning of the film, though, with a powerful quote from Howard Rosenman who says, "He's our gay hero." I wonder, is that partly what you hope comes out of this movie, that you people will consider him a hero?
I do. I mean, personally, to me Vito is one of the founding fathers of the gay and lesbian civil rights movement. So many of the institutions that we take for granted today, he was there at the beginning. For me, I think he should be in the pantheon of our gay and lesbian heroes. I think the fact that he isn't is that time goes on and memory fades. And unless we make films, or write books or tell stories about our past, it's going to disappear. And that's something Vito was very aware of, too. He would always say, gay and lesbian people telling our own stories is so important for the next generation so we don't forget where we came from. Because very easily the pendulum could swing back again and if things take a darker turn for us, we can see how previous generations dealt with these struggles and came out the other side.
But you did a really good job of keeping out Harvey Milk's and Larry Kramer's story from the narrative. I mean, I think in the first 15 minutes we do see an image of Harvey.
He has a brief cameo.
And we see Larry a couple of times. But you did a good job of including them but not letting their narratives take over, which they often do. Was that a conscious thing you had to work at doing?
As far as Harvey, I think Harvey and Vito did meet. But Harvey is not part of this story, and we've heard that story before. And just the same way that now a lot of kids know who Harvey Milk is, not even necessarily because of the documentary but because of Gus Van Sant's film, a lot of people might think that the gay rights movement started with Harvey Milk. But he came out way after all of this was beginning. He's kind of a johnny-come-lately in a lot of ways. But Vito was there right from the beginning.
It was incredible to hear that he was in a tree across from Stonewall, watching it all happen.
Yeah, in the tree watching Stonewall unfold. But he got involved a little later. there's a lesser-known event, around Diego Vinales trying to escape from a police station and being impaled on a fence.
Which is chilling when you show that and explain it.
You can argue that was the spark. That Stonewall was the beginning; there were other event happening around the country as well. Stonewall we look at as more symbolic, a focal point. Diego Vinales is what pushed him into activism. That's when he joined the Gay Activists Alliance, and when he brought the cultural into the political, and started to show films and organizing dances at the headquarters at the firehouse
One of the things that I was really impressed by is that you didn't try to sanitize, you didn't try to shy away from talking about sex and sluttiness, which it seems people tend to do when they try to elevate someone and make them into some sort of saint. But you're not trying to make him into a saint.
No, no, he wasn't a saint. He was a human being, he had his foibles. People really loved him but he could piss people off. I never heard anyone say a negative word about Vito, but he could be in your face. He would confront you if he thought you weren't doing enough. With regards to the sexuality, I mean, the gay liberation movement was a sexual liberation movement. Well for everyone, it was exploding at the time. And I don't think you can remove the sexuality from the movement. and Vito was certainly open about his sex life. He would talk about going to the baths with his mother, with his family. And I thought that was very human and very relatable. And during the AIDS crisis, he was still very sex positive. There was a great deal of shaming going on toward gay men about our sexuality. We were told for a millenium that we should be shamed by our sexuality and then the AIDS movement comes along and feeds right into that negativity. Vito was the opposite of that. He wanted gay men to maintain a healthy sense of sexuality.
Speaking of sex positive, there's a documentary with that title that tells the story of Richard Berkowitz, who also speaks in the documentary. I know his narrative has really been erased in many ways and I thought it was a brave choice to include him in this and not to make a big deal about it. So I wondered about that choice, including Berkowitz, who I guess is considered a pariah among many activists.
It's interesting. I talked to a l to a lot of activists of that period, and they tell me that there are people in the film who won't speak to each other. And we go to screenings together, and they're all in the room, people who had a lot of ideological disagreements. Some of these people don't talk to each other. There's a section in the film about all the infighting, among the different factions, among the gay men, the lesbians, the drag queens, as they used to call them. I think that's still going on in some ways, sometimes we're our own worst enemy.
I was also curious also about the inclusion of the Lily Tomlin material. I remember when Celluloid Closet came out it was controversial for some camps that she narrated the film because they felt like she wasn't truly out at the time. But you seem to be trying to recapture a moment and retell a story that maybe was misunderstood since Lily Tomlin says she thought she was out, some of her fans thought she was out, but the wider culture at large didn't really know she was out?
I think that, I don't want to speak to Lily, but when she was offered the cover of Time magazine in '75, and she was super famous at the time: Nashville had happened, Laugh-In, she was a household name, and she felt that at the time, if she had accepted that offer, she would have been betraying herself because Time just wanted a famous person to come out. But she felt comfortable with Vito. So she did The Advocate cover. There was a little bit of a glass closet there. She would refer to Jane, her partner, who she's very open about now, but at the time was her writing partner. I think a lot of people, especially into the '90s, that she wasn't fully out. There's hints she was dropping. Even when The Celluloid Closet movie came out, she told a story about how lesbians in the '50s at the bars would hold a beer bottle by their side with their thumb in it, so on the cover of The Advocate, she's with Rob and Jeffrey and she's there with a beer bottle with her thumb in it. She was giving clues.
She also gave her support. Before HBO came in with financing for The Celluloid Closet, she sent out a letter asking for support, securing donations. And that's how we actually got our film started too, with Lily's support. And I think Lily and Vito have a very close and intimate friendship that continued until the day he died. And Lily doesn't talk about this but she helped support Vito at the very end, when he was in dire financial straits and he was very ill.
And you do seem to sort of structure it into three acts, the early activism, his work on Celluloid Closet, and then his AIDS activism. What was the difficulty in organizing and making this movie, to keep the viewer engaged in the Vito narrative from one stage to another.
Well, our first cut, with my editor Phil Harrison, it was five hours. I mean, we had so much material. The struggle for us was that there was so much material and history, that Vito's story tended to get lost. So we decided if it didn't have something directly to do with Vito, it had to go.
I hope this sparks an interest among younger people. To read The Celluloid Closet. To read Outspoken, the two-volume set of Vito's writing's that we just released. To go deeper into this history. For me, coming out was watching The Times of Harvey Milk, and Before Stonewall, and the films that were inspiring to me. I don't think every kid coming out is going to read every book on gay history, but that's what I did. And Vito's name is not in a lot of those books. I hope that this film does for others what the Times of Harvey Milk did for me, which was to spark an interest in our history.
There are several documentaries that have all been released around the same time that deal with a similar time period and yet tell the story from different angles and perspectives. Do you think it's good or bad to have all these stories being released at once?
I don't think it's just a coincidence that Vito, How to Survive a Plague, We Were Here, and United in Anger are all out at the same time. A certain amount of time has gone by, and David Weissman, who directed We Were Here and is a friend of mine, he compares it to Holocaust survivors and there was a period of time when no one wanted to talk about it. And then, later, there was a time, when everyone wanted to talk about. They just needed the time to process it. Now I think all of the filmmakers feel that the younger kids are completely disconnected from that time period. So I'm so pleased when younger people come up to me after they see the film in tears and say, I just had no idea the sacrifices these men made for me. And they're alive today because of the sacrifices these men made. But it's also a warning. We have drugs that can prolong people's lives but we don't know how long these drugs are going to last. And history has a tendency to repeat itself. So I hope it sparks an intergenerational dialogue so that's not the case.