Beginning July 23 and continuing for several weeks, HBO debuts a film documentary "Vito" about the remarkable gay activist, cineaste, cultural provocateur, lover, archivist and civil rights fighter Vito Russo.
He was an authentic original. It was a remarkable experience knowing him. Vito was a bit like a whirlwind -- funny, an automatic center of attention in virtually any crowd, yet underneath a painstakingly thoughtful philosopher, a guy possessing an instinctive natural humility, and a natural actor having the best stories and lines in town. It was a remarkable experience knowing Vito.
I did. I recall a very funny day in 1978 when Vito and I, accompanied by two or three other gay and lesbian friends, drove from L.A. to visit Disneyland. We were, in effect, out on the town, unabashedly tourists looking for fun. We arrived just as the gates of the Magic Kingdom were opening. In a short time we found a Carnation breakfast shop. So, as part of a tourist's fantasy, we ordered pancakes with blue berries, swimming in syrup.
Vito became famous in 1981 after he penned his classic book "The Celluloid Closet." This was his groundbreaking study of homosexuality in the movies. It also contained memorable reviews and classic interviews. The best of these is found in found in two memorable volumes "Out Spoken: A Vito Russo Reader" (Parts I and II) edited by Jeffrey Schwarz with Bo Young and Mark Thompson, published by White Crane Books.
Schwarz is also director and producer of "Vito," the documentary on HBO. He invited my partner Mark Thompson and me to appear in it, recalling our friendship and experiences with Vito. More than 2,000 people turned out for its premiere the other night at the 30th anniversary of Outfest, the prestigious LGBT film festival. The event was held at historic Orpheum Theatre in downtown L.A. Since its 1921 opening it played host to great names in show business like burlesque queen Sally Rand, Jack Benny, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington. Young July Garland appeared there as Frances Gumm, one of the Gumm Sisters. Entertainer George Jessel saw their performance and said they were great -- but had to change their last name. So Frances Gumm became Judy Garland (who, as fate would have it, was Vito's favorite star).
On the day following the L.A. premiere of "Vito," I found myself at Video Journeys, a popular neighborhood film archives where people rent old and new movies. Guy Manganiello, who is a clerk there, had also been in the audience to see "Vito." He commented: "When I saw the film it was amazingly like a complete review of my own life on a personal scale." I agreed with him. The structure and artistry of "Vito" compelled me to connect my own personal life to the magic storyteller up there on the screen.
The documentary "Vito" covers two critical parts of Vito's life. First there were the tumultuous early years of gay lib in New York in the late '60s. Next was the creation of ACT-UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). This occurred in the late '80s. It highlighted the disease to which Vito tragically succumbed in 1990.
Speaking for myself, Vito has the power now to be two different personages in my life. First, a personal friend who touched my life deeply in a number of different ways. This includes his heroism and vast courage and the sheer example of his private and public life. However, there is also another personage. As I stood in Video Journeys, looking at a trove of world cinema on its shelves, I couldn't help but wonder: Did a magic ghost of Vito stand there too?