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HBO is showing the inspiring documentary “Vito”, debuting on July 23 (9:00-10:45 p.m. ET/PT), which tells the tale of LGBT activist Vito Russo. 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, 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 abouttheir 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 will also be 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.
For more information on the documentary, please visit: Facebook: facebook.com/hbodocs; and Twitter: @HBODocs #vito.