Vito Russo life and biography

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Vito Russo biography

Date of birth : 1946-07-11
Date of death : 1990-11-07
Birthplace : New York City, New York, U.S.
Nationality : American-Russian
Category : Famous Figures
Last modified : 2010-08-27
Credited as : Author and film historian, LGBT activist, author of the book 'The Celluloid Closet'

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Vito Russo (born July 11, 1946, New York City – died November 7, 1990, New York City) was an American LGBT activist, film historian and author who is best remembered as the author of the book The Celluloid Closet (1981, revised edition 1987).

Russo developed his material following screenings of camp films shown as fundraisers for the early gay rights organization Gay Activists Alliance. He traveled throughout the country from 1972 to 1982, delivering The Celluloid Closet as a live lecture presentation with film clips at colleges, universities, and small cinemas such as the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco. In both the book and in the lecture/film clip presentation, he related the history of gay and lesbian moments – and the treatment of gay and lesbian characters – in American and foreign films of the past.

In 1983, Russo wrote, produced, and co-hosted a series focusing on the gay community called Our Time for WNYC-TV. This series featured the nation's first GLBT hard news and documentary video segment produced and directed by social behaviorist D. S. Vanderbilt.


Russo's The Celluloid Closet traces the role of the homosexual in films through the ages. Among the most notoriously prejudiced films cited by Russo are "Cruising," in which an undercover policeman attempts to capture a psychopathic homosexual whose targets frequent bars permitting sado-masochistic practices, and "Windows," in which a lesbian attempts to alter another woman's sexual preference by having men harass her. Stephen Harvey, writing in the Village Voice, hailed Russo's book as "the liveliest work on any aspect of film history to appear in quite a while." Harvey added that Russo "observes the blatant buffoonery and overt malice with which gays have been treated onscreen with a terse stream of irony and a remarkably subtle analysis of the fears which lay beneath the broadsides." Harvey lamented Russo's slighting of German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder's explorations of homosexuality, but contended that the book's flaws were little "when measured with the authentic scope and acuity of this book."

John Rechy, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, was less impressed with Russo's accomplishment. Like Harvey, Rechy bemoaned the lack of space accorded Fassbinder and charged Russo with placing "bland political acceptability above quality as a criterion for evaluation." Rechy also contended that "Russo merely peeks at ... areas ripe for insightful examination." New Republic's reviewer was less disturbed with Russo's scholasticism. "Russo's perspective ... is sociological rather than aesthetic," the reviewer conceded. However, the reviewer also noted that Russo "makes many sensible observations about such things as the use of the suspected homosexual as a scape-goat for he-men's fears about themselves."

Russo told CA: "The Celluloid Closet emerged out of my love for motion pictures and my deep commitment to the politics of the gay liberation movement which first emerged in the early 1970's. It also enabled me to explore writing in a political sense and then to go on to other topics with a heightened awareness of feminism and the changing relationships between men and women, the evolution of the family structure in America, and sexual politics in general.

"Because I have often written about American films from a partisan point of view, and foreign films almost not at all, it has been said that I have a `politically correct' line on films that deal with the gay experience. In fact, the only criteria I have used in judging that aspect of them has been authenticity of feeling. I abhor political correctness precisely because I don't think there is a political criteria for judging a film. My anti-academicism dictates that one writes about whatever one pleases with no quarter to the expectations of others. `Making Love' is a valuable and important experience for a fourteen-year-old gay or lesbian sitting in a small town somewhere. Their first gay characters on the screen will be Michael Ontkean and Harry Hamlin. Mine was Don Murray in `Advise and Consent'--and he slit his throat at the end of the movie. My advice to writers who say that there is more to point out are invited to get busy. `Raging Bull' is a socially and politically offensive statement but an original and challenging masterpiece of filmmaking. If I choose then not to examine or explore the homophobia in the work of Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader, it may be because I see too much I like in their work, and at the moment I would prefer to discuss that instead. One is not and should not be bound to write someone else's book or someone else's articles.

"My advice to young writers is to try to remember that, above all, you are writing for yourself. You teach yourself by writing, and you must never stop learning from it in order to fulfill someone else's expectations of your work.

"Bertolucci puts me to sleep--especially `The Conformist'--and so I continue to see his films, but I don't like to write immediately upon awakening.

"I like Fassbinder's films, those four or five I've seen. Fassbinder would be a luxury to see all at once, in a two week period. His career should certainly be examined from a gay perspective if only because he has been incorrectly termed a `gay filmmaker' by the mainstream press when in fact he was the classic case of the great filmmaker who incidently happened to be gay--supposedly what gay activists have been screaming for since Gertrude Stein died. It's also the public misconception that anyone who is out of the closet is a gay activist and should solely be defined by their sexuality. None of Fassbinder's films--including `The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant' and `Fox and His Friends'--is `about' homosexuality. All of his films, in one way or another, are about class struggle as well as the relationship between sex and power. In `Fox,' when he dealt with the exploitation of the working class by the bourgeoisie, his characters were incidently homosexual because Fassbinder chose to work with characters he knew instead of disguising everyone as heterosexual. This is a major stand in itself. But it is not necessarily `gay party line' because his characters are real, not cleaned up to be some propagandist's tool for seeing homosexuals in an idealized way. Ultimately, this says gays are just like straights but different. Not bad at all. But I would be bored to write his life story or an extensive analysis of his films. I'd rather explore the personality of Richard Pryor who seems to me much more fascinating and at least as talented. I eagerly await, however, the definitive Fassbinder from those critics who so missed him in The Celluloid Closet.

"In regard to my writing habits I can only recall asking visiting lecturer Christopher Isherwood if he writes every day. He said `I think about writing every day.' "

Family: Born July 11, 1946, in New York, NY; son of Angelo (a laborer) and Ann (Salerno) Russo. Education: Fairleigh Dickinson University, B.A., 1968; New York University, M.A., 1974. Politics: None. Religion: None. Addresses: Home: 401 West 24th St., New York, NY 10011. Agent: Jed Mattes, International Creative Management, 40 West 57th St., New York, NY 10019.

Gay-Book-of-the-Year Award from American Library Association and award from Social Responsibilities Roundtable, both 1982, both for The Celluloid Closet.

Museum of Modern Art, New York City, film distributor, 1971-73; Cinema 5 Ltd., New York City, film distributor, 1973-75.


* The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, Harper, 1981.

* Vito Russo, Author on Gays in Hollywood Films (sound recording), National Public Radio (Washington, DC), 1986.

Contributor to periodicals, including Esquire, Village Voice, New York, Rolling Stone, and Advocate.

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