If you’re an avid Blu-ray and DVD collector like me, you’re likely familiar with the work of Jeffrey Schwarz, even if you’re not aware of it. As the owner of Los Angeles based Automat Pictures, he has produced content for numerous DVD and Blu-ray releases. Sometimes he’s responsible for those behind-the-scenes featurettes that we’re all so familiar with, on other occasions, he’s produced feature-length works like No Day but Today: the Story of Rent, which was featured on the DVD release of the musical’s feature film adaptation. Produced by HBO, Vito could be considered Schwarz’s first ‘proper’ documentary, having had a limited theatrical run and positive reception at various film festivals around the world, since its release in late 2011.
Vito centers on the life of Vito Russo, a gay activist and film critic, whose book The Celluloid Closet looked at how films, especially those made in Hollywood, portrayed gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender characters. After being rejected by several publishers, the book finally made it to store shelves in 1981, and became a best-seller. Unfortunately, Russo didn’t live to see his book become an award-winning documentary, aired on HBO in 1996.
In Vito, Jeffrey Schwarz takes us back through Russo’s life. Vito grew up in a loving Italian family, and they knew from an early age he was gay. He never struggled with that fact, it just who he was, and his family accepted it.
A film student at NYU when the Stonewall riots happened in 1969, Vito was strictly an observer at that event. It wasn’t until during a raid at local New York bar, when he saw a young man impaled on a steel post after jumping out a window to escape the police, that an activist was born. From there, he helped to co-found the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), and years later he would help establish GLAAD (the Gay & Lesbian Alliance against Defamation) and ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power).
Using a vast library of archival footage—Vito loved the spotlight and gave various interviews, and co-hosted “Our Time,” a local New York public TV series about gay life. All of this provides a pretty well rounded picture of Vito the writer and activist. Schwarz’s film is further enhanced by several interviews with friends and colleagues including playwright Larry Kramer, actress Lily Tomlin, and members of Russo’s family.
Even after Russo was diagnosed with AIDS, and the disease was clearly ravaging his body, Vito remained an activist, fighting for gay rights. Vito Russo died on November 7, 1990 at 44. With AIDS no longer the immediate death sentence it once was, Vito is a wonderful way to learn about one of the earlier activists who was instrumental in getting politicians and government officials to listen to the gay community’s pleas for AIDS research and funding.
Presented in its intended 1.78:1 aspect ratio, viewers are given two soundtrack choices, DD5.1 and DD2.0. Since this is a film that uses so much archival footage, video quality varies greatly throughout. Most of the source material is in pretty goodd shape, but things get a bit dodgy on a couple of occasions. Be aware that some of the newly recorded interviews are interlaced, which can be distracting at times. Thankfully, audio is crisp and clear throughout.
- Audio Commentary with Jeffrey Schwarz, Arnie Kantrowitz, Michael Schiavi & Charlie Russo
- Interview Outtakes
- “Our Time” Excerpts (Vito Interviews Harry Hay & Barbara Gittings; Vito on the AIDS Crisis; Vito Interviews Larry Kramer & Virginia Apuzzo; Vito Direct Address to the Gay Community; Vito interviews Harvey Fierstein; Judith Beasely and The Quiche of Peace)