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In Vito Veritas

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Paul Schraub

Tough Love: Film scholar Vito Russo made his mark at UCSC in his brief tenure teaching "The Celluloid Closet," a course on gays' images in film based on his book of the same name.

Vito Russo--author of 'The Celluloid Closet'--taught at UCSC in 1990, giving his students an awakening about gays on screen

By Christina Waters

Oakes 105 was festooned with enough flowers to fill a drag queen's dressing room. Crammed to overflowing with adoring students and admirers, the final day of "The Celluloid Closet,"--a UCSC Arts Division course taught by Russo using rare film footage, his own textbook of the same name and his biting wit--was an outpouring of affection. The lectern was draped with gifts of homemade cookies, votive candles, floral displays, scarves--it looked like a shrine.

It was a shrine. Vito would be dead within the year.

As Vito got ready to enter the huge classroom, more huge bouquets were thrust toward him. His assistants, worried about his frail health, offered to put some of them in vases until later. "Fuck it, I'll carry them all" was his defiant response. And so he descended the aisle like a Miss America finalist, waving and smiling to a thunder of applause, whistles and yowls of approval.

Invited to lecture on the little-known, oft-repressed celluloid imagery of gay and lesbian culture, Russo was already an expert in film theory and gay political activism by the time he came to the campus in 1990. He also was in the throes of AIDS by the end of the quarter.

Every one of his 200 adoring students understood when there were days that Vito had to cut short a lecture. They were taking the course because it offered a rare chance to understand the full depth of suppression of gay lifestyle and imagery on the international film screen. Russo literally wrote the book on the subject, combing archives all over the world--and sometimes smuggling in bits of footage when he had to--to liberate faded scenes of men dancing together, of women in butch haircuts.

More than half the students in the class were there to study their own heritage, to delight in a brief glimmer of center-stage spotlight, rather than in the shadowed wings in which their lifestyle had so long endured. And Vito gave them more than they'd ever dreamed existed.

Shown along with his steady patter of insider knowledge, expertise and years of scholarship, the clips uncovered homoerotic subtexts and primary texts. We watched Marlene Dietrich swagger in tuxedo, and Laurel and Hardy sharing a quiet moment of bedroom intimacy, Cary Grant in maribou negligee, Montgomery Clift and John Ireland comparing their guns in Red River. Six-shooters would never look the same again.

Jeffrey Friedman's film, The Celluloid Closet, examines the multitudinous ways gays have been depicted in cinema.

Metro writer Richard von Busack reviews The Celluloid Closet

Russo wasn't only a brilliant analyst of film, he was a delicious gossip who loved to tell anecdotes. Especially the one about how he fought with Richard Gere over a silk shirt in Rio de Janiero. Gere got the shirt. But Vito got revenge. He loved to tell us who was secretly gay in Hollywood.

"John Travolta?" "Absolutely."

"Gere?" "You bet."

"Richard Chamberlain?" "Duh!"

It was always Vito Russo's dream to see his book made into a film. And this year, his rule-breaking, chance-taking study of homosexuality in the movies, The Celluloid Closet, became a documentary film crafted by his longtime companions Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein. The film--rich with rare movie footage, interviews and lots of vintage Vito Russo analysis--opens this week at the Nickelodeon.

Vito Russo grew up in East Harlem, New York City. "It's always been home. I'm a very belligerent New Yorker, sort of an Italian Woody Allen," he told me in the winter of 1990 while in Santa Cruz to teach. He admitted that he missed his New York friends, the convenience of a city, the conversation. "I find that Californians would rather not start an argument. They let you say something they disagree with rather than offend you--which is astounding because on the other side of the coin they're perfectly willing to tell you what to eat, drink, smoke and where. It's sort of a benevolent fascism in a progressive community."

Russo grew up thinking everybody lived in cities--the only children playing on lawns were those he saw on TV.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I always wanted to be a journalist. But always. And I remember that only because I went to Catholic schools and I remember in grammar school telling a nun that I wanted to be a journalist and she said, good, we need good Catholic journalists. I do vividly remember wanting to be a writer and taking journalism courses in high school and being the arts editor of the yearbook, so it's always been there, just like the movie thing--my love for film--has always been there, too.

At what point did writing and films come together for you?

It was way before The Celluloid Closet. It was almost perfect in a way. I graduated from college and went immediately to grad school at NYU in cinema studies, a brand-new program. It had nothing to do with filmmaking--it was aesthetics, history, criticism. So I studied with all these wonderful crackpots and got to see enormous amounts of films that I never knew existed. It was a great graduate course, but I couldn't afford to go to school and not work. I got a job in the film department at the Museum of Modern Art, which was so ideal--you couldn't ask for a better job because all you did was look at movies all day and work with very famous people.

It also was the very first time that I was in a working environment with people who were both straight and gay for whom being gay was not an issue. It was the first time I met straight people who weren't freaked out by this issue, who had gay friends and it was no big deal. And coincidentally, everything came together at once. The gay liberation movement was very young and I got involved with it in 1970 right after Stonewall. And I began to write for the local gay press. There was a newspaper called Gay, I think--in fact, I think it was run by Al Goldstein who ran Screw magazine and he was the only slob in NY at the time who would do something as dangerous as start a gay newspaper. He was a highly sexist and offensive person. I vividly remember that.

I remember writing for the gay press mostly about culture and movies and what was going on in the gay community. The head of the film department at the Museum of Modern Art was a very nice man named Willard Van Dyke, who had made independent films in the '30s and he would have everybody in the staff over to his house. His wife was Barbara Van Dyke, who ran the film program at Donnel Library across the street from the museum.

He encouraged me to do The Celluloid Closet--this was years before I actually started writing it. But he said, "Look-- you're involved in the gay liberation movement, you love movies, you're a very political creature and you're in grad school in film. All things conspire to say to me that you're the one to write this book." And he was right!

That's when I first really started thinking about the issue of gay people and their reflection on the screen.

So when you conceived the book, it seems that you were thinking on multiple tracks--the history which had never been uncovered before, as well as its implications.

Yes, just the very fact of it and then the analysis and interpretation of that from the point of view of a gay person. Because usually, before gay liberation came along, gay life and gay people were analyzed by "experts" who were not gay--psychologists, psychiatrists, medicine people. That was the way of the '60s. There were lots and lots of medical books written about what homosexuality was from a psychoanalytic point of view. But gay people were just emerging with a voice to give their own perspective on their own lives. And this book fit in perfectly with that.

Once you decided that maybe you were the right person to do this book, how did you proceed and where did you have to go to find the rare images and manuscripts?

I spent a summer on the beach trying to write this book and it became clear that I didn't have enough information and that it was going to take an enormous amount of preparatory research. And also you have to remember that the idea of the book was difficult to sell. I finally did find someone at Harper & Row willing to pitch the book to an editorial board, but 18 publishers turned the book down before that, saying that there was no market for it. This was in 1974. It wasn't until '75 that I started actually writing it and it wasn't until '76 that I got a contract and then it took another three years until it was ready.

The $2,500-now, $2,500-when-it's-done advance wasn't enough to pay for travel, so I worked as a waiter for a year to raise enough money to go to England and Sweden and hit their film archives. Then I went to U.S. archives, like the University of Texas at Austin, which has enormous amounts of directors' film papers, and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

The wonderful thing in my life about working in restaurants--I did that since I was in high school--is that you make a lot of money and you can take off when you want. It's not a job job. It's the way people stay alive.

In any case, the Library of Congress had the rarest and most interesting films. I don't think this is generally known, but the truth is that it's a government service that any U.S. citizen working on any project may see any film ever made for free by making an appointment at the Library of Congress. They will set you up with an editing machine and bring you 35mm prints, 16mm prints--they will show you anything you want. I spent one month looking at three films a day. [Laughter.] It was just heaven. I went out to lunch, I came back, I looked at two more, I went home. And I loved it. This was before they rereleased all of the rare Hitchcocks, so that you couldn't see Rope anywhere. But there you could see it.

So it took me a full two years to see all the films I needed to see, to get the stills I needed to get--that was the most expensive and time-consuming process because stills cost a lot of money, and I got stills from collections that I had to copy and return, and movie stills that didn't exist. So I would have to get the film and photograph the frame. I mean that's how you get Peter Finch kissing Murray Head in Sunday Bloody Sunday or Garbo kissing Elizabeth Young in Queen Christina. They don't make stills of the things I was looking for.

That was an enormously time-consuming and expensive process, so it wasn't until the end of 1980 that the book was actually published. But it did end up being, for a gay book, a crossover book. I must have sold 20-, 25-, maybe 30,000 copies, which is astonishing for a gay book. [Russo guessed that he'd probably cleared $6,000 in royalties from The Celluloid Closet since its publication.]

As you were putting together all this material, what were some of the rewards and what hit you in terms of horrifying discoveries?

Yeah, there were some disappointments and some successes. The truth is that I did uncover a lot of interesting films that nobody knew existed before. One of the great successes of the entire process was that my work led to the discovery of the German film Different From the Others at an Amsterdam archive. That was thrilling because here was a film that had been lost for almost 60 years.

On the other hand, I would discover that a particular film existed once and would be able to find virtually no trace of it. There was one of those Reefer Madness-type films about homosexuality; it was called Children of Loneliness and it had a big release on Broadway at the Capital Theater in 1935, but there's no surviving footage of this film. Who knows where it is? But God knows, you're always hoping that it will turn up in an attic somewhere. The tracking down was usually extremely rewarding.

In the larger sense, it's been very rewarding for me in terms of my life, because the book led to other things, like lecturing all over the world and teaching. See, I think that a person's goal in life is to find a way to fix it so that you can get paid for doing what you like best. Now, not everyone can do that. That's apparent. But I found a way. I found a subject that I was an expert in--or that I would be an expert in. Just simply by dint of being the only one who was pursuing this subject, I became the recognized expert on the subject of gays and cinema and it led me to be able to lead a life that I would never have been able to lead otherwise. I mean, I don't hold a job. And I'm able to survive in a very expensive city like New York. How many people can do that? So I'm very happy about that aspect of it. I haven't had to have a boss. That ties in with who I am politically. Because you can't come out of the closet if you're working for IBM. [Laughter.]

Did the book provide you an excuse to get to know and meet people you wouldn't have been able to otherwise, and who revealed the richness of a life involving gays and film?

I discovered that gay people in the film industry, especially actors, are the most reluctant people to talk. Because, first of all, when I conceived ofThe Celluloid Closet as a book, everyone I talked to about it assumed that I was going to write a book about who was gay in Hollywood. Everyone assumed this. It had never occurred to them that I was writing about the ways in which gay people are portrayed in film, about gay characters and not about gay people playing the roles. They thought it was going to be a gossip book.

But, mostly, the people who agreed to talk to me are heterosexual and intelligent. I think what you find is that actors aren't nuts about giving interviews under any circumstances--very rarely did an actor say yes.

What I discovered was that screenwriters and directors love to talk about their work, because they're usually ignored. Especially screenwriters. So I was able to talk with the screenwriters from Walk on the Wild Side and Advise & Consent about the Hollywood Motion Picture Production Code. The man who wrote Walk on the Wild Side pointed out to me that in From Here to Eternity, the house of prostitution with Donna Reed as the prostitute had to be changed into a dance club. That was great. And I never would have gotten to meet Robert Aldridge, who directed The Killing of Sister George and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, and he told me all these incredible stories about James Whale, the gay director of Frankenstein.

Don Murray, who played the senator accused of being homosexual in Advise & Consent, was terrific. He happened to be on Broadway at the time and asked me come to his dressing room after a performance and we sat and talked for an hour.

Pre-code films seem to have a remarkable openness about human sexuality. Had there never been a censorship code, what might have been different?

First of all, it's inconceivable to me that there would have been a society without censorship. I don't see how such a thing could ever happen given that in 1990 people are still censoring sexual situations. If there wasn't the Motion Picture Production Code, there would be federal censorship or religious and civic groups rising up. I think that in the best of all possible societies, gay characters would have emerged incidentally as part of the fabric of human society.

In the book, you remind us that it wasn't just homosexuals who fell through the cracks or who were stereotyped and distorted by the prevailing ideology, but that every group perceived as different disappeared or was distorted.

Yes, I consciously wanted to draw parallels, because it has nothing to do with being gay, nothing to do with being black, nothing to do with being a woman--it has to do with being different in a society that values what they call "the normal" family values. Every time somebody commits violence in the name of masculinity--which happens all too frequently-- I'm reminded that we're as bad now as we were 50 years ago.

What do you say to the person who points out that films are, after all, make-believe?

Yes, that's true. It is equally true, however, that in addition to being make-believe they also reflect our reality. In other words, we have a schizophrenic attitude about the way we look at movies. It's a contradiction. On the one hand, we know they're made for fantasy, and on the other, we look to them to show us our reality. And often they do show us our reality, whether they're meant to or not. And such a person would be perfectly right in pointing out that a movie, like a book or a play, is the product of a writer's fantasy, especially if it's fiction and not meant to be a documentary. So you really can't complain that Woody Allen doesn't put gay people in his films. What I'm saying is that from a gay perspective, it rings false. I live in Manhattan. And when I look at Manhattan the movie, I don't see my life there.

If it's true that films mirror the dominant ideology is it also true that they can change our perceptions? Can they be a political corrective?

I think all art is political, whether it knows it or not and whether we know it or not. I do think that in subtle ways painting, agit-prop art, movies and books should influence us in terms of the way we live and they should be able to change the world--and books have changed the world. I don't think movies have changed the world. Somebody once said that movies change the superficialities of our lives, like makeup, hairdos, fashion and the ways in which we choose to look and behave with each other, but it doesn't change governments. Even a powerful film like Z, something you could look at and say he really did a good job in terms of manipulating the politics of the audience, those films don't change the world. They just don't.

You're teaching at UCSC and you have a bunch of very eager students. If this is a movie/video generation, at some point by the mere exposure to images they've never experienced, something has to be planted. You, as an educator, have to believe that.

I do believe that, but I also feel that maybe it's a drop in the bucket, in terms of who's out there and how little they know. First of all, admittedly they know very little, they have no background, so all you can hope to do with them in 10 weeks is to introduce them to a world about which they know nothing. Open a door for them. Now whether they choose to walk through it or not is another question.

The reason why I wrote The Celluloid Closet in the style that I did was to make it accessible to a large readership. It's easy to read. It's not a Marxist, feminist, semiotic analysis that only another academic whose specialty is film is going to be able to sift through. I wanted it to be accessible. It's very hard to say, well, if you open up a person's mind to the possibilities that they're going to change the world with that knowledge. Maybe, eventually. But not tomorrow. It's just a long process.

In your book, Quentin Crisp says that once gayness becomes everyday mundane, like heterosexuality is on the screen, only then will it cease to be shocking and distorted.

My goal is not necessarily an assimilationist goal. And this doesn't only refer to homosexuals, it refers to all of the sort of odd, different, unusual creatures who make movies and who do art. I don't ever want that tension between the mainstream and the avant-garde to disappear. I would like people who are different to stop suffering for their difference, but I would not like them to stop being different. I really think that gay people and people who are different are seeking to remain unique creatures--but not be made miserable for it.

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From the April 11-17, 1996 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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