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Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo Hardcover – May 10, 2011

4.7 out of 5 stars 7 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


“My dear friend, Vito Russo, was a darling and a daring man; more important, he was a giant in the fields of gay and AIDS activism. In Celluloid Activist, Michael Schiavi recounts Vito’s full life, starting with a New York childhood that Martin Scorsese might have written, through Vito’s penning of the indispensable Celluloid Closet, the first major study of gays and lesbians in film, and finally through Vito’s tireless work as an AIDS activist. All this, plus a look at Vito up a tree (literally) at the Stonewall Riots! Celluloid Activist is a long-overdue examination of a man who helped put gay rights on the map. In the words of Edith Ann, one of Vito’s other good buddies, ‘And that's the truth-h-h-h!’”—Lily Tomlin

“This important book brings both an era and its sensibilities to life by engagingly telling the story of a major gay civil rights activist. Russo’s contribution to the movement for gay equality through practically inventing the field of LGBT film history is enormous. Readers will find themselves inspired by Russo’s unflagging courage, passion, and downright tenacity.”—David Carter, author of Stonewall: The Riots That Sparked the Gay Revolution

 “Schiavi is thorough and compelling both in bringing this complex character to life and in delineating the people and events that shaped him. Highly Recommended.”—CHOICE

“A dynamic, emotional, and fascinating look at the life of the spellbinding gay activist Vito Russo.”—Craig Zadan, producer of Chicago and Hairspray

“Schiavi demonstrates a knack for digging deep into his subject matter. His immersion into the heart, soul, and benevolent machinations of Russo’s perseverant fight for homosexual justice is beautifully on display in this comprehensive biography and illuminating time capsule that will hopefully garner Vito Russo a more visible place in the gay rights movement.”—Bay Area Reporter

“In Celluloid Activist, Vito Russo has the biography he deserves, one that matches his energy level.”—South Florida Gay News

Celluloid Activist realigns Russo’s legacy, positioning his politics and film scholarship on twin pedestals. It is nothing if not thorough; Schiavi conducted almost 200 interviews. Celluloid Activist has so many direct quotes from Russo, his friends and family that it reads like a memoir. It’s leavened with details both novelistic and cinematic, and could make a compelling film. You can almost hear Vito casting his own biopic, giggling as he ponders which movie star hunk should play the funny-serious little boy from East Harlem.”—San Francisco Chronicle

Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo, Michael Schiavi’s new biography of the noted LGBT activist and film historian, is an important addition to queer and film scholarship. It is also one of the most complex and compelling historical narratives of gay male life and culture in the later decades of the twentieth century. . . . Schiavi beautifully maps out Russo’s growth as a political gay man—a path that was neither as obvious or clear-cut as it mat at first appear—and the book seamlessly demonstrates how the growth of gay male culture during this time was inextricably intertwined with the emergence of series of overlapping, sometimes conflicting, LGBT political movements.”—Michael Bronski, Cineaste

Book Description

Celluloid Activist is the biography of gay-rights giant Vito Russo, the man who wrote The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, commonly regarded as the foundational text of gay and lesbian film studies and one of the first to be widely read.

            But Russo was much more than a pioneering journalist and author. A founding member of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and cofounder of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), Russo lived at the center of the most important gay cultural turning points in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. His life as a cultural Zelig intersects a crucial period of social change, and in some ways his story becomes the story of a developing gay revolution in America. A frequent participant at “zaps” and an organizer of Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) cabarets and dances—which gave the New York gay and lesbian community its first social alternative to Mafia-owned bars—Russo made his most enduring contribution to the GAA with his marshaling of “Movie Nights,” the forerunners to his worldwide Celluloid Closet lecture tours that gave gay audiences their first community forum for the dissection of gay imagery in mainstream film.
            Biographer Michael Schiavi unravels Vito Russo’s fascinating life story, from his childhood in East Harlem to his own heartbreaking experiences with HIV/AIDS. Drawing on archival materials, unpublished letters and journals, and more than two hundred interviews, including conversations with a range of Russo’s friends and family from brother Charlie Russo to comedian Lily Tomlin to pioneering activist and playwright Larry Kramer, Celluloid Activistprovides an unprecedented portrait of a man who defined gay-rights and AIDS activism.
--This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: University of Wisconsin Press; 1 edition (May 10, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0299282309
  • ISBN-13: 978-0299282301
  • Product Dimensions: 7 x 1.1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,021,921 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover
Vito Russo (1946-1990) was best known as the film historian behind the "The Celluloid Closet," first a series of lectures about gay and lesbian portrayals in classic films, which later became a book of the same name in 1981 (and revised in 1987). It would also be made into a film, released five years after his death.

This biography attempts to tell the story of Russo's life, from his childhood in East Harlem, how his fascination with film developed over the years, his realization that he was gay, and keen sense of nontraditional gender roles in popular (and obscure) films. Russo was also a dedicated activist, who was instrumental in the early years of the Gay Activist Alliance, Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, and eventually the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), and, as such, his story also provides a concise overview of such efforts for the twenty year period starting with the 1969 Stonewall rebellion. It talks of his family, his friends (which included several celebrities), as well as assorted lovers, who unfortunately had to take a back seat to his primary romance with films and dedication to human rights. He would continue to be as active as he possibly could in his final years, while suffering complications from HIV.

Russo's life was so full and complex that, even at almost 300 pages, his biographer had a difficult time fitting in all relevant events and accomplishments. As such, the book reads a bit dry and clinical at times, including the ending (the day of his death) which seems a bit abrupt. (The author does include an Afterward that provides some follow-up information that provides a bit of closure.) However, he does still manage to convey the dedication, conviction and humor of the man. To those who knew of Russo and his work, this is a must-read, though I recommend it to everyone, to learn of a man who was truly one of a kind. Five stars out of five.

- Bob Lind, Echo Magazine
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Michael Schiavi has written a wonderfully detailed, beautifully remembered account of the life, career and passion of Vito Russo. This is a thoroughly researched book, put together with the utmost respect, but it reads very smoothly. This is a perfect companion for the upcoming documentary on Russo's life. I've always wondered what Vito would have made of 90s queer film explosion and also what he'd think of the proliferation of gay cinema in the past 10 years. I can never have that, but at least I have this.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book about the life of a giant among America's gay activists is a terrific read. Even those who knew and were close to Vito Russo are likely to discover many things they did not know. The research is impeccable and the access the author had to family and friends exceptional. Michael Schiavi's deep regard for Vito -- a person he never met but who, nonetheless, inspired his own life's journey -- make this a loving and spellbinding biography. But this is much more than a biography. This is a whirlwind and hammer that give insight into the earliest days of the LGBT movement, it's visionaries and leaders (many of whom sacrificed much and also deserve to be memorialized in a biography),and its impact on the whole culture in the 1970s and 80s. It also captures the agonies of the early HIV/AIDS epidemic through the experience of one man whose determination to live fully until his last breath inspired thousands of people and helped change the way the government and pharmaceuticals responded to the growing epidemic. Celluloid Activist draws on the rich heritage of the cinema that Vito loved so much and illuminated so brilliantly in his own book, The Celluloid Closet (Harper & Row, 1981). We owe a profound debt to Vito for opening eyes and minds to the power of movie images and, without exaggeration, for the positive images of LGBT people in film and television we enjoy today -- images that too many people take for granted. Michael Schiavi has revealed more than a life here; he has revealed history being made through one gay man's commitment to being as free as he could be in a homophobic America that promised "justice and liberty for all" but too often failed to deliver. Vito clearly believed such justice and liberty were worth fighting, even dying, for. This beautifully written book will move you in unexpected, challenging, inspiring ways.
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Format: Hardcover
I have to admit that, when I read about the release of Celluloid Activist, the name of Vito Russo was not new to me, but I really didn't know the man who was Vito Russo. For me he was the author behind The Celluloid Closet, a landmark of LGBT non fiction, and maybe due to his Italian origins, for me his name was easier to remember than for other people. But as the author of his biography, reading that at less than 20 years since his death someone could think Vito Russo is unknown to the young LGBT community is unthinkable. So I could imagine Michael's emotional push to finish this biography right in time for the release of a documentary, Activist: The Times of Vito Russo, that together with the book will help remember Vito Russo's name not only among the fan of old classic cinema, but also among those who need to know that Vito Russo helped paved a better life for them and all the LGBT community.

Celluloid Activist is deeply researched, not only with interviews of friends and family of Vito Russo, but also with not important, but moving details, like when Michael Schiavi checked if the night when Vito was born was really hot as Arnie Kantrowitz, Vito's long-time friend, jocked about. No, it was not, and reading that part I imagined Michael Schiavi checking some old weather forecast to confuting that sentence.

For sure good share of the book is devoted to Vito as gay activist, and the man who helped founding the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). But it's also the recounting of Vito's private life, like his unrequited love for Jeffrey Sevcik, the man who he sent away three time to then always taking him back, until the time it was too late.
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