Friday, January 31, 2014

Book Review: Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo

Recently, I checked my files and realized that a book review of mine had not seen print as I meant it to. I should add that this sort of occurrence happens all the time in the arena of freelance journalism.

And for those of in the freelance business, your best option is then to follow up with your publisher. The publisher then will either run the piece, if it is still timely, or will offer you a kill fee. A kill fee is exactly half the amount the publisher would have paid you had they run the piece.

So, I indeed followed up. Luckily for me, I have a longstanding and rather healthy rapport with the publisher in question. While the article did not see print, they sent me a kill fee promptly. I should also add that the review was for a book released in 2011 and I myself made clear the article was long in the tooth, although I would have preferred publishing it.

So, without further ado, below is the book review that never saw print. It is a review of a biography that I rather appreciated - Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo. I like to think that the review can be appreciated by readers as well.

Humanized Vito Russo Small in Person, Giant in Stature

Book Review
Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo
By Michael Schiavi
The University of Wisconsin Press, 2011

Biographer Michael Schiavi has pulled a deft trick with Celluloid Activist: The Life and Times of Vito Russo. In epic scope, Schiavi portrays Russo as likeable, and utterly human. Employing classical biographical details, Schiavi explains how this brave and openly gay, non-monogamous man was moved to write The Celluloid Closet and fight for gay rights.
 
The descriptions of Russo’s mischievous youth in native Manhattan and Lodi, New Jersey reveal a very self-aware young man sleeping with men early, despite his parents’ admonishments that “these people” were cursed by God. Fascinated with Hollywood, Russo sought rare portrayals of gay heroes among early 1960s films that often depicted gay protagonists meeting tragic, pulpy endings.
 
Schiavi delivers payback after typical background — 283 pages of articulate biography. He cites The Celluloid Closet and lifelong gay activism as Russo’s greatest achievements. After witnessing the 1969 riots at the Stonewall Inn, Russo became convinced that gay men and women needed equal rights in order to stop being abused by the establishment. His activist fire sparked, Russo marched in the Gay Activists Alliance first gay pride parade in New York City on June 28, 1970.
 
Schiavi depicts this frenetic time breathlessly. Russo fought city, state and federal laws discriminating against LGBT people, joining the Gay Activists Alliance (GAA), Russo co-founding the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP).
 
Russo loved mixing politics and film. Using his cinematic finds from his job at the Museum of Modern Art, Russo enlivened early GAA meetings, turning his golden discoveries into talks on the college and gay-rights organization circuit. Over eight painstaking years, Russo transformed his speeches about Hollywood portraying gay and lesbian characters from the silent film era up to the 1970s as misfits and deviants into The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies. The 1981 book became a mellower Lily-Tomlin-narrated 1995 documentary, a veritable Shangri-Lai of movie clips and interviews.
 
Russo espoused a sexually free lifestyle, yet was a difficult lover to stay with. When not writing, giving talks or launching into AIDS activism after being diagnosed as HIV positive in 1985, many observers describe him as manically floating through career crisis. One can see Russo pacing his apartment restlessly between bouts of Uno and Monopoly with his brothers-in-arms and eventually enduring a plethora of drug treatments and decline.
 
Yet those who loved Russo loved him dearly, a fact attested to by director/producer Rob Epstein ensuring Closet became a documentary as per Russo’s dying wish. When Russo watched New York City Gay Pride March in 1990 from Larry Kramer’s balcony, hundreds of marchers declared their love for him. Russo, taking drugs through his IV, quipped “When I was getting the good drugs, nobody would give me one of these things to be able to hook up instantly!” With his gallows’ humour and the indelible imprint this giant made on the gay-rights movement, readers will find it hard not to like him at least a little, and admire him a lot.

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