Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A Native New Yorker

Time does fly!  I got busy with some offline things late last week, and then went out of town for the weekend.  Next thing I know it's Tuesday and I haven't written here in almost a week.

I just finished reading the first volume of Out Spoken: A Vito Russo Reader, published this year by White Crane Books.  I had no idea such a project was in the works when I found the book at one of our local independent bookstores, and I was delighted.  One of the editors, Jeffrey Schwarz, worked on the film version of The Celluloid Closet and made a new documentary about Russo, Vito.  The first volume alone is almost 300 pages of Russo's journalism on film and celebrities; I expect to buy the second volume, devoted to other areas of his activism, next week.

As I remember, I first heard of him in the 1970s, when he wrote an angry letter to the Village Voice complaining about their coverage of Pride Week; not only was it angry, it was funny, but without sacrificing its seriousness. The IU campus gay group brought him to Bloomington for a gay conference not too long afterwards, so I was able to praise that letter to him in person.  "A lot of people liked that letter," he said, bemused.  "I should write when I'm angry more often."  At that conference he gave the presentation on Hollywood and homosexuals he'd been working on for a couple of years at the time, which eventually became the book The Celluloid Closet (Harper, 1981; revised edition, 1987).  The presentation, which included slides and (I think) film clips, not only began my education about gays in film but about film itself.  The only thing I specifically remember Russo saying in the lecture was that he thought it possible that in time The Boys in the Band would be seen very differently than we saw it at the time: instead of a parade of negative stereotypes, it would be an interesting portrayal of some gay men's lives in a much harder time.  That pleased me because I'd never seen Boys as an unrelentingly negative play, even when I read it as a closeted teen. 

The Celluloid Closet is still a groundbreaking book, though it wasn't the first book to deal with its subject -- Parker Tyler's Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the Movies (Holt, 1972) appeared nine years earlier.  Russo was doing something different than Tyler, though: he aimed at a full survey of the movies' treatment of homosexuality, viewed from an avowedly gay liberationist perspective.  Even if you disagreed with his judgments, and I often did, Russo did the groundwork for later study and discussion of queer film.  It's out of print now, which is a shame.

So it's great to have this new collection of his journalism.  Russo wrote for several publications, and Out Spoken contains interviews, reviews, and opinion pieces.  Some of this material went into The Celluloid Closet, but much didn't.  I was surprised to find Lily Tomlin almost coming out in print in the 1980s: she was willing for Russo to refer to her partner, Jane Wagner, as her partner, though I don't think "partner" had yet become the standard term for same-sex couples that it is now.

As I said, I have my disagreements with Russo.  I was annoyed when he complained, in the revised edition of The Celluloid Closet, that Gillian Armstrong's My Brilliant Career didn't deal with the lesbianism of the author.  The character Sybylla wasn't Miles Franklin, and I didn't notice any homoeroticism in the novel when I reread it a couple of years ago. I concede that's a sticky question, because adaptations can legitimately make all kinds of changes in source material.  If Armstrong had chosen to make that change, and it had worked within the film, I wouldn't have objected; but she wasn't obliged to.  (A biopic of Franklin would be a different matter.)

Some of the issues Russo grappled with are still with us, of course, like that of straight actors playing gay characters and vice versa.  In one piece Russo wrote:
When Harry Hamlin hesitated to accept the role of a gay writer in Making Love, producer Dan Melnick asked him, “If I came to you with a really great script and asked you to play Hitler, would you consider it?” Hamlin, of course, replied that he would. “So,” said Melnick, “you’re willing to play a mass murderer but not a homosexual. Think about that.” To his credit, Hamlin did think about it and eventually played the role in Making Love [235-6].
But what if the script isn't "great"?  Making Love is one of the worst Hollywood movies I've ever seen.  Maybe the original script was better.  As with the later Philadelphia, nervous Hollywood executives evidently interfered with the wishes and intentions of the gay men involved in the production, but I'm not sure they can be blamed for all the many faults of this turgid flop.  For example, the opening sequence indicates that the male leads lived together, but as I remember the main story they were basically tricks.

One thing that struck me especially odd was the juxtaposition of Russo's attack on the Tom Cruise vehicle Cocktail, "a duplicitous film that spends two hours making promiscuous sex, drinking, smoking, fake values and macho sexism look attractive and then turns around in the last ten minutes to say that fidelity and loyalty are really where it’s at" (222), with a complaint that "In this new world, gay boys are designed to be cute and alluring and slightly 'toyish,' but they don’t fuck around" (229) and a eulogy for Fred "Halsted’s generation, a group of men who lived to push sex to its limit in a way that became an anachronism all too soon" (261). (Halsted was a filmmaker and prophet of leather / S&M. Substance abuse was one of the pillars of his creed.)   These pieces were written at the height of the AIDS crisis, which may have had something to do with Russo's inconsistency.  I'm not casting the first stone here, I've fallen into such contradictions myself; but they're interesting.

Overall, though, Out Spoken is a great, very readable insider's view of the gay movement from the 1970s onward, and well worth your time.  I'm looking forward to getting and reading the second volume.