Vito Russo, whose books, films and life dealt with the ethics, emotional impact and economic consequences of being homosexual, died Wednesday at New York University Medical Center of complications of AIDS.
The internationally recognized essayist, teacher and film critic, probably best known for his 1981 book “The Celluloid Closet,” was 44 and spent his final months openly discussing his fatal illness.
Nationally, Russo and four other men and women were seen recently on television and in theaters in “Common Threads: Stories From the Quilt” in which they discussed their rage and overwhelming sense of grief when their loved ones died.
The 84-minute documentary drew its title from the giant quilt whose patches bear the names of thousands of AIDS victims. The film won an Academy Award this year.
In it Russo tells of his frustrations with the Federal Drug Administration and what he saw as fatal delays in the testing of potential life-saving drugs.
His longtime companion was Jeffrey Sevcik, who died in 1986.
In “Celluloid Closet,” subtitled “A History of Homosexuality in the Movies,” Russo wrote that “in Hollywood, closeted gay people are among the most up-tight and uncooperative stumbling blocks in the path of positive gay projects.”
He expressed particular anger at the fact that AIDS has been ignored as a film subject and accused Hollywood executives and actors of being afraid to finance and portray gay characters from a realistic point of view.
He likened that resistance to the long years in which civil rights and Vietnam were considered box-office poison.
The primary targets of his often-angry work, which he also presented in lecture form at universities across the country and most recently at UC Santa Cruz, were the hundreds of gays and lesbians in the film industry itself who were fearful of publicly identifying their sexual preferences.
In a 1981 interview with a Times correspondent, in which he commented not only on the lack of AIDS-oriented movies but on the avoidance of portraying any homosexual themes in films, he said: “When closeted gays will not even discuss this legitimate aspect of their work (in films) for fear of revealing their own homosexuality, it goes beyond fear and becomes paralysis.”
While writing the book he said he spoke with gay producers, directors, writers and actors on every level of the industry and “not a single one would speak for the record.”
But not all critics agreed with his thesis. John Rechy, writing in the Times Book Review, contended that “Russo merely peeks at . . . areas ripe for insightful examination,” while a New Republic critic found his “perspective . . . is sociological rather than aesthetic.”
Born in New York the son of a laborer, Russo did undergraduate work at Fairleigh Dickinson University and earned a master’s degree at New York University.
He was a founding member of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, contributed articles to Esquire, Village Voice, New York, Rolling Stone and The Advocate and in 1983 was co-host of a TV series about the New York gay community called “Our Time.”
Survivors include his parents, Charles and Annie Russo, and a brother.
Times staff writer David Colker contributed to this obituary.