Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Stars in their eyes


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In recent years, filmmaker Jeffrey Schwarz has made a name for himself with documentaries about show-biz folks, as in Spine Tingler! (horror filmmaker William Castle) and Wrangler (gay porn legend Jack Wrangler). His latest, Vito (First Run Features), now out on DVD, is a respectfully rendered portrait of and tribute to gay rights activist and gay film expert Vito Russo, author of the seminal work The Celluloid Closet.

Fittingly described as "our gay hero," Russo had a passion for the movies. But before he found a way to express that, he became an LGBT rights activist following the Stonewall riots, more specifically the 1970 raid of the Snake Pit bar. This was a turning point for Russo. He became an early and active member of the Gay Activists Alliance, and took part in a variety of protests in New York, including one at Harper's magazine and another at the office of the City Clerk.

Combining the political with the cultural, Russo initiated the movie nights at the GAA headquarters. He understood the value of watching movies with an all-gay audience in a safe and open environment. Russo soon became a recognizable face in the movement, and was influential in getting Bette Midler to speak and sing at a particularly volatile 1973 Pride rally.

With his writing career in full swing (he was a contributor to The Advocate, among other outlets), Russo also worked with film at MoMA. It was there that he began to catalog the images of queer characters in movies. In 1973, he began his Celluloid Closet lectures/screenings that would become the basis for his groundbreaking book. Just as he was becoming one of the first gay celebrities in the early 1980s, appearing on nationally syndicated news programs and hosting the Our Time gay cable show, the AIDS crisis began.

Once again, Russo was on the frontlines of activism, co-founding not only GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) but also ACT UP (with Larry Kramer and others). Never giving up the fight even as his lover Jeffrey Sevcik died, close friends were dying all around him and his own health diminished, Russo was the picture of courage and bravery right to the end. Interviews with family members (brother Charles and cousin Phyllis) as well as close friends and associates (including his biographer Michael Schiavi, as well as Lily Tomlin, Bruce Vilanch, Gabriel Rotello, Jim Fouratt, Arnie Kantrowitz, Rev. Malcolm Boyd, Armistead Maupin, David Ehrenstein, Karla Jay, Michael Denneny, Felice Picano, Michelangelo Signorile, Larry Kramer and Jenni Olson, among others), sing Russo's praises, with every note ringing true. Vito is not to be missed. DVD bonus material includes audio commentary, interview outtakes and excerpts from Our Time.

In Starlet (Music Box Films), early-20-something Janie (Dree Hemingway, daughter of Mariel Hemingway) lives out of her suitcase in the room she shares with the affectionate male Chihuahua she named Starlet. She doesn't care for the room's appearance and wants to make changes to it. But friend and Oxy-snorter Melissa (Stella Maeve), whose drug-dealing/videogame-playing manager/boyfriend Mikey (James Ransone) owns the San Fernando Valley house, discourages her from doing anything drastic, such as painting the walls.

With Starlet in tow, Janie hits yard, garage and estate sales, buying various knickknacks and furniture. At one, she encounters grumpy, elderly widow Sadie (Besedka Johnson, making her film debut), who sells her an oversized thermos. Back at home, Janie fills the thermos with water, intending to use it as a vase. But when she tries to insert the flower stems, something is in the way. Dumping it out in the sink, Janie discovers rubber-banded rolls of cash totaling thousands of dollars.

After spending some of the cash on a shopping spree, Janie tries to return the thermos and leftover money, but the unsociable Sadie, who told her that there were "no refunds" at the time of the sale, won't even talk to her. Determined to somehow return part of her newfound wealth to Sadie, Janie finds a way to reach out to the standoffish older woman, and before you know it, the "tough cookie" has softened. Janie takes Sadie grocery shopping and joins her at church bingo.

But Sadie remains suspicious of Janie, and even maces her at one point, accusing her of being a "scammer," and then calling the police. But Sadie realizes she has misjudged Janie and apologizes. As they get better acquainted, Sadie reveals that her late husband was a successful gambler and left her well-provided for. Janie takes Sadie to the cemetery so she can bring flowers to his grave.

As much as Janie learns about Sadie, that's how little Sadie knows about Janie. For example, Sadie has no idea that Janie is a rising star in the adult-film industry. We watch as Janie, as her porn-star identity Tess, films an explicit sex scene for the porn studio with which she is affiliated. Melissa (stage name Zana), on the other hand, is frozen out of the industry due to her erratic, drug-fueled behavior. Melissa's new Camaro is repossessed and her mobile phone is turned off due to lack of payment. When Melissa discovers Janie's cash stash, hidden in a pair of red, thigh-high boots in her closet, this creates a rift between the girls and leads the vengeful Melissa to do something that affects more than just their relationship. Meanwhile, the cracks in Janie and Sadie's friendship are beginning to show, and it won't take much to make it shatter.

Filmmaker Sean Baker effortlessly contrasts the innocent development of an unlikely friendship with the darker, hardcore elements of Starlet. He flirts with the audience's comfort level and how far he can push it. Starlet may not be to everyone's taste, but it should be seen for the lead actresses' performances alone. DVD bonus features include audio commentary, cast and crew interviews, audition and rehearsal footage, behind-the-scenes and making-of featurettes, and more.

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