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American films

Green Book: how Golden Globe best picture was made – Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, director speak

  • True-to-life story of African-American classical pianist and his white driver touring segregated US South paints powerful picture of America in the 1960s
  • Director Peter Farrelly, known for comedies, was nervous approaching Mortensen for the role of Tony Lip, but actor thinks the film could open people’s minds
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 January, 2019, 2:04am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 January, 2019, 8:26pm

When Green Book made its bow at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, the film walked away with the coveted People’s Choice Award. Viggo Mortensen, the film’s star, immediately felt something special in the air. It was his seventh time presenting a movie at the festival, but “I’ve never seen a more openly enthusiastic and emotional reaction from audiences”, he says.

It didn’t stop there. The biopic has collected awards wherever it has played, including best picture (in the musical/comedy category), best supporting actor (for Mahershala Ali) and best screenplay at the Golden Globes in Hollywood on Sunday. The Oscars seem a certain final stop for this road movie, exactly 30 years after the similarly themed Driving Miss Daisy won four statuettes, including for best picture.

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While that Bruce Beresford-directed drama told of the relationship between a white Jewish woman and her African-American chauffeur, Green Book flips the dynamic. Mortensen plays Italian-American Tony ‘Lip’ Vallelonga, a former bouncer for the Copacabana nightclub in New York, who accepts a job driving Ali’s Dr Don Shirley, a highly educated classical pianist who was born in Florida to Jamaican immigrant parents.

The film posits that, despite their differences, they warm to each other touring the racially segregated American South in 1962. “It doesn’t matter who it is, if you spend any time with someone who seems to be radically different, that you might not get along with, you’re bound to find that you have more in common with them than not,” says Mortensen. “It’s one of those stories.”

As feel-good as the film is, it is the underlying portrait of 1960s America that hits home. The title refers to The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guide compiled by Victor Green and made available to African-Americans travelling through the region, giving advice on which motels were safe to stay in.

 

Shirley is subjected to racism everywhere he goes – from being forced to use outdoor toilets to not being allowed to try on clothes in a shop.

Ali estimates that Shirley’s own “dignity” in dealing with such situations was “par for the course” among blacks at the time. “I think that was a way in which many African-Americans carried themselves and responded to complicated and disheartening situations and circumstances,” the actor says.

The script is co-written by Nick Vallelonga, son of Tony, who, astutely, recorded his father’s stories of his time with Shirley in the knowledge that one day they would make a great movie. Tony Lip and Don Shirley died within months of each other in 2013, at which point Vallelonga began working on the script with Brian Hayes Currie. They soon got the attention of director Peter Farrelly.

“I was on board two minutes into [hearing] the story,” says Farrelly, best known for the creating gross-out comedies such as Dumb and Dumber and There’s Something About Mary with his younger brother Bobby.

“For two years, I was telling everybody that I was doing my first drama,” says the 62-year-old, who admittedly is not the first person you might employ to direct a film that touches on sensitive issues of race, class and sexuality after a career fashioned from crude comic moments.

“I was a little afraid of that when I approached Viggo,” he says, “so I wrote him a letter right out of the gate. I said, ‘This script is a departure, please look at it.’ I was afraid that he’d be like, ‘I don’t know if I want to do a comedy now.’” Ironically, when Farrelly finally test-screened the movie, “people were howling” with laughter, amused by the Odd Couple-style relationship that builds between Tony Lip and Don Shirley.

The film has generated controversy during its American release. Firstly, Mortensen was chastised at a post-screening question-and-answer session in Los Angeles when he used the N-word. The actor was swiftly forced to apologise, with even his co-star Ali critical of his choice of epithet.

“Although my intention was to speak strongly against racism,” wrote Mortensen, “I have no right to even imagine the hurt that is caused by hearing that word in any context, especially from a white man.”

Green Book has also come under heavy fire from some critics. NBC News’ Jenni Miller called it “a movie about racism made by white people for white people”, echoing several complaints that the film is too soft on issues of race relations and focuses on Tony Lip’s viewpoint rather than Don Shirley’s. One particular scene – in which Tony coaxes his employer into eating fried chicken – inadvertently plays into negative African-American stereotypes.

I’ve never seen a more openly enthusiastic and emotional reaction from audiences
Viggo Mortensen

Relatives of Don Shirley have also criticised the film. His 82-year-old brother, Maurice Shirley, called the film “a symphony of lies”, taking issue with various points the film makes – not least a line that suggests Shirley lost touch with his family. Shirley’s niece Carole Shirley Kimble called the film “insulting at best”, while his nephew Edwin Shirley III recalled his uncle being approached by Nick Vallelonga to make a movie about his friendship with Tony Lip.

“He flatly refused,” he says.

Ali subsequently called the family and apologised profusely, letting it be known he was not aware of any close relatives whom he could’ve consulted “to add nuance to the character”. Yet, as Vallelonga notes, when he approached Shirley, “I got his perspective on it and his approval of what to put in and what not to put in. I always knew one day that I was going to make it. Doctor Shirley asked me not to make it until he passed away, whenever that would be. I kept my word on that.”

One of the reasons for Shirley’s reluctance was the portrayal of his sexuality; although he was married (and later divorced), he was forced to hide from the world the fact that he was a gay man at a time when homosexuality was illegal. “It’s something that he was private about,” acknowledges Ali, who even recalls seeing interview footage of Shirley skirting the subject years afterwards.

Living through an era when it was dangerous to be gay could, Ali suggests, leave one permanently “in denial”.

Whichever side you fall on, there’s no question that Green Book touches on hot-button issues, particularly in America, still deeply divided over, and feeling the shock waves from, the racial hatred witnessed in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.

“As we were doing it, we thought ‘This could resonate’,” says Farrelly, “but that wasn’t our purpose.”

Yet Mortensen believes Green Book has a higher purpose than simply telling an entertaining story of two unlikely friends. “It might open some people’s minds,” he says.

Green Book opens on January 10

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