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Green Book” won the Golden Globe for best comedy or musical on Sunday night, which would normally mean turning the page toward the Oscars. But hurdles remain for a movie that not only could be categorized as a drama but which has produced more off-screen drama than practically any other contender in the current awards season.
Sunday’s victory has seemingly invigorated the movie’s Academy Award chances, perhaps more so than the Globes’ drama winner, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” But it has also renewed questions about the extent to which criticism and questions about the movie’s veracity have undermined those hopes, or if it can weather them.
Based on a true story, the film chronicles the relationship between piano virtuoso Dr. Donald Shirley, played by Globe winner Mahershala Ali, and Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), who was hired to serve as his driver and bodyguard during a concert tour of the South in 1962.
The “green book” refers to the guide that told black motorists of hotels that would accept them, while the film derives its hook from the bond that formed between the men. That dynamic has been as a sort of reverse “Driving Miss Daisy,” although a more recent comparison — in terms of movies dealing with race relations in the 1960s — would be “Hidden Figures.”
Directed by Peter Farrelly, who’s best-known for comedies like “There’s Something About Mary” and “Dumb and Dumber,” the movie was produced and co-written by Vallelonga’s son, Nick, who also appears in the film.
Yet even as “Green Book” began to notch accolades on the early-screening circuit, such as the Toronto Film Festival, there were controversies, including questions — raised by some of Shirley’s surviving relatives — about the way Shirley’s estrangement from his family was presented, while exaggerating the pair’s friendship.
A backlash also began to grow against the film, with some critics accusing it of advancing the “white savior” conceit — a charge that Farrelly rejected in defending the movie, telling Vanity Fair that the two helped each other.
Finally, additional friction arose in November when Mortensen, during a post-screening discussion, used the N-word, seeking to make a point about shifting mores from the time depicted in the movie until now. The actor subsequently apologized, while his co-star, Ali (a 2016 Oscar winner for “Moonlight”), issued a statement acknowledging that using the word was inappropriate while saying he accepted Mortensen’s apology and contrition.
Movies based on historical events often employ dramatic license, which is an accepted practice, but can pay a price if those flourishes are deemed to have significantly distorted the central message. Rival studios, meanwhile, have been known to highlight such issues in an effort to gain an advantage for their films amid the campaigning for awards.
Clearly, “Green Book” has experienced a roller-coaster ride in terms of its Academy Award prospects, from being dubbed a “ferocious crowd-pleaser” by the New York Times coming out of Toronto to the wave of negative press to honors from the National Board of Review, the American Film Institute and now the Golden Globes.
“Green Book” isn’t among the most popular movies in the Oscar chase, having earned $35 million at the domestic box office. Based on the response to its Globe win and the last few months, however, as the Washington Post noted, it’s almost sure to be one of the most polarizing.
As “Green Book” picks up accolades on the way to Oscars nominations, controversy continues to swirl around its veracity as a depiction of real-life concert pianist Dr. Don Shirley after his family asserted they were not consulted for the film, calling it a “symphony of lies.”
Co-writer Nick Vallelonga, who based the story on his father’s experience driving Shirley through the Deep South for a tour, spoke to Variety at the National Board of Review gala on Tuesday evening in New York City about the dispute.
Vallelonga — whose father, Tony Lip, is played by Viggo Mortensen in “Green Book” — revealed that Dr. Shirley, before his death, told him not to speak to anyone else while writing the story.
“It’s unfortunate to me because I don’t want to hurt the Shirley family in any way,” Vallelonga said Tuesday night.
They were together a year and a half and they did remain friends,” Vallelonga continued. “There’s a lot of information [the Shirley family] doesn’t have, and they were hurt that I didn’t speak to them. But to be quite honest with you, Don Shirley himself told me not to speak to anyone. And he only wanted certain parts of his life. He only allowed me to tell what happened on the trip.
Since [the family] were not on the trip — this is right out of his mouth — he said, ‘No one else was there but your father and I. We’ve told you.’ And he approved what I put in and didn’t put in. So obviously, to say I didn’t contact them, that was hard for me because I didn’t want to betray what I promised him [Dr. Shirley].”
Co-writer, Brian Hayes Currie, added, “It’s only supposed to be a two-month window. It’s not the biography of Don Shirley.”
The controversy began bubbling after the Shirley family claimed that the movie’s portrayal was a “symphony of lies.” Since, both Farrelly and Mortensen have spoken out supporting the film, and posited that there may be some resentment from the family about their ties with Shirley.
On Tuesday night at the National Board of Review gala, Farrelly also spoke to Variety, once again defending his film.
“I wish that they were happier,” Farrelly said of the Shirley family. “I’m sorry it went that way, but the truth is we followed protocol in that we looked for Don Shirley’s heirs and unfortunately, that’s not the family — it’s his friends, and that’s who we talks to and got all the rights from. It felt, honestly, weird if we were not trusting Don Shirley’s judgement in going to other people. We went to the people who were closest to him at the time of his death and they gave us all the information we needed. That said, I wish that the family was happier. I hate this kind of thing. We’ve tried to open our arms to them, but they’re just not having it and I’m sorry about that.”
It was supposed to be “A Star is Born’s” night. Instead, top honors went to another popular movie about the unlikely rise of a powerhouse singer.
In an upset, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the biopic about Freddie Mercury and British rock band Queen, won best drama at the 76th annual Golden Globes on Sunday. Rami Malek, who won raves for his full-throated portrayal of the late Mercury, won best actor in a drama and thanked Mercury onstage “for giving me the thrill of a lifetime.”
“Green Book,” the inspirational true story about a budding friendship between an African-American pianist and a white bouncer on a tour of the Deep South in the early 1960s, won three Globes, including best picture in the musical/comedy category. It beat out “Vice,” the polarizing Dick Cheney biopic, which led all films with six nominations.
“Green Book’s” director, Peter Farrelly, made a plea for tolerance in his acceptance speech. “We are still living in divided times, maybe more so now than ever,” he said. “All we have to do is just talk and not judge people by their differences, and look for what we have in common.”
Bradley Cooper’s acclaimed remake of “A Star Is Born,” which was widely expected to win several top prizes, took only one award, for best song — its centerpiece hit, “Shallow.”