‘Green Book’ turns controversial page from Globes toward Oscars

Published 9:44 AM EST, Mon January 7, 2019
Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen in 'Green Book.'
Photo Credit: Patti Perret/Universal
Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen in 'Green Book.'
CNN —  

“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.

'Green Book's' Viggo Mortensen, Peter Farrelly, Linda Cardellini, and Mahershala Ali in the press room during the 76th Annual Golden Globe Awards.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images North America/Getty Images
'Green Book's' Viggo Mortensen, Peter Farrelly, Linda Cardellini, and Mahershala Ali in the press room during the 76th Annual Golden Globe Awards.

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.