Green Book (film)
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Peter Farrelly|
|Music by||Kris Bowers|
|Edited by||Patrick J. Don Vito|
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
|Box office||$322.7 million|
Green Book is a 2018 American biographical comedy-drama film directed by Peter Farrelly. Set in 1962, the film is inspired by the true story of a tour of the Deep South by African American classical and jazz pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and Italian American bouncer Frank "Tony Lip" Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) who served as Shirley's driver and bodyguard. The film was written by Farrelly, Brian Hayes Currie and Vallelonga's son, Nick Vallelonga, based on interviews with his father and Shirley, as well as letters his father wrote to his mother. The film is named after The Negro Motorist Green Book, a mid-20th century guidebook for African-American travelers written by Victor Hugo Green.
Green Book had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 11, 2018, where it won the People's Choice Award. It was then theatrically released in the United States on November 16, 2018, by Universal Pictures, and grossed $322 million worldwide. The film received positive reviews from critics, with Mortensen and Ali's performances being lauded, although it drew some criticism for its depiction of both race and Shirley.
Green Book received numerous accolades and nominations, and at the 91st Academy Awards won Oscars for the Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and for Best Supporting Actor (Ali). The film also won the Producers Guild of America Award for Best Theatrical Motion Picture, the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, the National Board of Review award for the best film of 2018, and was chosen as one of the top 10 films of the year by the American Film Institute. Ali also won the Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, and BAFTA awards for Best Supporting Actor.
New York City bouncer Frank "Tony Lip" Vallelonga is searching for new employment while the Copacabana nightclub, where he works, is closed for renovations. He is invited to an interview with Doctor Don Shirley, an eccentric African American pianist who is looking for a driver for his eight-week concert tour through the Midwest and Deep South. Don hires Tony on the strength of his references and with the okay of his wife, Dolores. They embark with plans to return to New York on Christmas Eve. Don's record label representatives give Tony a copy of the Green Book, a guide for African-American travelers to find motels, restaurants, and filling stations that would serve them.
They begin the tour in the Midwest before eventually heading farther south. Tony and Don initially clash, as Don is disgusted by Tony's habits while Tony feels uncomfortable being asked to act with more refinement. As the tour progresses, Tony is impressed with Don's talent on the piano, and increasingly appalled by the discriminatory treatment that Don receives from his hosts and the general public when he is not on stage. A group of white men threaten Don's life in a bar, and Tony is alerted and rescues him. He instructs Don not to go out without him for the rest of the tour.
Throughout the journey, Don helps Tony write love letters to his wife, correctly spelling, dictating, and rephrasing passages which deeply move her. Tony encourages Don to get in touch with his own estranged brother, but Don is hesitant, observing that he has become isolated by his professional life and achievements. In the south, Don is detained by police officers during a gay encounter with a white man at a YMCA pool, and Tony bribes the officers to prevent the musician's arrest. Don is upset that Tony "rewarded" the officers for their treatment. Later, the two are arrested after a police officer pulls them over late at night in a sundown town, and Tony punches him after being insulted. While they are incarcerated, Don asks to call his lawyer and instead uses the opportunity to reach Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, who pressures the governor into releasing them. Because Tony lost his temper, Don is frustrated that he had to distract Kennedy who, with his brother President John F. Kennedy, are working hard for minority rights.
On the night of the final performance on tour in Birmingham, Alabama, Don is refused entry into the whites-only dining room of the country club, the same room in which he has been hired to perform and where many of his audience members are eating. He can order from the menu but must eat in a small changing room. First Tony says to Don that it is the last show, and he should order from the menu so they can finish and go North. Don says he will not perform at the country club unless he can eat in the dining room. The owner tries to bribe Tony into talking Don into performing, and Tony shoves him against the wall. Don calms Tony down, saying that he will let him decide whether he should play or not. Tony walks out, followed by Don and the management yelling about a contract. Tony takes Don, still in white tie and tails, to get dinner at a predominantly black blues club, Orange Bird, where Don rouses the crowd with a passionate Frederic Chopin’s Winter Wind etude before being joined by the very impressed blues band. He then plays and improvises as one of the band, which gets everyone on their feet dancing.
Tony and Don head north to try to make it home by Christmas Eve. While en route on a snowy road they are stopped by another police officer, and expect further police harassment. To their surprise, the officer turns out to be a Maryland State Trooper who has noticed they have a flat tire, and he helps Tony safely change it. Tony soon realizes he is too exhausted from driving in the snow to get home without sleep, and tells Don that he will stop at the next lodging. Later that night the car arrives in the snowy Bronx with Don driving and Tony asleep in the back. Don wakes Tony, and tells him he's home. Tony invites Don to come in and meet his wife, but Don wishes him a merry Christmas and drives away.
Don arrives back at his apartment above Carnegie Hall, and soon realizes that he is alone on Christmas Eve. Behind a late arriving couple, Don suddenly appears in the hallway at Tony's place with a bottle of champagne. Tony embraces Don, then introduces him to his guests. Dolores walks up and embraces Don and then, whispering in his ear, warmly thanks him for helping Tony with the letters.
The film postscripts read:
- "Dr. Shirley continued to tour, compose, and record to great acclaim. Igor Stravinsky said of him, 'His virtuosity is worthy of the Gods.'"
- "Frank 'Tony Lip' Vallelonga went back to his job at the Copacabana, eventually becoming Maitre D'"
- A real picture of Tony and Delores at the Copa, circa 1960 is shown.
- "Tony Lip and Dr. Donald Shirley remained friends until they died within months of each other in 2013."
- Viggo Mortensen as Frank "Tony Lip" Vallelonga
- Mahershala Ali as Don Shirley
- Linda Cardellini as Dolores Vallelonga
- Sebastian Maniscalco as Johnny Venere
- Dimiter D. Marinov as Oleg
- Mike Hatton as George
- P.J. Byrne as Record Executive Producer
- Iqbal Theba as Amit
- Joe Cortese as Gio Loscudo
- Maggie Nixon as Copa Coat Check Girl
- Von Lewis as Bobby Rydell
- Don Stark as Jules Podell
- Anthony Mangano as Copa Bouncer Danny
- Frank Vallelonga as Rudy Vallelonga
- Randal Gonzalez as Gorman
- Nick Vallelonga as Augie
- Tom Virtue as Morgan Anderson
- Brian Distance as Macon Cop #2
- Dennis W. Hall as Wise Guy Mags
- Brian Stepanek as Graham Kindell
- Montrel Miller as Birmingham Hotel Waiter
- Johnny "Roastbeef" Williams as Fat Paulie
Viggo Mortensen began negotiations to star in the film in May 2017, and put on 40–50 pounds for the role. Peter Farrelly was set to direct from a screenplay written by Nick Vallelonga (Tony Lip's son), Brian Currie, and himself.
On November 30, 2017, the lead cast was set with Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini and Iqbal Theba confirmed to star. Production began that week in New Orleans. Sebastian Maniscalco was announced as part of the cast in January 2018. Score composer Kris Bowers also taught Ali basic piano skills and was the talent stand-in when closeups of hands playing were required.
The script was written by Vallelonga's son Nick Vallelonga, as well as Brian Hayes Currie and Peter Farrelly, in consultation with the Shirley family and estate.
For the film's soundtrack, Farrelly incorporated an original score by composer Kris Bowers and one of Shirley's own recordings. The soundtrack also includes rarities from 1950s and 1960s American music recommended to him by singer Robert Plant, who was dating a friend of Farrelly's wife at the time he had finished the film's script. During dinner on a double date, his wife and her friend stepped outside to smoke and the director asked Plant for advice on picking songs for the film that would be relatively unknown to contemporary audiences. This prompted Plant to play Farrelly songs via YouTube, including Sonny Boy Williamson II's "Pretty 'Lil Thing" and Robert Mosley's "Goodbye, My Lover, Goodbye".
In an interview with Forbes, the director explained that the soundtrack ended up not only avoiding rote nostalgia, "but also those songs were really inexpensive and I did not have a huge budget so I was able to come up with some sensational pop songs from the time that were long forgotten". The music played at the black blues club toward the end of the film featured the piano performance of Étude Op. 25, No. 11 (Chopin), known as the Winter Wind etude by Chopin, was not included in the soundtrack release.
A soundtrack album was released on November 30, 2018, by Milan Records, featuring Bowers' score, songs from the plot's era, and a piano recording by Shirley. According to the label, it was streamed approximately 10,000 times per day during January 2019; this rate doubled the next month as the album surpassed one million streams worldwide and became the highest-streamed jazz soundtrack in Milan's history.
Green Book began a limited release in the United States, in 20 cities, on November 16, 2018, and expanded wide on November 21, 2018. The film was previously scheduled to begin its release on the 21st. The studio spent an estimated $37.5 million on prints and advertisements for the film.
The film had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 11, 2018. It also opened the 29th New Orleans Film Festival on October 17, 2018, screened at AFI Fest on November 9, 2018 and was programmed as the surprise film at the BFI London Film Festival.
On November 7, 2018, during a promotional panel discussion, Mortensen said the word "nigger". He prefaced the sentence with, "I don't like saying this word", and went on to compare dialogue "that's no longer common in conversation" to the period in which the film is set. Mortensen apologized the next day, saying that "my intention was to speak strongly against racism" and that he was "very sorry that I did use the full word last night, and will not utter it again".
Home video for Green Book was released on DVD and Blu-ray on March 12, 2019. The film was made available for purchase on streaming video in Digital HD from Amazon Video and iTunes on February 19, 2019.
Green Book grossed $85.1 million in the United States and Canada, and $237.7 million in other territories, for a total worldwide gross of $322.7 million, against a production budget of $23 million. Deadline Hollywood calculated the net profit of the film to be $106 million, when factoring together all expenses and revenues.
The film made $312,000 from 25 theaters in its opening weekend, an average of $12,480 per venue, which Deadline Hollywood called "not good at all", although TheWrap said it was a "successful start," and noted strong word-of-mouth would likely help it going into its wide release. The film had its wide expansion alongside the openings of Ralph Breaks the Internet, Robin Hood and Creed II, and was projected to gross around $7–9 million over the five-day weekend, November 21 to 25. It made $908,000 on its first day of wide release and $1 million on its second. It grossed $5.4 million over the three-day weekend (and $7.4 million over the five), finishing ninth. Deadline wrote that the opening was "far from where [it needed] to be to be considered a success," and that strong audience word of mouth and impending award nominations would be needed in order to help the film develop box office legs. Rival studios argued that Universal went too wide too fast (going from 25 theaters to 1,063 in less than a week).
In its second weekend the film made $3.9 million, falling just 29% and leading some industry insiders to think the film could leg out to $50 million during awards season. In its third weekend of wide release, following its Golden Globe nominations, it dropped 0% and again made $3.9 million, then made $2.8 million the following weekend. In its eighth weekend, the film made $1.8 million (continuing to hold well, dropping just 3% from the previous week). It then made $2.1 million in its ninth weekend (up 18%) and $2.1 million in its 10th. In the film's 11th week of release, following the announcement of its five Oscar nominations, it was added to 1,518 theaters (for a total of 2,430) and made $5.4 million, an increase of 150% from the previous weekend and finishing sixth at the box office. The weekend following its Best Picture win, the film was added to 1,388 theaters (for a total of 2,641) and made $4.7 million, finishing fifth at the box office. It marked a 121% increase from the previous week, as well as one of the best post-Best Picture win bumps ever, and largest since The King's Speech in 2011.
Green Book was a surprise success overseas, especially in China where it debuted to a much higher-than-expected $17.3 million, immediately becoming the second highest-grossing Best Picture winner in the country behind Titanic (1997). As of March 7, 2019, the largest international markets for the film were China ($26.7 million), France ($10.7 million), the United Kingdom ($10 million), Australia ($7.8 million) and Italy ($8.6 million). By March 13, China's total had grown to $44.5 million. On March 31 the film passed $300 million at the global box office, including $219 million from overseas territories. Its largest markets to-date were China ($70.7 million), Japan ($14.6 million), France ($14 million) Germany ($13.5 million) and the UK ($12.9 million).
On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 78% based on 330 reviews, with an average rating of 7.25/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "Green Book takes audiences on a surprisingly smooth ride through potentially bumpy subject matter, fueled by Peter Farrelly's deft touch and a pair of well-matched leads." On Metacritic the film has a weighted average score of 69 out of 100, based on 52 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews". Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film a rare average grade of "A+" on an A+ to F scale, while PostTrak reported filmgoers gave it a 91% positive score and an 80% "definite recommend".
Writing for The San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle praised Ali and Mortensen and said: "...there's something so deeply right about this movie, so true to the time depicted and so welcome in this moment; so light in its touch, so properly respectful of its characters, and so big in its spirit, that the movie acquires a glow. It achieves that glow slowly, but by the middle and certainly by the end, it's there, the sense of something magical happening, on screen and within the audience." Steve Pond of TheWrap wrote, "The movie gets darker as the journey goes further South, and as the myriad indignities and humiliations mount. But our investment in the characters rarely flags, thanks to Mortensen and Ali and a director who is interested in cleanly and efficiently delivering a story worth hearing."
Jazz artist Quincy Jones said to a crowd after a screening: "I had the pleasure of being acquainted with Don Shirley while I was working as an arranger in New York in the '50s, and he was without question one of America's greatest pianists ... as skilled a musician as Leonard Bernstein or Van Cliburn ... So it is wonderful that his story is finally being told and celebrated. Mahershala, you did an absolutely fantastic job playing him, and I think yours and Viggo's performances will go down as one of the great friendships captured on film."
Lawrence Ware of The New York Times criticized the movie saying, "The screenplay essentially turns Shirley into a black man who thematically shapeshifts into whoever will make the story appealing to white audiences—and that's inexcusable." He argued that Shirley's sexual orientation and other aspects of the story were underdeveloped and only present in the film to appeal to certain audiences. Writing in the Chicago Tribune, columnist Clarence Page compared the film to Driving Miss Daisy, and said that it should have been called Driving Miss Daisy II. The Telegraph called the film "Driving Miss Daisy in disguise".
Green Book has received numerous award nominations. In addition to winning the People's Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2018, Green Book was nominated for five awards at the 91st Academy Awards, winning three awards for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali. Green Book was the fifth film to win Best Picture without a Best Director nomination. Green Book had five nominations at the 76th Golden Globe Awards, with the film winning Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy. The National Board of Review awarded it Best Film, and it was also recognized as one of the Top 10 films of the year by the American Film Institute. The film was also nominated for Cinema for Peace Most Valuable Film of the Year 2019.
Shirley family reaction
Shirley's relatives condemned the film, stating that they were not contacted by studio representatives until after development, and that it misrepresented Shirley's relationship with his family. Don's brother Maurice Shirley said, "My brother never considered Tony to be his 'friend'; he was an employee, his chauffeur (who resented wearing a uniform and cap). This is why context and nuance are so important. The fact that a successful, well-to-do black artist would employ domestics that did NOT look like him, should not be lost in translation." Some parts of the testimony of Maurice Shirley stay at odds with the audio recording from "Lost Bohemia" which interviewed Don Shirley and Tony Vallelonga. In one of them the former stated "I trusted him implicitly. You see, Tony got to be, not only was he my driver. We never had an employer/employee relationship.". The interviews also support many other events depicted by the movie.
Mahershala Ali responded with an apology to Shirley's nephew Edwin Shirley III, saying that "I did the best I could with the material I had" and that he was not aware that there were "close relatives with whom I could have consulted to add some nuance to the character". Writer-director Peter Farrelly said that he was under the impression that there "weren't a lot of family members" still alive, that they did not take major liberties with the story, and that relatives of whom he was aware had been invited to a private screening for friends and family. Nick Vallelonga, the film's co-writer and Tony Vallelonga's son, acknowledged that members of the Shirley family were hurt that he did not speak to them and that he was sorry they were offended. He told Variety that "Don Shirley himself told me not to speak to anyone" and that Shirley "approved what I put in and didn't put in."
Concerns about depiction of race
The film has been criticized for advancing a white savior narrative in film that perpetuates stereotypes. Salon said the film combines "the white savior trope with the story of a bigot's redemption". Peter Farrelly told Entertainment Weekly that he was aware of the white savior trope before filming and sought to avoid it. He said he had long discussions with the actors and producers on the point, and believes that it was not advanced by the film, saying it is "about two guys who were complete opposites and found a common ground, and it's not one guy saving the other. It's both saving each other and pulling each other into some place where they could bond and form a lifetime friendship."
New York Times writer Wesley Morris characterized Green Book as being a "racial reconciliation fantasy". Morris argues that the film represents a specific style of racial storytelling "in which the wheels of interracial friendship are greased by employment, in which prolonged exposure to the black half of the duo enhances the humanity of his white, frequently racist counterpart". Writing in The Hollywood Reporter, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar noted that "filmmakers are history’s interpreters, not its chroniclers."
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