By Cynthia Citron
A few weeks ago I was terribly disappointed when “Capernaum”, a beautifully made film from Lebanon about a young Syrian boy and an adorable Ethiopian baby surviving in the squalor and poverty of a small Lebanese village did not win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
I was devastated as well when Glenn Close did not win a much-deserved Oscar for her riveting role in “The Wife”. (Ironically, I had picked her as Best Actress months ago when I saw her performance at an early screening and reviewed the film.)
I had also anticipated that “Green Book” would be a rehash of “Driving Miss Daisy,” but the other night, after it was named Best Picture, I went to see it and recognized that despite a tedious and lackluster evening of Awards the Academy had gotten something right! Viggo Mortensen as Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, a tough-talking Italian from the Bronx, is so real you can almost taste the spaghetti.
Temporarily out of work, he takes an interim gig as a driver for Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), an acclaimed concert pianist who is about to embark on an 8-week tour around the country, including performances in the Deep South. As he is an African American and the year is 1962 (before the advent of the civil rights movement), he knows that there will be “incidents” along the way.
Tony, however, an unsophisticated man who is a warm and fuzzy husband and father, is unprepared for the brutal treatment that Shirley receives at the hands (and fists) of the bullies they encounter along the way. But Tony rises to the occasion and takes on the role of bodyguard and protector of the man he has come to admire and respect.
Shirley protects himself by maintaining a quiet dignity and isolating himself from the crowds who come to hear him play. “They come,” he confides to Tony, “because they think it will make them appear cultured.”
Gradually, through the long days of traveling from one city to another, they establish a somewhat easy relationship. Shirley, who had barely talked to Tony earlier, begins to loosen up and share his beliefs and attitudes with him. He also begins to mentor him, teaching him to express himself more coherently and to broaden his experience of the world. Tony, on the other hand, with teasing and humor prods Shirley into enjoying a world that he had spent his life avoiding.
The issue of race, however, is ever-present. For Tony it is a shock to encounter violent segregation and to search through the Negro Motorist Green Book, a mid-20th century guidebook, to find a hotel that will allow an African American to sleep there and a restaurant that will serve him a meal.
“Green Book” is a tight, moving film that, in my view, was definitely deserving of the Oscars it won for Best Film of 2018, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali. Ali and Mortensen (who was nominated for Best Actor) were evenly matched and wonderfully consistent as the real life characters they portrayed. The story is true, written by Tony “Lip” Vallelonga’s son, Nick, in collaboration with Brian Currie and Peter Farrelly, who also directed the film.
As reported at the end of the film, Tony Vallelonga and Don Shirley remained close friends until their deaths, three months apart, in 2013.
“Green Book” can be seen currently at theaters all over Los Angeles. Check your newspaper or computer for time and location.