Nick Vallelonga was only three years old when his father, Frank Anthony Vallelonga, aka Tony Lip, embarked on a life-changing road trip. The traditional Italian-American Bronx family man, who worked as a bouncer at Manhattan’s Copacabana club, was temporarily laid off while the venue closed for renovations in the autumn of 1962. That’s when he was offered the chance to drive African-American pianist Dr Don Shirley on a tour of the racially segregated Deep South. It was to be an experience that would challenge Tony Lip’s own prejudiced world view and begin a lifelong friendship.
Green Book is named after the travel guide to black-friendly establishments in southern states at the time – before the Civil Rights movement ended the discrimination through law. This was a story that Nick Vallelonga, who got his first taste for acting, aged 12, as an extra in the wedding scene of The Godfather, always wanted to tell. Becoming an actor, writer, director and producer, he waited for the right time to embark on Green Book – namely after both his father and Dr Shirley passed away in 2013.
He wrote the film with his friend, Brian Currie, who in turn pitched the story to a film-maker he knew: Peter Farrelly, one half of famous duo the Farrelly brothers, responsible for some of the most successful big-screen comedies of all time. On the surface, Farrelly was perhaps a surprising choice for director but, as Currie himself points out, “All of his movies have incredible heart. To me, it’s a no-brainer as far as Pete and something like this.”
Currie’s faith is not misplaced. Challenging the prejudices of anyone apt to put Farrelly in a box marked There’s Something About Mary, the film-maker – who co-wrote Green Book with Vallelonga and Currie – has delivered a funny, dramatic, tender and life-affirming film that’s equal parts road movie, mismatched-buddy story, and fascinating true tale. It’s hard to think of a movie positioned for consideration in this year’s awards season that’s as skilfully constructed or as pleasurable to watch.
The film also offers a platform for two sensational performances from a pair of world-class actors: Viggo Mortensen as Tony, and Moonlight Oscar winner Mahershala Ali as Dr Shirley. It was little surprise to see both men nominated for Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe Awards, with Ali winning Best Supporting Actor, alongside awards for Best Motion Picture and Best Screenplay.
Green Book began its journey last September at the Toronto Film Festival, winning the People’s Choice Award – an honour won in the past by Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech and 12 Years A Slave, all three of which went on to win the Best Picture Oscar.
Mortensen is respected by everyone in the industry for his focus on his craft, and a lack of interest in the fame and glamour of Hollywood. He’s also known for his gentle civility, straight speaking, and quiet modesty. In the case of Green Book, that instinct for modesty is tempered with straightforward pride in the film.
“I think that the positive reactions to what Pete Farrelly has accomplished, and what we’ve all accomplished together, are deserved and correct,” he says simply. “That’s my opinion. I think it’s a really good movie, a special movie.” When the words come from Mortensen, it’s not boasting – and there will be few who watch Green Book who will disagree with his glowing assessment.
Is it true you had to be persuaded to play Tony Lip?
Pete wrote to me: I have this thing I want to do, it’s different to what I’ve done before, it’s more of a drama. And I want you to play this Italian-American guy. I thought, “That’s odd.” I called Pete and I said, “If you can make a movie half as good as this script, you are going to blow people’s minds. But I don’t know if I’m the right guy.” And there was a process of him saying, “No, I think you can do it,” and so forth. That’s how it was.
Considering the climate of intolerance in the US, this seems a timely moment for Green Book.
Any time would be a good time for a movie like this to come out, but this is a particularly good time. People are going to find this movie surprisingly profound. Not just funny, not just entertaining, not just dramatically intense. It’s all those things. It’s the thing that’s so hard to do. It’s socially relevant and profound but it goes down smoothly and percolates into you.
Green Book is out now.
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