“Green Book,” the story of black concert pianist Dr. Don Shirley and his white driver Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, is coming soon to the M.V. Film Center. It’s a pleasure to watch a movie with humor not based on pratfalls and crudeness. The title comes from the annual “The Negro Motorist Green Book,” which provided lists of hotels, restaurants, and gas stations safe for African Americans in the early ’60s. Peter Farrelly directed, and Vallelonga’s son Nick helped write the script.
The late Shirley (both he and Vallelonga died in 2013) is played by Mahershala Ali, who won a 2017 Oscar for his performance in “Moonlight.” A surprisingly paunchy Viggo Mortensen plays Tony in a movie that is based on the actual 1962 trip. Mortensen has earned Best Actor nominations for “Captain Fantastic” (2016) and “Eastern Promises” (2007). The movie’s two characters interact like Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in “The Odd Couple.”
A child prodigy, Shirley made his concert debut at 18 with the Boston Pops, playing Tchaikovsky’s “Piano Concerto 1 in B Flat.” In 1956, popular black singer Nat King Cole had been attacked by Klansmen while performing in Montgomery, Ala. In defiance of the racism that continued to dominate, Shirley went on tour throughout the deep South.
Aware of the risks involved, he hires Tony to act as his driver and bodyguard when the movie opens. Tony is working as a bouncer — a job he calls public relations — at New York’s Copacabana, but the nightclub closes for renovations. At $125 a week, the money Shirley offers appeals to Tony, and he takes the job to support his family, even though it means being away from home for two months.
An Italian-American from the Bronx, Tony is not particularly enlightened about race, illustrated by the way he tosses out two glasses used by black plumbers working in his apartment. Shirley is an elegant, well-educated man in contrast with Tony’s good-hearted but far less sophisticated background. While Shirley stays in seedy Green Book hotels, Tony has more appealing accommodations. Each learns from the other. Shirley helps Tony write letters home to his wife Dolores, played by Linda Gardinelli (Cassie in “Brokeback Mountain” and Sylvia in “Mad Men”). Tony introduces Shirley to fried chicken and Little Richard.
Shirley plays the straight man, but he polishes off a quart bottle of Cutty Sark nightly, suggesting the underlying conflicts he feels as a black man too white for blacks and too black for whites. Tony is overly quick on the trigger, and coarse enough to fold up an entire pizza and eat it in almost one mouthful, but the two develop a friendship that, in the case of the real people, lasted their lifetime.
Despite its humor, “Green Book” has drawn criticism from blacks for its emphasis on Tony rather than Shirley. Shirley’s niece, Carol Shirley Kimble, has called the film “a white man’s version of a black man’s life.” Farrelly has said, “I feel bad about that. I wish we could have done more.” This reviewer believes that the film gives more emphasis to Ali’s portrayal of Shirley than it does to Mortensen’s of Tony. Both actors turn in compelling performances, and it comes through loud and clear that Shirley is the accomplished, successful character, unlike Tony.
Information and tickets or “Green Book” and other Film Center and Capawock films are available at mvfilmsociety.com.