“Green Book” won the Oscar for best picture. Here’s my Johnny-come-lately review. Let’s cut to the chase: I’m an actor, not a literary-background film critic, and from an acting POV, the “Green Book” Oscar is spot on.
And, the best-actor Oscar should have gone to Viggo Mortensen, not Rami Malek (for Malek’s portrayal of Queen frontman Freddie Mercury). Viggo’s magnificent here.
And Spike Lee’s Oscar histrionics were unwarranted, along with his bemoaning the fact that he got snubbed, twice now, as he said (hilariously) due to racial driving movies winning best pic. “Driving Miss Daisy” was about an old black man (Morgan Freeman) driving an old white woman (Jessica Tandy) around. “Green Book” is about a middle-aged white man (Viggo Mortensen) driving a middle-aged black man (Mahershala Ali) around. In American terms, that’s progress.
Here’s how Spike wins the Oscar: He makes a movie about a young female alien, driving a young male alien around. Third time’s a charm. And there you have it.
Who’s Driving Who
Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is a highly educated African-American pianist, fluent in many languages, living in a giant loft atop Carnegie Hall. He’s had to become the epitome of sophistication, countering all bigoted Caucasian expectations in order to have a career in music, and needs to be constantly, exhaustingly “on.” His ever-present companion in this endeavor is a bottle of Cutty Sark.
Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), known as Tony Lip on the mobbed-up streets of Brooklyn, just lost his bouncer job at a Manhattan nightclub. Tony’s about to resort to stuff like challenging guys with eating reputations (that was kind of a cultural thing back then) to Coney Island-type hotdog-eating contests. He could take a job as an enforcer for a local made-man, but Tony’s got a good core.
Dr. Shirley and his Don Shirley Trio (piano, cello, bass) are about to tour the Jim Crow-era Deep South. He’s in need of a driver. Tony needs the money. But when he sees two black workmen drink out of glasses offered by his wife (Linda Cardellini) for their plumbing services in the family kitchen, Tony surreptitiously drops the glasses in the garbage can. Talk about your odd couple.
On the road, Tony scarfs down fried chicken in the turquoise Cadillac, while driving, and chucks the bones out the window; the effete Dr. Shirley disdains to even consider nibbling some, so it’s the perfect setup for “Green Eggs and Ham.” Would you, could you, in an aquamarine Caddie? Would you eat fried chicken, Dr. Shirley? Yes, he could. Lo and behold—it’s delicious! We like to see people expand beyond their boundaries.
Here’s a favorite line: “Would ya look at dat? Kentucky Fried Chicken! In Kentucky! How often does dat happen?!”
Tony’s too goombah-tough, and Dr. Shirley’s too in his head; they end up balancing each other nicely. Soon the good doctor is giving dictation, helping Tony write romantic letters home to his wife.
It’s priceless when, toward the end, Tony insists he’s now gotten the hang of it. When Shirley arches an eyebrow, Tony reads (something like), “My dear, you remind me of a house. Like, a house with lights on it.” And the doctor, about to have a conniption, takes a deep breath and says with a twinkle, “Yes. You’ve got it now.”
But this is a film about racism. Few Hollywood films nail the Southern racism of all-powerful Southern cops pulling black motorists over for no good reason, which is described by the majority of African-American musicians’ biographies. Even Rolling Stone Keith Richards hinted at it in his biography of the Stones’ Southern tours.
“Mississippi Burning” was one of the few films to get the dread factor right, with all those Klansmen names of Stuckey, Bailey, Townley, and Swilley and kicking off the acting careers of the likes of Michael Rooker, Stephen Tobolowsky, and Pruitt Taylor Vince as exceptionally creepy racists. “Green Book” is right behind it, as far as dread goes.
Viggo Deserves the Oscar
Rami Malek aced using false teeth to approximate singer Freddie Mercury’s particular embouchure that he used to hide those teeth, nailed the accent, and channeled Freddie to the satisfaction of Mercury’s Queen bandmates. But Viggo wins, in my book.
Viggo, a classic leading man type, of Danish heritage, so embodies early 1960s heavy Brooklynese, and inhabits the profuse Italian-American hand gestures—that are a second language unto themselves—to the point that he disappears, completely, into the character. It’s an acting tour de force. Malek’s is a three-base hit, but Viggo’s is the home run that takes out the stadium lights, like Robert Redford’s character in “The Natural.”
It Takes All Kinds to Make a World
Anyway, the controversies rage, the haters hate, some step right into America’s racial minefield, and others tiptoe around it. Some say it’s progress, some say it’s same ol’ same ol,’ and some say it’s regression. As always, there’s the full spectrum of opinions from “hated it!” to “loved it!” Art is subjective.
Is the movie realistic? No. Apparently director Peter Farrelly didn’t contact the family of Dr. Shirley for facts and details, and so the black man and the white man in “Green Book” weren’t really friends in the way the movie portrays.
Sometimes life is stranger than art, sometimes art imitates life, and sometimes life imitates art. If we put enough hopeful art out there, to the point where life starts imitating it, well then—that’s uplifting. And that’s the goal of art, as I see it.
Director: Peter Farrelly
Starring: Mahershala Ali, Viggo Mortensen, Linda Cardellini
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Release Date: Nov. 16, 2018
Rated: 4.5 stars out of 5