On Wednesday, Peter Farrelly, director of Green Book, apologized after multiple 1998 interviews surfaced in which he admitted to flashing his genitals on movie sets. Just to give you an idea of where the conversation around Green Book stands.
As we trudge along toward the (potentially host-less, but that’s a story for another day) Oscars, this season’s most important narratives are solidifying. Will Black Panther be more than an honorary, inaugural superhero Best Picture nominee? Can Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper shake off a disappointing Golden Globes and earn more accolades for A Star Is Born? Has anyone watched Glenn Close’s The Wife? But the biggest awards season narrative of all surrounds Green Book, off the heels of its three wins at the Golden Globes: Can the film survive its controversies, and should it?
It’s par for the course for a Best Picture contender to find itself in the midst of a backlash cycle—2017’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and 2016’s La La Land can attest to that. These criticisms don’t usually come from a place of contempt; instead, they’re founded on legitimate flaws within the otherwise critically praised films, like Three Billboards’ haphazard handling of a racist cop played by eventual Oscar winner Sam Rockwell, and the troubling optics of La La Land’s white savior narrative around jazz. With Green Book, this year’s obvious Controversial Best Picture Candidate, not only is the film’s core story and racial messaging drawing considerable ire—the film’s brain trust has also been put under the microscope. And the results haven’t been pretty.
Green Book, which claims to tell the true story of the unlikely friendship between Italian American bouncer Frank Anthony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) and Jamaican American pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) in the ‘60s when the latter needs a chauffeur for a tour across the South, has been met with healthy skepticism since its wide release in America on Thanksgiving weekend. “It’s difficult to see Green Book as anything more than a Hallmark film with an overinflated budget and sense of self-importance,” Jourdain Searles wrote in a review for The Ringer. “It’s an odd Ken doll of a film, rarely alluding to the sexuality and humanity of its characters. The world Shirley and Vallelonga inhabit seems oddly bereft of stakes. Scenes of brutality occur offscreen. Sex is never depicted. Viewers are privy to only the aftermath. As a result, the film’s discussions of race and masculinity are shallow. Green Book functions more like a desperate plea from [director Peter Farrelly] for us to forget the last decade of his career.”
The day of the movie’s release, the family of Dr. Shirley—none of whom were consulted on the film, which was cowritten by Tony Lip’s son, Nick Vallelonga—issued statements to several entertainment outlets refuting some aspects of the film (including the notion that Tony Lip introduced Dr. Shirley to fried chicken) and the nature of Tony and Dr. Shirley’s relationship. “My brother never considered Tony to be his ‘friend’; he was an employee, his chauffeur (who resented wearing a uniform and cap),” Maurice Shirley, Dr. Shirley’s only living brother, said in a statement. “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.”
“There was no due diligence done to afford my family and my deceased uncle the respect of properly representing him, his legacy, his worth, and the excellence in which he operated and the excellence in which he lived,” Dr. Shirley’s niece, Carol Shirley Kimble, added. “It’s once again a depiction of a white man’s version of a black man’s life.”
Farrelly himself admitted in an interview with Newsweek in November that he was “under the impression there weren’t a lot of family members.” “I feel bad about that, I wish we could have done more,” he added. “To be honest, the people looking into it just didn’t find them—they screwed up. But we’re trying to keep in touch with them as much as possible now.” How Maurice Shirley—the last living brother of a primary subject of the film—evaded their grasp is incomprehensible, though Farrelly seemed content to blame the lack of due diligence on other members of his team. By this point, Green Book’s stature as an awards season stalwart seemed to be diminishing—after a rapturous reception at the Toronto International Film Festival had pegged it as a contender. In a year in which black filmmakers like Spike Lee and Barry Jenkins made their own (notably brilliant) films about black stories, Green Book’s galling, potentially purposeful negligence seemed impossible to overcome.
And then the movie won three Golden Globes on Sunday night, including Best Motion Picture—Musical or Comedy. The film’s wins might be an inflection point, both because of how they refocused attention on Green Book and because of how the acceptance speeches doubled down on what made Greek Book’s success and optics so uncomfortable in the first place. The three men who accepted the award for Best Screenplay—Vallelonga, Brian Currie, and Farrelly—are white. And Farrelly’s acceptance speech for Best Motion Picture—Musical or Comedy later in the proceedings was exceedingly brash and often self-righteous. With a group of mostly white collaborators in the background, Farrelly shouted “Turn that off!” when the music tried to play him off mid-speech, just before practically stating that his movie had all the answers to solving racial strife. “This story, when I heard it, gave me hope, and I wanted to share that hope with you because we are still living in divided times—maybe more so than ever.”
The Golden Globes put Green Book under a harsher microscope than it’d ever been under before. On Wednesday, The Cut unearthed 1998 articles from Newsweek and the Observer detailing Farrelly’s propensity to flash his genitals in front of people on set, prompting an apology from Farrelly. “True. I was an idiot,” the director said through a representative. “I did this decades ago and I thought I was being funny and the truth is I’m embarrassed and it makes me cringe now. I’m deeply sorry.” Later that day, Vallelonga was taken to task for his old tweets, including a sentiment shared by President Donald Trump that Muslims in New Jersey were celebrating after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. (Vallelonga has since deleted his Twitter account.) The idea is offensive on its face, and made all the more troubling by the fact Green Book costar Mahershala Ali—who just won a Best Supporting Actor at the Globes—is Muslim.
It’s difficult to predict how much these latest controversies, which pile on top of deep, legitimate criticisms of the movie itself, will impact Green Book’s Oscar hopes. The film was nominated for four BAFTAs—essentially the British equivalent to the Oscars—on Wednesday, but the voting process for those nominations was already finished by the time the latest controversies came to light. The Oscar voting, on the other hand, began in earnest on Monday, and the nominations will be unveiled on January 22. That leaves plenty of time for the Academy—which, it’s important to note, has grown more diverse in recent years in response to #OscarsSoWhite—to reconcile with the legitimate issues surrounding the film, and consider other work that may be more deserving of Hollywood’s biggest prizes.
While controversy ultimately didn’t have a significant impact on La La Land or Three Billboards, it’s possible such backlash could’ve soured voters on both films when it came time to vote for Best Picture. But even compared to other contentious awards season favorites from previous years, Green Book’s myriad problems are inarguably worse, and may be enough to completely sink its momentum just as quickly as it began to swell. The film’s Golden Globes success could be a bizarre footnote as it slowly recedes from serious awards season consideration. If it doesn’t, however, Green Book might not just be the heir apparent to Crash. It could be one of the most problematic Oscar winners in history.