The controversy over Viggo Mortensen’s use of the N-word during a recent Q&A for his movie “Green Book” appears to be over, but can he and the film recover enough to emerge as a genuine awards contender?
In the immediate days following the incident, glowing profiles in the likes of USA Today (“Finally, an Oscar for Viggo?” the headline asked) and think pieces over the race-themed film glossed over or entirely omitted mention of the incident. The actor, to his credit, was quick to apologize for using the word, which he uttered during a conversation with “Green Book” costar Mahershala Ali and Film Independent programmer and moderator Elvis Mitchell a little over a week ago.
“I was attempting to make the point that the extreme, dehumanizing ugliness that this word conjures, the hateful attitude behind it, has not disappeared just because white people generally no longer use it as a racist insult,” he wrote in a statement released after shocked tweets from the screening surfaced online.
Ali sent his own statement in the hours following Mortensen’s apology, acknowledging how inappropriate the word was but accepting his co-star’s contrition nonetheless.
Mortensen has continued to appear on the awards season campaign trail and sit for interviews, showing up at the film’s New York premiere and hitting the Governor’s Ball. On Sunday, Mortensen received a standing ovation at “Green Book”‘s official Academy screening. On Monday, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival announced he would receive their American Riviera Award, and the annual Palm Springs Festival is giving the film its annual Vanguard Award. In turn, the industry — and the wider public — appear to have accepted his contrition.
“I think there’s a short memory span,” said another top Hollywood awards consultant, “otherwise this whole industry would collapse. What could hurt his chances for Oscar more were the soft box office numbers this weekend.”
Indeed, a limited release fetched a soft $313,000 for the film on 25 screens. Word of mouth was expected to boost that number, especially following the film’s surprise audience choice award win at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. The film is about to expand significantly into 1,000 theaters for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, when it will have plenty of competition from the latest “Fantastic Beasts” entry, “Creed II,” “Ralph Breaks the Internet” and “The Grinch.” It’s on track to generate a middling $8 million over the five-day Thanksgiving weekend.
If the industry has largely forgiven Mortensen for his remarks, that’s somewhat surprising. Using racially charged language and particularly that slur has become a definitive line that, once crossed, is nearly impossible to come back from. Two top executives, Jonathan Friedland from Netflix and Amy Powell of Paramount Pictures, have been fired in the past five months for reportedly using the slur (Friedland) or reportedly using racially-charged language (Powell, who vehemently denied the claim, and settled with the studio over her termination).
Consequences have also been severe for public figures who have made hurtful or prejudiced comments about race. Roseanne Barr was dismissed from her ABC series “Roseanne” after making a joke about Valerie Jarrett that many deemed racist. Likewise, Megyn Kelly was ousted from NBC News after musing that it might be okay to wear blackface on Halloween.
“The people that work with Viggo actually like him a lot, but he knows better. He’s been around long enough. He was obviously trying to make a statement in a conversation and it’s hard in this charged atmosphere to say what is forgivable and what is not,” one veteran film executive who is also an Oscar voter told Variety.
While the Mortensen incident appears to have been contained, the long-term effect could stall the 60-year-old actor’s unexpected momentum in the Best Actor Oscar race this year.
“I wouldn’t say at this point his chances are hurt, because of how fast this went away, but don’t forget that the demographic within the Academy has changed, and is changing,” the executive said, referring to the record-breaking diversity among the 928 people invited to join the film academy this year.
Another potential threat that makes Mortensen vulnerable is the emergence of Christian Bale in the race. The actor is generating strong early word of mouth for his transformative work in Adam McKay’s “Vice,” where the chameleonic star packed on 45 pounds and a mountain of prosthetics to become an impressive facsimile of Dick Cheney.
Bale’s presence not only splits the field for months-long presumptive Bradley Cooper (“A Star is Born”), he is instantly a “more savory” choice in comparison to Mortensen, another voter said. There is also the lingering threat of Rami Malek, who emerged as the sole contender from the embattled release of Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
There is a chance that the messaging behind “Green Book,” a Participant Media production and Universal Pictures release, can still win over audiences and find the steam to chug through to February’s Oscars. But even the core lessons of the film are failing to resonate with some critics, who believe the film is tone deaf about the racial prejudices it seeks to illuminate and treats the historical mistreatment of black Americans with a glibness that’s inappropriate, finding humor where there is none.
In particular, several have bemoaned a scene where Mortensen’s character, a rough Italian guy hired to drive Ali’s Jamaican American concert pianist through the deep South, teaches his client how to properly eat fried chicken.
“[Mortenson] even insists that he is the blacker of the two because of his own working class background,” wrote cultural analyst Cate Young in her review for Jezebel. She, too, touched on the actor using the racial slur.
“Truthfully, it’s difficult to get worked up over the incident because it’s so roundly indicative of the remove at which white audiences will engage with this film,” she concluded.