Every awards season is basically the same, but always includes a few unique exceptions. One of those is Universal-Participant’s “Green Book.” The film has won major prizes (Golden Globe, Producers Guild, National Board of Review, Toronto Fest’s People’s Choice Award) and yet no film has been more beaten up, online and in the mainstream media.
The bad news: Some awards rivals hold onto the old theory that mudslinging is a valid campaign tactic. The good news: Voters ignore all that noise and vote for what they like, so “Green Book” constantly bounces back. It’s a variation on the old joke that nobody likes this movie except the audience.
Another signs of its popularity: five Oscar nominations in key categories, including best picture, screenplay and editing, plus two nominations for the great actors, Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali.
Editor Patrick J. Don Vito says the film is “something special,” which doesn’t mean it was easy. One of the biggest editing challenges was to balance the comedy and drama. “The actors are very funny people,” he says, “but the mantra was always, ‘Let’s keep it real.’ Anything that sounds like a joke has to go. It’s a story about real people, and we felt a responsibility to get it right.”
The car sequences were also tricky, Don Vito adds, because “the two are in a tight space. Scenes can’t be too long or the audience gets claustrophobic.”
Another key to success: “Smooth transitions from scene to scene can make or break a movie,” he says. The film covers a lot of ground geographically and emotionally, and the goal was to keep things at a steady clip.
It works. Aside from his Oscar bid, Don Vito was nominated by the American Cinema Editors, and is grateful that the recognition comes from his fellow editors, who appreciated work that is not flashy, but is tight and fast-moving. “The best compliment I have received,” he says, “is from people who tell me, ‘I wanted more! I wanted the film to go on.’ ”
“Green Book” has 82% critical approval on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 94% thumbs-up from audiences. Those are good numbers, but the detractors are unusually vocal.
Many try to compare it to such films as “Mississippi Burning,” “Cry Freedom” and “Driving Miss Daisy,” in which black struggles are seen through the eyes of a white savior. That’s not the case here.
“It’s Tony’s story,” shrugs Don Vito. The project originated with Nick Vallelonga and Brian Currie, working with hours of tape from Vallelonga’s dad. “Nick said Dr. Shirley agreed the tapes were accurate, saying, ‘Tell the story exactly as Tony told it, but please don’t do it while I’m alive,’ ” says Don Vito. (The great musician and Vallelonga’s father, known as Tony Lip, both died in 2013.) Director/co-scripter Peter Farrelly considered telling the story from the two perspectives, but Shirley was famously private and had no diaries or tapes.
“Green Book” was never intended to be a definitive study of American racism. It’s a mismatched-buddy comedy about two men who learn about themselves through friendship, more in the tradition of “48 Hrs.” and “The Odd Couple” than some of 2018’s other Oscar contenders. There is a wide range of “Green Book” fans, including Harry Belafonte, Quincy Jones, John Singleton and many friends of Dr. Shirley.
Some of the negative talk comes from Twitter-heads who get incensed when they’re contradicted. (I have news for these cineastes: This movie wasn’t made for you.) Sadly, other badmouthing seems stirred up by rival contenders. In private conversations, many industry vets mention the same few names as likely suspects.
But the plan isn’t working. Support for the movie seems to get stronger with each attack.
As Dr. Shirley tells Tony Lip in the movie, “Dignity always prevails.”