‘Green Book’ Overcomes Outcry to Win Best-Picture Oscar

(Bloomberg) -- In a Hollywood ending of sorts, the film “Green Book” endured an unusually high degree of controversy to bring home the best picture Oscar at Sunday’s Academy Awards.

The road-trip/buddy film about pianist Don Shirley and his bodyguard-driver Tony Vallelonga faced criticism from some members of Shirley’s family who said the movie inaccurately portrays their relationship. Also, revelations that director Peter Farrelly used to jokingly flash his private parts years ago, and that star Viggo Mortensen used a racial epithet at a press conference, could have killed the movie’s chances of major awards.

‘Green Book’ Overcomes Outcry to Win Best-Picture Oscar

But the crowd-pleasing film, released by Comcast Corp.’s Universal Pictures, continued to win over audiences and members of the Academy, who also recognized the film’s co-writers Nick Vallelonga, Farrelly and Brian Hayes Currie for best original screenplay. Mahershala Ali won the best supporting actor award for his portrayal of Shirley.

“The whole story is about love,” Farrelly, also co-producer of the film, said when accepting the best picture award. “It’s about loving each other despite our differences and finding the truth of who we are. We’re the same people.”

Farrelly is best known for lowbrow comedies such as 1998’s “There’s Something About Mary” and 1994’s “Dumb and Dumber.”

‘Green Book’ Overcomes Outcry to Win Best-Picture Oscar

Controversy began with the release of “Green Book” last November, when members of Shirley’s family disputed that their relative and Vallelonga were ever that close and that a white chauffeur would have to instruct the African-American Shirley in how to eat fried chicken with his fingers, as one memorable scene depicts. Others have criticized the movie for its motif of a white man, Vallelonga, who often has to rescue Shirley from harassment.

“No one, EVER, had to teach my brother how to eat fried chicken,” Maurice Shirley, the pianist’s brother, said last year, according to Black Enterprise magazine.

The win by “Green Book” didn’t silence the backlash. Los Angeles Times film critic Justin Chang called it the worst film to be named best picture since “Crash” won the award in 2006. The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes backed up that claim: Though “Green Book” scored a relatively strong 80 percent score, it was the lowest-rated best picture since “Crash.”

Backstage after the award ceremony, Spike Lee, director of rival nominee “BlacKkKlansman,” said: “The ref made a bad call.”

‘Green Book’ Overcomes Outcry to Win Best-Picture Oscar

Lee shared a writing Oscar for adapted screenplay, his first Academy Award ever, for “BlacKkKlansman,” which is about an African-American police detective who infiltrates the klan with the help of a fellow policeman who is Jewish.

On a panel Thursday night at the Los Angeles Press Club, Nick Vallelonga, who co-produced and co-wrote the film based on the life of his father, said all of the scenes in “Green Book” were based on stories told to him by his dad and Shirley, both of whom are now dead. Shirley had requested that he not reach out to any members of his family, a wish Vallelonga said he honored.

As for the fried chicken incident, “That scene happened -- both my father and Dr. Shirley told me that,” Vallelonga said.

‘Green Book’ Overcomes Outcry to Win Best-Picture Oscar

“Dr. Shirley was a psychology major and he told me, ‘I used to push your father’s buttons all the time,’” Vallelonga said.

Michael Kappeyne, a former student of Shirley and executor of his estate, supported Vallelonga’s story at the Press Club event.

“To me, it’s just another example of Dr. Shirley going against the stereotypes, going against the prejudices,” Kappeyne said. “He was a very complex man who showed different personas depending on the time of day and the situation he was in and the people he was hanging out with.”

Vallelonga said the filmmakers left out a scene where the characters are served fried chicken at a fancy home and his father’s character prompts everyone at the dinner to eat with their fingers. The scene was cut due to space limitations, he said.

The film chronicles a tour through the Deep South in the early 1960s featuring Shirley, an erudite, classically trained performer, and Vallelonga, an Italian-American bouncer from the Bronx. Despite their very different backgrounds, the pair grow to appreciate each other’s strengths and develop a friendship.

‘Green Book’ Overcomes Outcry to Win Best-Picture Oscar

“To me it’s just two human beings connecting with each other, that’s the movie I wanted to make,” Nick Vallelonga said.

Vallelonga said he labored for decades in Hollywood, acting, writing and directing films like 2005’s “Choker,” about a serial killer who hunts alien beings who can only survive by inhabiting other people’s bodies. At times he also worked as a bouncer and took jobs such as delivering cheese. Now he has two Oscars to put on his mantle.

“It’s much harder to write bad films than it is good ones,” he joked Thursday night.

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