Year Released: 2018
Directed by: Peter Farrelly
Starring: Viggo Mortensen. Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini
(PG-13, 130 min.)
Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor - Mahershala Ali, Best Original Screenplay – Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga
“So if I'm not black enough and if I'm not white enough, then tell me, Tony, what am I?” – Dr. Don Shirley
Different Drummer is pausing from her boycott of the 2019 Oscars to recognize a real winner, not just because Green Book won Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor. (Mahershala Ali) and Best Original Screenplay ( Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga), but because it is a terrific movie.
Rebel that I am, I was ready to see it when I heard all the controversy surrounding its win. Once the largely hypocritical Hollywood social justice warriors were all in a dither, this film became a must see.
And, wow, was it worth it! A tremendous script, spot on performances by the two leads, a wonderful sense of humor, and perhaps most important, humanity and hope replacing the edgy nihilism that so dominates current films. Here is the synopsis:
When Tony Lip (Mortensen), a bouncer from an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx, is hired to drive Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), a world-class Black pianist, on a concert tour from Manhattan to the Deep South, they must rely on "The Green Book" to guide them to the few establishments that were then safe for African-Americans. Confronted with racism, danger-as well as unexpected humanity and humor-they are forced to set aside differences to survive and thrive on the journey of a lifetime.
And despite all the race talk, the film is about so much more, maybe more class than race, with Tony “Lip”Vallelonga (a pitch perfect Viggo Mortensen), the Bronx bouncer, steeped in his lower East Side Italian roots sharing a road trip with Dr. Don Shirle, a highly educated classical African American pianist. Incidentally, Mortensen has the Bronx accent down just right, not falling prey to the exaggerated diction we too often hear.
Tony is crude, vulgar, easily provoked to violence, as well as – at least initially –casually racist, as are most of his neighbors and family. In fact, if half Italian Different Drummer wanted to be a senior citizen social justice warrior, she could object to the stereotyped portrayal of Tony and his clan. But frankly, the interchanges between the sophisticated pianist and composer and his Goomba driver, are just wonderful. Partly because Tony is pretty comfortable being just who he is and saying exactly what he thinks, even if is a little muddled. What he lacked in refinement, he makes up for in native wit and the sheer force of his personality. And Dr. Shirley displays a respectful disdain and a tortured patience with Tony, a dry ironic humor that is lost of Tony most of the time, but not on the audience.
Don Shirley: Could you put out the cigarette, please?
Tony Lip: Why?
Don Shirley: I can't breathe back here.
Tony Lip: What are you talkin' about? Smoke's going down my lungs. I'm doin' all the work here.
Tony Lip: You know, when you first hired me, my wife went out and bought one of your records. The one about the orphans?
Don Shirley: Orphans?
Tony Lip: Yeah. Cover had a bunch of kids sittin' around a campfire?
Don Shirley: Orpheus.
Tony Lip: ...Yeah.
Don Shirley: Orpheus in the Underworld. It's based on a French opera. And those weren't children on the cover, those were demons in the bowels of Hell.
Tony Lip: No shit! They must've been naughty kids!
Don Shirley: So where did this "Tony the Lip" moniker come from?
Tony Lip: [laughs] It's not "Tony the Lip", it's "Tony Lip". One word. I got it when I was a kid 'cause my friends said I was the best bullshit artist in the Bronx. [Chuckles]
Don Shirley: [Horrified] Why are you smiling?
Tony Lip: What do you mean?
Don Shirley: It doesn't bother you that your friends - the people closest to you - consider you a liar?
Tony Lip: Who said liar? I said bullshit artist!
Don Shirley: And what's the difference?
Tony Lip: 'Cause I don't lie! Ever! I'm just good at talkin' people into... y'know, doin' things they don't wanna do... By bullshittin' 'em. [Grins]
Don Shirley: And you're proud of that?
Tony Lip: Well, it got me this job
These are just a small sample of the many exchanges between the two, Ali wonderful as the persnickety pianist trying unsuccessfully to put a little polish on his bouncer/driver. I couldn’t help laughing out loud, probably the most since seeing the The Producers (1967) starring Zero Mostel.
Of course, what makes the film memorable is that beneath the banter and the easy put downs, the self-imposed shells of both men wear down as the miles mount. Road trips will do that to you, as writer/director Peter Farrelly well knows, having made 22 cross country road trips himself.
And the music –most of which comes from Kris Bowers, the extraordinary 29-year-old American composer who wrote the film score for Green Book and doubled Ali’s piano playing– complements the feelings on stage. Don Shirley’s choice of compositions as well as his performance often mirrors his feelings. What he cannot put in words to react to the sometimes stunningly insulting behavior from his Southern white hosts, he puts into his music, in one case literally thundering his rage on the ebony and ivories. And it is a real tribute to the 3 months of hard work that Mahershala Ali put in with Kris Bowers that it actually looks as though he is playing the pieces he performs. Part of that is also because Bowers worked with Ali to comport himself like a pianist in his carriage and posture even when he was not performing.
And finally, like so many classics of literature, the film asks, “Who Am I?”, particularly in Don Shirley’s case. In many cases Tony is curious that Don seems to know so little about popular Black performers such as Little Richard and Aretha Franklin. That, and he doesn’t even like fried chicken.
“So if I'm not black enough and if I'm not white enough, then tell me, Tony, what am I!?”
In this age of identity politics, it is a breath of fresh air that Ali’s Shirley sees himself unique, even if that isolation is at times painful.
A superb film, not to be missed.
One of the greatest food scenes in The Green Bookis the elaborate Christmas Eve dinner at Tony’s Bronx apartment. The busy crowded kitchen with all the women working together to prepare the specialized dishes reminds me so much of the festive dinners my Italian mother and her sisters prepared. Ours were not so elaborate; my mother usually opted for a linguini with clam sauce. She usually went with red, but I’m going with one of my favorites, the Linguini with White Clam Sauce. It is super delish.
Here is what Phil, the Italian Chef, says about the elaborate dinner. You can follow the link below for more wonderful Christmas Eve recipes.
It is a tradition with many Southern Italian families to celebrate Christmas Eve with an elaborate fish banquet, Il Cenone di Vigilia. Sometimes referred to as The Feast of the Seven Fishes, not everybody sticks to exactly seven; some go up to 11 or 12, predominantly shellfish. This tradition actually started out as a gesture of abstinence, not eating meat, but over the years it took on a life of it’s own, and morphed into something quite the opposite. Many people eat better this night than they do all year long.
My own Christmas Eve dinner is pretty scaled down compared to most. Not because I am trying to stick to the original ideal of abstinence or anything like that. Rather, my allergy to shellfish cuts down on my options, and I usually have a feast of one fish, Red Snapper Livornese. So, for this menu, I decided to consult with a family member who still goes all out for Christmas Eve, my cousin Sal.
Sal was very excited to discuss his feast with me and got right into the menu. “I start off with Fried Calamari,” he detailed. “My trick is mixing equal parts all purpose and semolina flour for the batter. The semolina gives it a really nice texture.” In addition to the calamari, his menu includes shrimp, clams, mussels, crab and his show-stopping main course, Stuffed Lobster. Enjoy and have a happy and healthy Holiday season.–Phil Torre
Linguini with White Clam Sauce
If the idea of shelling more than a dozen clams doesn’t appeal to you, ask them to shell them for you at your favorite fish market. Just make sure they pack them with their juices when they give them to you.
3/4 cup of olive oil
4 cloves of Garlic chopped
1 and 1/2 Dozen Cherrystone Clams shelled and chopped with juices reserved
1 pound of linguini
2 Tablespoons chopped parsley
1. Heat olive oil in large sauté pan over medium heat.
2. Add garlic: cook until lightly browned.
3. Add Clams with their juices, bring to a boil then lower heat to a simmer and cook for 5 more minutes.
4. While the sauce is cooking, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add 1 tablespoon of salt and the linguini.
5. Cook uncovered over high heat until Al dente.
6. Drain pasta, put back in pot add some of the sauce to the pot and mix it up.
7. Dish out pasta spooning remaining sauce over top. Garnish with chopped parsley.