Viggo Mortensen is determined to erase any goodwill he garnered as Aragorn in Lord of the Rings. He has picked a hill on which to die and it is his latest film Green Book, where he plays the white savior “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, the white driver for Black pianist Dr. Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali). After he casually said “n****r” on a panel about Green Book to show how far we’ve come, on Thursday night, he returned to diving headfirst into the controversy surrounding this movie.
In an exclusive interview with Shadow And Act in December, Dr. Shirley’s family called Green Book a “symphony of lies.” At Thursday’s Palm Springs Film Festival awards gala, Mortensen told Variety’s Marc Malkin that he felt the family’s claims were “unjustified” and “unfair.”
As a refresher, Dr. Shirley’s family had several issues with the film, particularly with the film’s premise and marketing as “inspired by a true friendship,” when Dr. Shirley and Vallelonga only had “an employer-employee relationship.” The family also took issue with Dr. Shirley being portrayed as a man divorced from both his family and the Black community as a whole in the film when he was very close to both in real life, and active in the civil rights movement. Dr. Shirley’s nephew Edwin Shirley III told Shadow And Act that his uncle had “flatly refused” Nick Vallelonga’s request to make a movie about Dr. Shirley back in the 1980s.
“I met Nick for the first time at the premiere and I told him, ‘I have to give you credit for tenacity because you have been trying to get this thing done for 30 years.’ And that’s when he told me, ‘Oh, yeah, well my father and I went to see him and he gave us his blessing,’ and I told him that was hard to believe,” Edwin told Shadow And Act.
“He just flatly said, ‘No, absolutely not. I don’t want to have any part of that,’” Edwin recalled his uncle saying. “God knows, this is the reason that he never wanted to have his life portrayed on screen,” Edwin told Shadow And Act. “I now understand why, and I feel terrible that I was actually trying to urge him to do this in the 1980s, because everything that he objected to back then has come true now.”
After being asked about Dr. Shirley’s family’s complaints with the film, Mortensen said this with his whole chest:
“[Writer] Nick Vallelonga has shown admirable restraint in the face of some accusations and some claims–including from a couple of family members–that have been unjustified, uncorroborated and basically unfair, that have been countered by other people who knew Doc Shirley well,” he said.“There is evidence that there was not the connection that [the family members] claimed there was with him, and perhaps there’s some resentment.”
First of all, it seems like Mortensen has gotten entirely too close to the subject material at hand, so much so that he refuses to acknowledge what Dr. Shirley’s family has called a fabrication. Second, Mortensen is ignoring the fact that the family members that are enraged about the film aren’t distant relatives. They aren’t suddenly upset that they weren’t close to Shirley in light of his recent resurgence, which Mortensen hints at with the word “resentment.” Instead, they are relatives who grew up with Shirley and were influenced heavily by him and definitely knew him better than Mortensen in 1962, when the film supposedly takes place.
Yet the film goes out of its way to portray Dr. Shirley as a man with no family, having Ali’s character state that he had a brother but didn’t know where he was and hadn’t been in touch with him for several years.
“At that point [in 1962 when the events of the film supposedly take place], he had three living brothers with whom he was always in contact,” said Maurice. Dr. Shirley was a huge part of his family’s lives, acting as Maurice’s best man at his wedding to wife, Patricia, just two years after the supposed events in the film. “Resentment,” wasn’t the word the family used when describing being erased from Dr. Shirley’s life in Vallelonga’s movie. In their interview with Shadow And Act, the words Edwin used were “hurtful,” and “jarring.”
The closeness of the Shirley family was also proven by Edwin, who said Shirley stopped his 1964 tour to be with him and the family in Miami after Edwin’s little brother was killed by a car. Edwin also spoke of going on tour with Shirley for a tour between Cincinnati and Chicago, as well as advice Shirley gave him about becoming a writer and treasured memories they shared throughout Edwin’s adulthood.
To call their anger at their loved one being portrayed as someone who was estranged from them and from Black people in general “unjustified,” “uncorroborated” and “unfair,” is quite bold. From what he’s saying, it appears that he believes the assertions are only unfair to the Vallelonga family, particularly Nick, who wrote Green Book‘s screenplay.
The only thing “uncorroborated” is Vallelonga getting the permission he claims to have gotten from Dr. Shirley to do the film. Shadow And Act asked Vallelonga for any evidence suggesting the validity of that claim and Vallelonga has yet to respond.
Third, Mortensen seems to suggest that the folks who knew Shirley the most was Vallelonga, as well as others outside of Shirley’s family. According to Shirley’s own family, that couldn’t have ever been the case.
Maurice and Patricia both told Shadow And Act that Shirley and Vallelonga were never close friends. “It was an employer-employee relationship,” said Patricia, having met Vallelonga with Maurice in New York to hear Shirley in concert at Carnegie Hall. In fact, professional relationships were all Shirley ever had with anyone who worked for him, including the members of the Don Shirley Trio, they told. They also added that Shirley fired Vallelonga, along with many other drivers he had throughout his career.
“Tony would not open the door, he would not take any bags, he would take his [chauffeur’s] cap off when Donald got out of the car, and several times Donald would find him with the cap off, and confronted him,” said Maurice.
With all this insider information from Shirley’s own family, what is tough to understand is how can they be wrong and anyone else outside of the family somehow be right, according to Mortensen’s statements.
The argument over Shirley’s legacy shouldn’t fall down racial lines, but it sadly seems like that’s becoming the case. In Mortensen’s own statement, he seems to side more with Vallelonga’s feelings over the issue than Shirley’s flesh and blood. Instead of re-investigating his knowledge about Shirley, Mortensen has apparently doubled down to deny their viewpoints. And for what? So he can win some awards?
After the family has spoken out, Ali has since apologized directly to the Shirley family and the Shirley family accepted. According to Ali’s account (as relayed by Edwin in his interview), Ali wasn’t aware there were close relatives he could have questioned before delving into the character. At least one person involved in this mess of a film cared enough about the hurt the film has caused the Shirley family.
At the end of the day, it’s not Mortensen’s place to defend the film for the Vallelongas and set himself against the Shirleys. If Mortensen really believed in the film’s message–that overcoming systemic and racial challenges means developing understanding and empathy beyond your point of view–then you’d think he would apply that when it comes to accepting the pain the Shirleys have voiced.