One of the best films of the year, Peter Farrelly’s Green Book tells the true story of “Doc” Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a cultured jazz pianist who hired an Italian-American bouncer named Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) to drive and help manage him on a 1960s tour of the Deep South, where racism was even more rampant than in Trump’s America (so far). As the two take opposing approaches to battling bigotry—Lip likes to either beat people up, threaten them, or bribe them, while Shirley responds in a more measured fashion—homosexuality also surfaces and ends up having repercussions. Spoilers to come!
At one point, Shirley is busted while having sex with a white guy at a YMCA down South, and it’s the first time Lip (or the audience) gets wind of anything resembling Shirley’s private life. You might have suspected something like this would have gone down due to Ali’s clipped diction and fancy outfits, but I must admit even I didn’t see it coming, having heard the film was about racial oppression but not knowing it addressed sexual bigotry, too. The loveliest thing of all is Lip’s response; after rescuing Shirley from the situation in order to save his career, albeit via flat-out bribery, he then, in a completely offhand fashion, tells the pianist that he’s hung out with a lot of show biz people through the years and he’s aware that it’s “a complicated world.”
And that’s it! No berating, no homophobia, no mockery, and he even hugs Shirley later on and sleeps in the same room with him without any qualms. And this is a pretty coarse guy who initially was deeply racist! (He himself is the subject of slurs aimed at his Italianness. Yes, this film covers many kinds of prejudice.)
At a Bice Cucina luncheon for the extremely gratifying film, Mortensen said, “[Tony’s reaction] shows that the cure for ignorance is experience. Tony’s been exposed to it, so he’s OK with it.” “That’s a beautiful reveal,” agreed Ali. “Tony’s already OK with that. He’s aware of the depth of the relationship between him and Doc.”
“It’s a love story,” someone else pointed out, but in actuality, Shirley had other romantic targets in mind. In fact, the film’s co-screenwriter, Brian Hayes Currie, told me that the musician had a longtime white male lover. I hope that’s mentioned in the sequel. But having seen this film twice, I adore Shirley’s elegant dignity and Lip’s emerging heart, and I’m living for my third time of Green bringing black and white together and wrapping them in a rainbow.
By the way, also noticeable in the crowd at the lunch for the movie was Alfred Uhry, who wrote Driving Miss Daisy. Think about it.
There’s Something About Mary Wilson
Let me tell you some other Don Shirley-era gossip, and I’ll break it down so it’s easy for you young ones: Before there was Beyoncé, there was Destiny’s Child. Well, way before that, in the 1960s, there was The Supremes, a Motown girl group with lead singer Diana Ross and backups Mary Wilson and Flo Ballard, and they were peppy, vampy, glittery, and full of hit records. I just went to the Café Carlyle to see Wilson in a solo act, and it was an extraordinary experience that transported me to girl-group heaven. Wilson—who was always the sexy Supreme with the smoky voice—is a fine vocalist, who confidently soared through showstoppers like “Body and Soul” and “Stormy Weather.” She injected soul into Nora Jones’ “Don’t Know Why,” even while laughingly admitting that she had no idea what the song means. (Neither do I, but Wilson brought significance to it.) With all the wisdom of her 74 years, she did a poignant “Both Sides Now” and a piercing “Look of Love.” And of course she addressed her time with The Supremes. Wilson said they were “three little black girls who made our dreams come true… We never won a Grammy—all those number one songs—but we got the money, so who cares?”
“I sang the ’oohs’ and ’ahs’ and the ‘baby, baby, babys’,” she added. “Don’t be laughing. I was laughing all the way to the bank!” She then sang the lead on Supremes hits like “Baby Love,” “Stop in the Name of Love,” and “My World is Empty Without You,” and the audience impulsively chirped the backups, to which Wilson beamed, “You’re singing my part!”
And she addressed Dreamgirls, joking, “They say it’s about The Supremes, but I know it isn’t because I didn’t get paid.” But she loves the show and movie version, and said that if Florence Ballard—the sort of Effie character, who died at 32—was here today, she would deliver the ballad of renewal “I Am Changing.” Wilson then belted that very song in honor of Flo, with a whole bunch of heart and tears. What a dazzling night.
And after the show, Wilson told me she’s working on a coffee table book about the fashion of The Supremes. Ooh, baby, baby!