EXCLUSIVE: On a recent Saturday morning, as I lamented a spate of curiously timed toxic Green Book stories that surfaced as the Oscar nomination voting began, right after the film won a Best Picture Golden Globe, I listened in the car as a sports radio host on New York’s WFAN randomly talked about how he’d seen a movie the night before. He had little expectation going in, and was surprised how good it made him feel, and how strongly those in the theater responded to the performances and an entertaining movie with a message about tolerance. That movie, he said, was Green Book.
While admittedly idealistic, it struck me in that moment that this is how the outcome of the Oscar race ought to be decided. How do voters feel about a film, while they watch it, and after? And not by the extraneous adversity that many of the Best Picture-nominated films have faced through awards season, and which Bohemian Rhapsody is weathering right now.
I had done a long interview with Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, where those actors kept saying they found the handle on their characters by listening to a series of audio tapes featuring the actual voices of Dr. Donald Shirley and Tony Lip Vallelonga. I thought tracking down and publishing them might help swing the narrative of Green Book back to the road trip as they sat in that car together and were the only ones who witnessed the events and the institutional racism and hatred they encountered in the Jim Crow South. I got my hands on these tapes and, with the help of an editor, put them in the digestible soundbites you can hear below. It takes a while to get through them, but you might want to do it soon. I got them on the sly, and have no idea if I’ll be told to take these down.
The Shirley audio came from research done for a terrific documentary called Lost Bohemia, which included Shirley among a group of elite artists as they were being kicked out of the lofts above Carnegie Hall. The Tony Lip interviews were conducted by his son, Nick, as research for the film.
The movie today expands from 900 to 2400 theaters following the Oscar nominations. It is alarming to hear the tales of racism and the sting and anger that lingered long after as voiced by Shirley, who died at age 86 in 2013. And it is often funny to hear the remembrances of Vallelonga, the charismatic former Copacabana bouncer tough guy who later played New York mob boss Carmine Lupertazzi Sr in The Sopranos, and who died at age 82 also in 2013.
Arm Wrestling Story
Tony Lip recalls how his masterful bluster helped disarm a big tough guy during the extended road trip.
Bribing the Cops
Tony Lip describes his method in extricating Don Shirley from the delicate situation at the YMCA.
Cops Pulling Over Story
Tony Lip describes his recollection of the time Doc Shirley called Robert Kennedy to get out of jail in an attempted shakedown by police.
Don Would Educate Me
Tony Lip describes how Doc Shirley used the road trip to try and smooth out the rough spots in his Bronx tough guy driver.
Tony Lip describes what became the basis for the fried chicken scene in Green Book.
How Did It All Get Started
Tony Lip describes how he got the job driving Doc Shirley. You can hear the voice of his wife, Dolores, who is played in the film by Linda Cardellini.
How Don Would Play
Tony Lip on what made Doc Shirley such an exceptional pianist, though it doesn’t sound like Lip was looking to moonlight as a music critic.
How They Got Along on the Road
Tony Lip describes how Doc Shirley helped him acclimate to being around the wealthy, when he was perfectly happy with a bowl of pasta. Lip also wonders why such cultured and smart people would have a heard time pronouncing his last name.
How Tony Got the Job
More from Tony Lip on how he got the job that brought him together with Doc Shirley.
Tony’s Kennedy Assassination Story
Tony Lip describes the day that he and Doc Shirley discovered that President John F Kennedy had been assassinated, and how quickly Shirley got through to his grieving brother Bobby to commiserate.
The Piano Story
Tony Lip described how he made sure Doc Shirley always played a Steinway piano.
The Restaurant in Virginia
Tony Lip describes the indignity of finding that Doc Shirley could entertain the guests of a posh hotel, but could not be served food in its restaurant, and how this institutionalized racism finally came to a head.