No Best Picture contender has gotten more mud unfairly slung at it this Oscar season than Green Book, the Peter Farrelly-directed drama that earned Oscar nominations for both Mahershala Ali for playing virtuoso pianist Don Shirley, and Viggo Mortensen for playing Tony Lip, the Copacabana bouncer who drove him on a road trip of the Deep South during the Jim Crow segregation era. Because of the clear dirty tricks campaign waged against this Golden Globe-winning film — a final round of arrows were shot this week — Deadline is providing two glimpses of Green Book to Oscar voters who’ll make the ultimate decision. Since the late Robert Kennedy provides a pivotal moment in the film, I’ve interviewed his widow, Ethel Kennedy, and sons Robert Jr and Max, for their reaction to the movie. Their recollection of how Green Book brought back memories of RFK’s bold efforts on the civil rights struggle front is fascinating historical reading.
Also, I’ve revived the audiotapes of both Doc Shirley and Tony Lip, so you can hear the actual deceased men speak. Because no matter how many people rip this or that about the film, these critics weren’t in that car. Only Doc Shirley and Tony Lip were, and you can listen as they corroborate every shred of what is seen in the film. The audio of Doc Shirley was recorded by Josef Astor for his terrific docu Lost Bohemia, when Shirley and other artists were being put out of their apartments above Carnegie Hall. Astor is now at work on a full-blown feature docu on Shirley, titled Let It Shine: Donald Shirley in His Own Words, the culmination of a relationship in which Astor began filming Shirley in 2002 through to his death in 2013. “I was fortunate to have had such privileged access and trust, being his neighbor in the Carnegie Studios, and a friend for so many years that were mostly reclusive years for him,” Astor told Deadline. “He warned me when I started filming that he would ‘run at the mouth and never stop and never edit’ (a documentarian’s ideal), and that’s what we witness in Let It Shine.”
Don Calling Bobby’s Secretary
Don and Tony Escaping the Hotel
Don Finding Out About Kennedy’s Assassination
Don on Friendship with Tony
Here, Tony Lip holds court on a number of subjects:
How the fried chicken scene really happened
Tony Lip describes what became the basis for the fried chicken scene in Green Book.
Bribing the Cops
Tony Lip describes his method in extricating Don Shirley from the delicate situation at the YMCA.
Cops Shaking Down Doc and Lip
Tony Lip describes his recollection of the time Doc Shirley called Robert Kennedy to get out of jail in an attempted shakedown by police.
How Doc Helped Smooth Over Lip’s rough spots
Tony Lip describes how Doc Shirley used the road trip to try and smooth out the rough spots in his Bronx tough guy driver.
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.
Lip assesses Doc’s piano playing ability
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.
Give Doc A Steinway, or else
Tony Lip described how he made sure Doc Shirley always played a Steinway piano.
Indignity suffered at a segregated Virginia restaurant
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.
Arm Wrestling Story
Tony Lip recalls how his masterful bluster helped disarm a big tough guy during the extended road trip.
DEADLINE: Including that terrific scene when Doc Shirley called Bobby Kennedy, who forced those racist cops to free Shirley and Tony Lip, how did Green Book evoke memories for all of you, as they struggled against the racism that Bobby and his brother John fought to change in the Deep South?
ETHEL KENNEDY: The scene with Bobby calling in defense of Don Shirley when he was wrongfully jailed happened just like we see it in the film. I was not expecting him to come up in the movie, but I love that new generations get to see someone in office, standing up for the rights of others. I think Green Book shows that we have made progress. But, sadly, there is so much more to be done—and many of the same issues exist now as they were in the 1960s.
MAX KENNEDY: I loved the movie, it was a great film in many ways and it was such a big shift for Peter Farrelly and he pulled it off. But that scene; I got a chill, in the back of my neck. I hugged my wife, and got a little teary. That they were talking about him 50 years after he passed, was an honor for him. As for the lawyer in me, the most interesting thing about that scene is that those guys weren’t granted bail. That was 50 years ago, and that has not changed.
DEADLINE: How is that possible?
MAX KENNEDY: When I was a DA in Philadelphia, they would do that kind of thing all the time. A new federal law is going to prevent that kind of thing from happening in federal criminal cases, but I don’t know how much it is going to affect state cases. This is a huge issue. I think every chance they get, particularly in the South but also in rural areas, they don’t grant bail in many, many cases. Particularly with African Americans. The issue is coming to the fore now, but that is 50 years later, from what we saw in the film, which brought up something that is very important.
DEADLINE: According to Doc Shirley himself, he and Tony Lip were being shaken down. They were driving 25 mph and were accused of going 75 mph when they were arrested. But also, they were arrested because a white man was driving a black man.
MAX KENNEDY: That’s absolutely what would have happened, at that time. What Green Book showed, it’s much more than remnants of the past. It’s still a big time problem. I’ve traveled through the South, and it’s not that different. They’ve made great strides in cities like Atlanta, but when you get out to rural Georgia, and rural Mississippi, there are many problems, still.
ROBERT KENNEDY JR: My wife Cheryl [Hines] and I saw the movie at the Palisades and we both thought it was the best movie we’d seen in a long, long time. There was so much that was hopeful about it and it touched on all these issues that are so important today. Like, is this country big enough to be a community, and is it a community that is big enough for all of God’s children, including gay and black people? It was wonderful. I loved that the gay scene was there. You had this blue-collar stiff who had this tough exterior, but a humanity about him that we all should envy.
In terms of my dad, I was raised in Virginia, at a time when it was illegal for a black man to marry a white woman. We lived in a system of apartheid. Blacks were identified by race on their birth certificates. They lived in segregated neighborhoods, they attended segregated schools, went to segregated prisons, hospitals, parks, drinking fountains. Every aspect of their lives were defined as second-class citizenship.
My father was a big part of the struggle and was privileged to play a critical role in a struggle that made America a true constitutional democracy for the first time in its history.
I didn’t know about his call with Doctor Shirley, but it had a badge of credibility to me because it had exactly the kind of personal touch and personal interventions that he made, all the time. It is almost identical to the call that he made for Martin Luther King Jr, when he was put in jail for having a tail light out.
Coretta King ended up speaking with my uncle. People around him, including my father…this was six days before the presidential election and the white vote in the South was critical. Whites were still voting Democratic, and the white vote was going to push him over, particularly in Texas and some of the other Southern states. If it came out that he had helped Dr. Martin Luther King, he could have lost that vote in those critical states to Nixon, in what was the closest election in history.
My father advised Jack not to get involved, and they would take care of it after the election. My father drove to National Airport, and on his way to National Airport, he started stewing. Because he hated bullying. By the time he got to National Airport, there was steam coming out of his ears. He went to a payphone at National Airport, and he called the sheriff on the payphone and he said, you had better let him out.
DEADLINE: How did that affect JFK’s election?
ROBERT KENNEDY JR: That call was never publicized in any white papers in the South. But every black voter in the South knew about it because of Daddy King, Martin Luther King’s father. The next day, publicly in the church, he took off his Nixon button and put on a Kennedy button. And that probably helped Jack get elected president. At that point, blacks were still voting Republican. He won the black vote, and the white vote, in some of those states. It probably put him over, in the 1960 election. That took place before the election, and before my uncle and father were really introduced to the civil rights movement. It was not a big priority for them at that point, but by 1962, it was the biggest issue to them. If my father had gotten that call from Doctor Shirley, he would certainly have responded that way.
DEADLINE: Do you remember Doc Shirley?
ROBERT KENNEDY JR: I don’t remember meeting him. I don’t remember him being at Hickory Hill, but he very well might have been, because the house was always filled with both art and civil rights people and he would have been welcomed there.
DEADLINE: Your father and his brother grew up in privileged surroundings. Why were they on the forefront of civil rights, a hard polarizing fight? Why did it touch your father so profoundly?
ROBERT KENNEDY JR: For a couple of reasons. They didn’t like bullies, number one. Number two, they understood that the system of imposing second-class citizenship on a whole race of American citizens was accomplished through official laws and intimidation tactics that were designed to deprive blacks of the right to vote. For them, it was an affront to democracy.
My uncle was very interested in foreign policy, particularly. This was a time when we were struggling over all the black nations in Africa. The imperial rule of the European countries, the colonial rule was collapsing. You had all these new countries that were deciding whether they wanted to be Iron Curtain countries, or whether they wanted to be aligned with Western democracies. The idea that blacks in our country had no rights, was an absolute humiliation in their view, to the image that we needed to project around the world.
My father, when he was in college and law school, had Ralph Bunche, who was the UN mediator and was a communist [sympathizer]. They tried to bring him to the University of Virginia to speak, and my father insisted that the University of Virginia have the first integrated audience in its history.
DEADLINE: Bunche, who became the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize for successfully negotiating the 1948 peace talks between Arabs and Jews in Palestine, had a policy of not accepting speaking engagements where the audience was segregated.
ROBERT KENNEDY JR: Ralph Bunche stayed at my father’s house, and he was absolutely enraged that Southern law students would not sign a petition to have an integrated audience. Even though they told him privately that they believed in it, they knew if they signed that petition it would destroy their careers when they went back to practice in the South. So they wouldn’t do it. He thought that was rank hypocrisy and cowardice. He was very angry at them. He had many incidents like that. There was a black football player on his team at Harvard and when they toured the South, my father made a very big stink that this football player was not allowed to stay at hotels with the rest of the team. That just offended him. They weren’t raised in a way where they were seeing these things, but when they started getting exposed to them, their instincts were always the appropriate ones.
DEADLINE: In a way, it sounds similar to the enlightenment of the character Viggo Mortensen plays, Tony Lip. He might have had an idea of how things were, and when he saw the institutionalized racism in the South, it made him question every thought he ever had.
ROBERT KENNEDY JR: Yes.
DEADLINE: Why is it still important to make movies like this, that looks at a Jim Crow South? Hopefully things have changed.
ROBERT KENNEDY JR: There were so many good things about this movie. First of all, it was beautifully shot, one of those movies where every scene was beautiful. That was what my wife was talking about. Also, it wasn’t a whitewash. It didn’t feel like you were being moralized; it just felt like somebody was telling a really good yarn. There’s nothing about it that makes you feel like you’re being preached to. Viggo’s character is a rank racist himself, to start out with. So it’s not saying racism is confined to the South, or making a judgment about the South. It was about these two very different men, who found humanity in each other, and in the human experience. There’s nothing better than that, and it was fun to watch. That’s the hardest thing for a filmmaker to do. The easier thing to do is something formulaic, with robots fighting each other, but to make a wonderful, watchable fun film that teaches us about the history of our country and teaches us moral lessons about democracy, and about the human condition on every level, I think that is a triumph.
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