The Academy announced its latest slate of Oscar nominees on Tuesday and Green Book picked up a total of five nominations: Best Picture, Best Actor for Viggo Mortensen, Best Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali, Film Editing and Original Screenplay.
While the film has taken home numerous awards on its journey to the Oscars over recent months — including some surprising wins in a few major categories at this year’s Golden Globes and the top prize at the Producers Guild Awards — it’s also been subject to multiple controversies involving the film’s stars, its director, its screenwriter and has even faced backlash from the family of one of its main characters.
Set in the 1960s, Green Book tells the story of an unlikely friendship between famed jazz and classical pianist Dr. Don Shirley (Ali) and bouncer Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Mortensen), whom Shirley hires as his bodyguard and driver for an eight-week concert tour through the Deep South.
In a statement to ET following his nomination, Ali spoke about what he learned from his role.
“I’d like to thank the Academy for recognizing my work along with the extraordinary performances of my fellow nominees. I was so fortunate to have collaborators in Viggo Mortensen and Peter Farrelly and I’d like to congratulate them on their nominations,” he said. “Through Dr. Donald Shirley, I had the gift of navigating circumstances as a profound, gifted, complicated genius. A man who had experiences and a combination of qualities that I had yet to see on film.”
“I’m tremendously grateful for the lessons I learned through both his struggles and successes,” he added. “I sincerely hope Dr. Shirley’s music and his unique contribution to our culture continues to be discovered, shared and appreciated.”
In November, Mortensen sparked controversy when the 60-year-old actor used the N-word while addressing social progress and the advancement of racial tolerance and acceptance in the U.S. during a panel discussion at a screening of the film in Los Angeles. Mortensen issued a full apology shortly thereafter.
“In making the point that many people casually used the ‘N’ word at the time in which the movie’s story takes place, in 1962, I used the full word. Although my intention was to speak strongly against racism, I have no right to even imagine the hurt that is caused by hearing that word in any context, especially from a white man,” the actor said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter at the time. “I do not use the word in private or in public. I am very sorry that I did use the full word last night, and will not utter it again.”
Ali, who was present during the panel discussion, released a statement of his own addressing the incident.
“However well-intended or intellectual the conversation may have been, it wasn’t appropriate for Viggo to say the n-word,” Ali said, “He has made it clear to me that he’s aware of this, and apologized profusely immediately following the Q&A… Knowing his intention was to express that removing the n-word from your vocabulary doesn’t necessarily disqualify a person as a racist or participating in actions or thoughts that are bigoted, I can accept and embrace his apology.”
Around the same time, the film itself found itself under fire after NPR and Shadow and Act released interviews with some of the living family members of Dr. Shirley — including the pianist’s brother, Maurice Shirley, who described the film as “a symphony of lies.”
According to the musician’s nephew, Edwin Shirley III, the film’s portrayal of the jazz legend as a man who was estranged from his family and from the black community was “rather jarring.”
“That was very hurtful,” he told Shadow and Act. “That’s just 100% wrong.”
According to family members, not only was Dr. Shirley very present in their lives and in frequent contact with his brothers, he was also closely involved in the growing civil rights movement, was a friend to Martin Luther King, Jr., participated in the march on Selma, and had close friends among other legendary black jazz artists.
When Ali heard about the family’s disappointment with the film’s portrayal of the celebrated pianist, the Oscar winner reportedly called them personally to apologize.
“I got a call from Mahershala Ali, a very, very respectful phone call, from him personally. He called me and my Uncle Maurice in which he apologized profusely if there had been any offense,” Edwin said. “What he said was, ‘If I have offended you, I am so, so terribly sorry. I did the best I could with the material I had. I was not aware that there were close relatives with whom I could have consulted to add some nuance to the character.'”
A rep for the actor later confirmed that he’d apologized for the offense, but not “for the film itself,” Huffington Post reported.
Days after the film went on to win three Golden Globes — including Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor for Ali’s performance as Dr. Shirley — yet another controversy bubbled up when a story surfaced from two decades ago in which colleagues of director Peter Farrelly claimed the filmmaker used to flash people on the set of his films as a joke.
According to an excerpt from a Newsweek article from 1998, recently rediscovered by The Cut, Farrelly and his younger brother, and frequent collaborator, Bobby Farrelly, used to trick cast members, crew members and even studio executives into looking at the elder brother’s genitals, under the guise of a prank.
Farrelly issued a statement to ET following the article’s publication, admitting that the descriptions of his behavior recounted in the 20-year-old Newsweek articles were “true.”
“I was an idiot. I did this decades ago and I thought I was being funny and the truth is I’m embarrassed and it makes me cringe now,” the director said in his statement. “I’m deeply sorry.”
Among those who were interviewed in the Newsweek article was actress Cameron Diaz — who worked with the Farrelly brothers on the 1998 comedy There’s Something About Mary— who said at the time, “When a director shows you his penis the first time you meet him, you’ve got to recognize the creative genius.”
The Cut also found an article around the same time from The Observer, in which Farrelly estimated that he and his brother had performed the “joke” in question, “Easily 500 times.”
“You learn, you grow. You try to become a better person,” he explained “It’s all ultimately about the movie and that’s what we hope people see. I love this movie. I think it’s special.”
However, Farrelly wasn’t the only one whose past caught up with them in the days following the Golden Globes. Green Book screenwriter Nick Vallelonga — the real-life son of Mortensen’s character, Tony Lip — had to release an apology after a controversial tweet from 2015 resurfaced, in which he made anti-Muslim remarks.
“I want to apologize. I spent my life trying to bring this story of overcoming differences and finding common ground to the screen, and I am incredibly sorry to everyone associated with Green Book,” said Vallelonga in a statement, after he deleted his Twitter account amid the public outcry. “I especially deeply apologize to the brilliant and kind Mahershala Ali, and all members of the Muslim faith, for the hurt I have caused.”
“I am also sorry to my late father who changed so much from Dr. Shirley’s friendship and I promise this lesson is not lost on me,” Vallelonga continued. “Green Book is a story about love, acceptance and overcoming barriers, and I will do better.”
In the offending tweet, posted to the writer’s since-deleted account, Vallelonga agreed with an entirely false statement, made by then-Presidential candidate Donald Trump, who claimed to have seen people, who he implied were Muslim, cheering when the World Trade Center towers collapsed during the 9/11 terror attack.
“100% correct,” Vallelonga reportedly replied to Trump. “Muslims in Jersey City cheering when towers went down. I saw it, as you did, possibly on local CBS news.”
This claim has since been debunked and no factual evidence exists to support it, nor was any such mass cheering ever recorded or aired by any news stations at the time.
With one scandal after another crashing down on the acclaimed project, the film has gone from an Oscars front-runner to something of a long shot, but its nominations mean it’s not out of the running just yet.