One of the perks of having the son of one of the film’s subjects be its co-writer is that the production gets all kinds of access for research. That’s exactly what it was like for Betsy Heimann, who created the vintage ‘60s looks on “Green Book,” which chronicles the friendship between pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and his one-time driver Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen).
“I had access to some fabulous photographs of Tony at the Copacabana with Tom Jones and Don Rickles and all kinds of characters,” Heimann shared at Gold Derby’s Meet the Experts: Costume Designers panel, moderated by this author (watch the exclusive video above). “I had some pictures of his mother and [Tony and Dolores’] wedding. And I had a few pictures of the family.”
It was a Vallelonga family affair on the project, which was co-written by Tony’s son Nick. Vallelonga family members were also in the movie, playing their fathers, and loaned actual jewelry of Tony’s and Dolores’ (Linda Cardellini) for the actors to wear. And they all gave Heimann their seal of approval on her costumes. “The most rewarding part was when they would come in for the fitting and they all came in at the same time, the whole family,” she said. “And it was 7:30 at night and I said, ‘OK, everybody just get in the room.’ They’d look in the mirror and they’d go, ‘Yeah, my dad would’ve worn this. This is good.’”
Heimann, whose credits include Reservoir Dogs” (1992), “Pulp Fiction” (1994), “Jerry Maguire” (1996) and “Out of Sight” (1998), created polar-opposite aesthetics for two polar-opposite people. An Italian working-class bouncer who has never met a meal or cigarette he didn’t like, Tony was outfitted in tight, unflashy clothing, as Mortensen packed on 40 pounds for the role.
“Every movie, an actor’s body presents opportunities and complications,” Heimann said. “For me, it was just like, ‘This is the character. Let’s make him comfortable.’ And then we just started to have fun with it. Because he’d come to me in the morning and say, ‘Guess what’s happening today?’ I’d say, ‘What?’ ‘I get to eat a whole pizza!’ He was torturing me, but in a fun way.”
Don Shirley, on the other hand, was a man of refined taste, which showed in his perfectly tailored suits and patterned sweaters. Heimann, who sourced a majority of the clothing, was influenced by the jazz musicians of the time, such as Miles Davis, all of whom were impeccably dressed as well.
“I just think he had style and he had the money to show his style and it was very important for him, especially in the South, to walk into that clothing store and say, ‘I’m a well-dressed man and I’m entitled to the things you’re selling and if you don’t wish to sell them to me, then I’ll just leave,’” Heimann said, referring to a scene in the film when a clothing store denied service to Don because he’s black. “He was just a very elegant man and Mahershala has a lot of that elegance naturally, which I just employed to be inspirational and to give him that silhouette that I knew those guys had and that I knew he could carry.”
By the end of the film, as the two become friends, their wardrobe blended together as well. “I wanted in the end for [Don] to be in that white tail, the tux, to go into that club and play, dressed so elegantly. And then as he leaves the club, the tie is off, and then as we go a little bit further, the sweater comes on, and Viggo gets tired [driving],” Heimann said. “And what I wanted was, in the end, he’s wearing the sweater in the front seat — Mahershala, like Viggo — and Viggo’s wrapped up in the blanket that [Don] kept on his knees in the back. And that said it all for me.”
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