‘Green Book’ wins over Oscar voters at NYC luncheon where Mahershala Ali previewed his next acceptance speech

I heard Mahershala Ali‘s next Oscar acceptance speech today. It happened during a Q&A for “Green Book” at Bice in midtown Manhattan after the film screened next door.

“The film provides some perspective on things we are experiencing now. I think we need to have these films,” the “Moonlight” winner began. “We need to have art. We need to have ‘edu-tainment.’ Things have to exist that do some of the fighting for us.” On his portrayal of Don Shirley — the musician driven around the South in 1961 by Viggo Mortensen‘s character Tony Vallelonga — he continued, “It was a real blessing to step into the shoes of a man who was that dynamic and that complicated. I’d never seen that man on screen before — of any color. It made me nervous, but I wanted to step toward it.”

It’s rare that applause breaks out at one of these lunches staged by Oscars campaign doyen Peggy Siegal, but for this film it happened at least five times. This room loved the movie.

Mortensen “loved the story” and called the screenplay “maybe the best I’ve read in my 37 years in the business.” He credited the way it “handles so many things so deftly. It’s fun. It’s moving. It’s unexpectedly very profound.”

Director Peter Farrelly is probably used to people being dumbfounded that the “Dumb and Dumber” guy is now delivering a role-reversing “Driving Miss Daisy” 30 years later. (To put a fine point on that, Siegal and/or Universal had ‘Daisy’ writer Alfred Uhry at the luncheon. Like everyone else in the room, he’s a fan.) But that makes Farrelly happy because “the studio didn’t really know what we had until we screened it and it scored 100.” The film has been making the festival rounds where it has been a repeat audience award winner. “Being that I’ve done broad comedies it was hard to get this thing going,” Farrelly admitted. “The movie doesn’t happen without Viggo and Mahershala.”

Farrelly also thanked Siegal, who saw it at the London Film Festival and approached him in a hotel lobby one morning. “I was half asleep when she came up to me beaming and said, ‘I love your movie. And I’m going to be by your side everyday.'” For the record, she was across the room during the Q&A, but that was still pretty close. However, even with the star power of an Oscar winner and Aragorn “it was still like pushing boulders up a hill.”

It was worth the effort according to academy voters in attendance whom I promised anonymity when asking for their reactions. “Just remarkable and moving,” one told me. “It’s my favorite film of the year,” gushed another. “Terrific” and “timely” were also heard. Meanwhile, veteran actor Joe Cortese has a critical part in several opening scenes, and he’s thrilled with the outcome. “It’s the smallest part I’ve ever played, and it’s in the best movie I’ve ever been in.”

This story has been in development for over 20 years. Tony Vallelonga’s son Nick heard about the trip growing up. He wrote the screenplay along with Farrelly and Brian Hayes Currie. And because — spoiler alert — the musician and his driver became lifelong friends after the road trip, he also knew Shirley well. Still, he wanted to get everything right. “I started tape recording my father,” Vallelonga told the audience. Also, as depicted in the film, his dad periodically wrote to his mom while he was on the road, and “my mother kept all the letters,” he said. “So that was an invaluable source of information. It gave me the postmarks of where they were.”

The panel was moderated by Harvard professor and civil rights author Dr. Henry Louis Gates, who saw the film over the summer on Martha’s Vineyard and became fast friends with Farrelly. “I was riveted by the film,” Gates said. So riveted he set up a Boston screening. “It got a standing ovation from a hard-ass Harvard crowd.”

The film will face other crowds — hard-ass at first perhaps — when it opens in New York and LA this week. It moves to more theaters in the following weeks. Universal is hoping strong word of mouth will build its box office. Its 90% Rotten Tomatoes rating may help. Ali called the film both “a joy and a really healthy burden. It’s not a celebration of that time. It’s a portrait of that time. My grandfather was an NAACP President. These were people right next to me who were invested. Sixty years ago people next to you were involved.”

Mortensen added, “It shows the cure for ignorance is experience.” But maybe the film’s real secret weapon is the message and the way it’s conveyed. Farrelly’s comedy background pays off well here because there are lots of laughs. Not cheap shots. Solid character driven moments that have relevant punchlines. Real audience-pleasing moments. (Full disclosure: I was grinning ear-to-ear through the whole film. Choked up in a few places. And laughed out loud at least a dozen times.)

Vallelonga says he knew his dad was funny and would defend his friendship with a very special black musician. “My father punched a lot of guys in the face,” he said to a big laugh in the room. But it was the right kind of laugh. And his father’s road trip had a profound effect on his entire Brooklyn household. “My whole family changed the way we treated people.”

That’s the perfect holiday message. Now we’ll see if the academy at large agrees. My only advice? If you’re ever at Bice have the veal.

Be sure to check out how our experts rank this year’s Oscar contenders. Then take a look at the most up-to-date combined odds before you make your own Oscar predictions. Don’t be afraid to jump in now since you can keep changing your predictions until just before nominations are announced on January 22.

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