While Oscars voters loved Green Book, as evidenced by the film’s Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay wins, not to mention Mahershala Ali’s Best Supporting Actor award, the real-life family of Ali’s character Don Shirley have a decidedly different take. According to relatives of the late black pianist, the film’s depiction his relationship with white chauffeur Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (played in the film by Viggo Mortensen) inflates Shirley’s relationship with his driver and inaccurately depicts the musician as estranged from his family, among other inconsistencies. On Sunday, following the 91st Academy Awards, writer Nick Vallelonga, son of Tony, told reporters that Don Shirley himself told Vallelonga not to reach out to anyone about the film based on the two men’s unlikely friendship.
“If you’re discussing the Don Shirley family thing, that falls on me, but Don Shirley himself told me to not speak to anyone,’ Vallelonga told reporters after the awards show per The Hollywood Reporter. “He told me the story he wanted to tell. He protected his private life, and all the other things about him, miraculous things about him. He was an amazing man.” Vallelonga continued, “He told me, ‘If you’re going to tell the story, you tell it from your father, me, no one else. Don’t speak to anyone else. That’s how you have to make it. And also, he told me, ‘Don’t make it until after I pass away.’ So I just kept my word to that man.”
Added Vallelonga, “I wish I could have reached out to Don Shirley’s family. I didn’t even know they really existed until after we were making the film.” He says the film did reach out to the pianist’s estate regarding music, and later invited relatives to screenings and discussions. “I personally was not allowed to speak to his family, per Don Shirley’s wishes. I’m an Italian from New York. They call that a stand up guy. I kept my word to the man.”
Vallelonga’s explanation contradicts statements made by Don Shirley’s nephew Edwin Shirley III, who, along with Don’s brother Maurice and other relatives, claims his uncle not only told them about the film pitch, but about his decision to reject the concept as well. “I remember very, very clearly, going back 30 years, my uncle had been approached by Nick Vallelonga, the son of Tony Vallelonga, about a movie on his life, and Uncle Donald told me about it,” Edwin told Shadow and Act in December. “He flatly refused.”
Following word of the Shirley family’s displeasure with the movie, star Mahershala Ali apologized for any offense, allegedly saying he did not know Shirley had close family with whom he could have discussed the role. Director Peter Farrelly also expressed dismay over the same issue. “We were under the impression there weren’t a lot of family members, but in the last month we’ve found out that there are family members,” Farrelly said told Newsweek in November. “I feel bad about that, I wish we could have done more.”