Oscar-winner ‘Green Book’ stirs pride as St. Pete residents watch family on screen

Nick Vallelonga wrote the screenplay about his father, who has several relatives in St. Petersburg, including a brother who appears in the movie.
Published March 2
Updated March 2

ST. PETERSRBURG — Annamaria Carnahan never expected to see her family on the silver screen, much less in a movie that would go on to win the Academy Award for best picture.

As the St. Petersburg resident watched familiar characters and places flash across the screen at the New York City premiere of Green Book in November, she was overcome with emotion.

Green Book is about the relationship between African-American jazz pianist Don Shirley and Carnahan's uncle, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, an Italian-American bouncer who chauffeured Shirley on a tour through the Deep South.

Related: Our own ‘Green Book’: How a black Times reporter chronicled his 1964 trip across the South

Carnahan's cousin, Nick Vallelonga, wrote the screenplay based on letters his father, Tony, wrote to Nick's mother while on the road. Vallelonga, along with co-writers Brian Currie and Peter Farrelly, won the Oscar for best original screenplay during last month’s awards.

"I'm just so happy for him," said Carnahan, 59, who works as a pastoral assistant at St. Paul's Catholic Church in St. Petersburg. "I sit around and think, 'My cousin has two Academy Awards.' "

While Carnahan knew her uncle worked at the legendary Copacabana night club in Times Square, the story of his time with Shirley was mostly new to her. Other facets of the movie were oh-so-familiar: the layout of her uncle's apartment in the Bronx, where she and Nick often played as kids; her aunt Dolores' sweet nature and caring approach; her father's quick wit and banter with her mother.

"It's a surreal, weird thing to see your family up there on screen," Carnahan said. "I remember when they showed my uncle's apartment for the first time and thinking, 'I used to eat grilled cheese at that table.' "

Carnahan and her cousin grew up together in the Bronx before Carnahan's family moved to St. Petersburg when she was 8 years old. The two, only three months apart in age, would walk to each other’s homes to play. They'd join together for Sunday dinners and trips to the zoo. Oftentimes, her uncle Tony, portrayed by Viggo Mortensen, was absent, either working overnight at the Copa or away on a job.

Carnahan, who has seen the movie about a half a dozen times following the New York premiere, was amazed by how accurately Mortsensen and all of the other actors portrayed her family. Mortsenson had her uncle down, she said, capturing all of his little quirks and expressions. She was captivated by Sebastian Maniscalco's version of her father, Johnny Venere, including his mannerisms and the way he had a laugh in his voice, even when speaking.

While she expected to see her father, uncles and grandfathers on screen, what most touched her were the few appearances of Jenna Laurenzo as Carnahan's mother, who died almost 20 years ago.

"The first time she spoke, I got tears in my eyes," Carnahan said. "It just hit me. That's my mother and father, young, up there talking to each other. That was very special."

Vallelonga has faced criticism for the screenplay, with Shirley’s family saying he mischaracterized the pianist and never contacted his living family members while writing the script. The film was also maligned for telling the story of a prominent African-American from the point of view of a white man using racist references.

Carnahan would not comment on the controversy.

“All I know is my cousin worked hard and he told a beautiful story about two men and a lifelong friendship that was created,” Carnahan said. “I just think it’s beautiful.”

Carnahan said Nick told her he worked hard with casting, hoping to come as close as possible to the looks and personality of family members.

Several of Carnahan's relatives are actors in the movie, portraying older generations. For example, Carnahan's cousin Frank Vallelonga plays another uncle, Rudy Vallelonga. That same Rudy, along with uncle Louis Venere, each portrayed their own fathers on screen.

Venere lives in St. Petersburg with his wife. Both flew to California for the Oscars, along with Quinn Duffy, who owns Joey Brooklyn's Famous Pizza Kitchen downtown and had a small role in the beginning of the movie.

Parts of the movie felt like going back in time, Carnahan said. From the photos on the wall and the style of lamps in the apartment, to seeing her cousins' bunk-bed tucked into the same room with her aunt and uncle.

The accuracy and familiarity of certain scenes brought a smile to her face. Take Aunt Dolores at the end talking about cousin Frankie climbing all over a television. Carnahan's mom quickly chimes in, "Are you nuts, Dee? ... He could have got electrocuted!"

"I started laughing so hard because I thought to myself, 'That would've so been a conversation between the two of them," Carnahan said.

Carnahan couldn't help but think what it would've been like for her parents and other relatives to see the film.

"I just know they had a big Oscar party in heaven," she said.

Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.