#10 — Marisa Tomei as Mona Lisa Vito in My Cousin Vinny (Jonathan Lynn, 1992)
Marisa Tomei’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar win for My Cousin Vinny was so surprising and contrary to the typically stuffy Academy voting trends that a fairly mean-spirited myth built up around it. As per Academy custom, the previous year’s Best Supporting Actor winner was invited to present the award, which meant 74-year-old Jack Palance took the stage, looking far less hale than he did a year earlier when he famously treated the audience to a few one-armed push-ups. He fumbled with the names of individual nominees and botched a joke about the nationalities of the actresses. So when he shocked viewers by announcing Tomei as the winner, there were some who concluded that he must have read her name in error due to his obviously addled state. Instead of reading the winner’s name from the card inside the envelope, the story went, he simply announced the name he saw before him on the teleprompter, which would have theoretically been Tomei’s since she was last in the alphabetical list of nominees. Despite decisive Academy protests to the contrary, the myth persisted, especially as Tomei’s career in the years immediately after her Oscar win left many unimpressed.
I was deeply devoted to the art of Oscar prediction at the time and I can assure you that no one–and I mean no one–thought Tomei was going to win that year. The nomination itself seemed like a happy fluke: Tomei hadn’t received formal recognition from any other award-giving body up to that point, including the Golden Globes, a group that has long been more amenable to comedic performances in frothy hits. My Cousin Vinny was a film from the previous spring, and Academy members were notorious for having short memories in making their selections. And the competition was especially stiff in the Supporting Actress category that year, with compelling reasons to expect a win for any of the other four actresses: Judy Davis had racked up a small battalion of critics awards for her stellar turn in Husbands and Wives, although the Academy may have been a little nervous about the film given how intrinsically it was tied to the controversy swirling around director Woody Allen at the time; Joan Plowright, nominated for Enchanted April, won the Golden Globe in the same category and was a legendary figure who no one would quibble with as a worthy recipient (she’s the widow Olivier, for cryin’ out loud); Vanessa Redgrave was quietly wonderful in Best Picture nominee Howards End, and she was the only person with a greater claim than Plowright to exalted status as acting royalty; and Miranda Richardson was a central figure in many of the year’s most respected films, so much so that most probably weren’t sure which one she was actually nominated for (Louis Malle’s Damage; I had to look it up).
Since any of Tomei’s four competitors seemed like a relatively safe bet to win, it’s reasonable to think that the vote was spread so evenly among them that they effectively canceled each other out. Tomei may have had an advantage just because her performance was so starkly different from the others, and being the only American in the category probably didn’t hurt either. And one other thing that may very well have worked in her favor: the performance is flat-out terrific.
Even before the Academy Award win, it’s fair to say that My Cousin Vinny was a breakthrough for Tomei. She’d done only limited film work to that point, the most notable of which was probably the cold comfort of being the best part of a very bad Sylvester Stallone comedy. Just a few years earlier she was drawing a regular paycheck for what had to be not especially gratifying work in a mediocre spinoff of The Cosby Show. These are hardly the clear stepping stones to Oscar glory. Her performance as Mona Lisa Vito in My Cousin Vinny, however, announced her as an actress worth watching. Even beyond being impressed with what she does in the frames of this film, it’s the sort of the performance that generates instant excitement about what she might do next.
What she does here is worthy enough of celebration. As the brash, forthright girlfriend of Vinny Gambini, the unrefined new lawyer played by Joe Pesci, Tomei strikes a balance between broad-based caricature and completely relatable person that is as skillful as it is unlikely. Dressed in skintight clothes and frightfully short mini-skirts, she emerges with casual self-confidence into the little Alabama town where a case of mistaken identity has led Vinny’s cousin and his friend to be charged with robbery and murder. She’s accompanying Vinny as he works his first real case, providing support while also constantly needling him in a combative restlessness that clearly defines their romance. Though he’s going for laughs, Pesci is as commanding and ferocious as ever. This is when he was at the height of his powers (Vinny was released less than two years after his Oscar-winning turn in Goodfellas), and it’s a measure of the quality of Tomei’s performance that this is one of the few instances from that time frame when another actor consistently held their own against Pesci instead of looking like they could be devoured by him at any moment.
The back-and-forth between the two performers is enjoyable throughout, but it reaches its wondrous apotheosis when Vinny has a epiphany about a piece of evidence that previously seemed inconsequential, causing him to call Lisa to the witness stand because of the extensive background she has with automobiles, developed while working alongside her family of mechanics. Director Jonathan Lynn was meticulous about making certain the courtroom material proceeded in a way that was accurate (it’s a far sounder depiction of how American jurisprudence works than can be found in most serious-minded courtroom dramas), meaning that Tomei has to deliver a landslide of dense information that convincingly wraps up the case while also remaining fully in character. She mixes petulance with iron-hard certainty, especially when the opposing lawyer condescendingly questions her credentials. It’s even better when she realizes how the distant photograph of some tire tracks is the key to exonerating Vinny’s clients, and she begins sharing complicated features of decades-old car makes and models, thrumming with the joy of sharing her knowledge. Lisa gets to perform, drawing out the line, “Would you like me to tell you why?” with an endearing playfulness. In this scene, Tomei doesn’t just honor the developed complexities of her character; she pops like a sudden new star.
For quite some time, Tomei’s Oscar for My Cousin Vinny was almost a punchline, wielded as the quintessential example of how wrong the Academy could be when her career was at its lowest. I think that’s changed over the course of the past ten years as Tomei has proved her awards-worthy mettle with two more Academy Award nominations (and she definitely deserved another one for Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead). It’s likely a case of observers deciding that she’s demonstrated she’s a deserving Oscar-winner, even if they don’t fully respect the performance that’s actually etched into the base of her trophy. If so, they’re deeply misguided. Even though I strongly felt that Judy Davis should have won that year, I full well remember letting out an involuntary cheer when Tomei’s name was read (I believe the only other time I’ve ever done that was when Frances McDormand won for Fargo). Truly exemplary acting deserves to be recognized, and that’s exactly what the Academy did when they unexpectedly handed Tomei her award.
About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh as Amy Archer in The Hudsucker Proxy