‘My Cousin Vinny’ at 30: An Unlikely Oscar Winner

When the culture-clash courtroom comedy “My Cousin Vinny” landed in theaters on March 13, 1992, the critical response was mostly positive. The Times’s Vincent Canby found it “inventive and enjoyable,” The Los Angeles Times’s Peter Rainer called it “often funny” and The Hollywood Reporter deemed it “a terrific variation on the fish-out-of-water/man-from-Mars story formula.”

One phrase you won’t find in any of those reviews is “Oscar worthy.” Yet “Vinny” proved just that, landing an Academy Award for best supporting actress a full year after its original theatrical release — one of the biggest upsets in Oscar history, and a trophy that would prove both a blessing and a curse for its recipient, Marisa Tomei.

Her performance as Mona Lisa Vito, the long-suffering fiancee and legal secret weapon of Joe Pesci’s title character, was a breakthrough for the Brooklyn-born actress, who had done her time Off Broadway and in the world of soaps and sitcoms. “I was fresh to the business and didn’t know how movies worked,” Tomei explained in 2017, “but Joe chose me for the part, then took me by the hand and guided me immensely, so I got very lucky.”

“Vinny” concerns a pair of New York University students who, while driving through Alabama, are falsely accused of murder. They’re so desperate for legal representation that they call upon the only lawyer they can afford: Vincent LaGuardia Gambini (Pesci), a cousin of one of the accused and a novice who has just passed the bar after six attempts.

Pesci roars into town in a Cadillac convertible at the eleven-and-a-half minute mark; on the DVD audio commentary, the director, Jonathan Lynn, calls this, with characteristically British understatement, “a star entrance.” And that’s an accurate assessment of Pesci’s station — he had just won an Oscar for his menacingly funny work in “Goodfellas,” and “Vinny” was one of his first attempts to leapfrog from supporting player to leading man.

But Pesci wasn’t the only star making an entrance; a gum-smacking Tomei scores the first two laughs in the scene, first with her retort to his assertion that she sticks out “like a sore thumb” — “Oh, yeah, you blend” — and then her heartbroken realization, “I bet the Chinese food here is terrible.”

It’s noteworthy that Pesci cedes those laughs to her, and continues to do so throughout the picture, playing the George to her Gracie (though she is, clearly, the smarter one). A lesser actor might try to upstage her, but Pesci had been the scene-stealer before, in films like “Raging Bull” and “Easy Money”; he knew how to step back and let his co-stars shine. And this principle of generosity is most pronounced in the courtroom climax, when Vinny puts Mona Lisa on the stand as an automobile expert (she worked in her father’s garage), giving the testimony that exonerates his clients.

It’s clear why the commitment-shy Vinny falls in love with Mona Lisa all over again. She charms everyone from judge to jury to onlookers, and, in turn, the moviegoing audience. Credible, fiery, funny and energetic, she and Pesci turn what could’ve been broad caricatures into grounded, empathetic characters.

But “My Cousin Vinny” is not what we think of as an “Oscar movie,” and Tomei’s is not what is conventionally considered an “Oscar performance.” Credit where due to 20th Century Fox: When the film was an unexpected commercial success ($52 million on an $11 million budget), the studio spent some of those profits on a “For Your Consideration” campaign, paying off in her nomination for best supporting actress — alongside Judy Davis (“Husbands and Wives”), Joan Plowright (“Enchanted April”), Vanessa Redgrave (“Howards End”) and Miranda Richardson (“Damage”), tremendous competition indeed.

If the nomination was a surprise, Tomei’s victory over her distinguished competition was a shock. She was a newcomer triumphing over veterans, an American television actress taking on distinguished stage thespians from abroad, and, perhaps most importantly, the only comic performance against a quartet of scorching dramatic turns. And for all of those reasons, when Jack Palance opened the envelope and called Tomei’s name, it sent a shock wave through the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Maybe the uniformity of Tomei’s competition canceled each other out in her favor. Maybe she had the home court advantage. Or maybe, in a flurry of dramatic performances, the comedic joy of Mona Lisa Vito was a breath of fresh air.

Or maybe, maybe, it was a big mistake. Whispers began to circulate that a confused Palance had awarded Tomei the prize rather than the “rightful” winner. Palance was 74 at the time, adding a dash of ageism to the tall tale. The rumor first appeared in print a year later, in The Hollywood Reporter, its origin ascribed to an unnamed “former son-in-law of a distinguished Academy Award winner”; in the months that followed, it would find its way into Entertainment Weekly and Variety, among others.

All would take pains to insist that Tomei’s victory was legitimate; academy spokespeople refuted the rumor to anyone who would listen. “If such a scenario were ever to occur,” Roger Ebert was told, “the Price Waterhouse people backstage would simply step out onstage and point out the error. They are not shy.” (And that is, in fact, what happened during the “La La Land” and “Moonlight” mess of 2017, though it was hard to tell in all the hubbub onstage.) But it became a case of the Streisand effect, where these corrections ultimately just helped the story spread.

It didn’t help that these publications frequently took the opportunity to brand Tomei as somehow undeserving. EW explained the persistence of the rumor by noting that “she seems to have made a few enemies along the way,” quoting a producer (anonymously, of course) who claimed the award had changed her. Variety similarly quoted an anonymous filmmaker in their item, titled “Tomei Poisoning,” who suggested that the actor was fickle and overly ambitious.

Tomei did her best to make light of the rumor, even poking fun at it in her monologue while hosting “Saturday Night Live” in 1994. But this was a brave face. “When I was younger, it hurt my feelings,” Tomei told The Times in 2017. “It made me quite ashamed, actually. But on the other hand, it’s a load of [expletive]. I think it had to do more with the role that I played — that it was comedic and that it wasn’t upper class. I think it was more of a classist thing, frankly.”

She’s right, of course, and not just about the character. Comic performers are treated as second-class citizens by the academy, and though there are occasional exceptions, they’re rarely rewarded with Oscar nominations, much less statuettes. And there certainly seems to have been a classist prejudice against Tomei herself, a working-class actor who won the prize over acting royalty like Plowright and Redgrave and was subsequently (if anonymously) chastised in the press for getting too big for her britches.

Tomei took her lumps. When her post-“Vinny” film roles disappointed, she returned to the theater and became a mainstay of the New York stage. Her film roles, while less frequent, were judicial; they paid off with two more Oscar nominations, for “In the Bedroom” (2000) and “The Wrestler” (2008), as well as a role in one of the most popular film franchises of the moment. If Tomei learned one thing from Mona Lisa Vito, it seems, it was how to turn underestimation into triumph.

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