Five weeks into the 1992 run of Wayne’s World, another comedy debuted underneath that sensation on the box office charts. My Cousin Vinny may not have been able to topple the fifth weekend of Wayne and Garth, or the early weekends of Basic Instinct and White Men Can’t Jump, the other spring ’92 smashes that followed. But the movie stuck around at the box office—technically speaking, it made more than Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese picture that so helped popularize Pesci’s irritable-goombah persona—and later earned a more permanent spot in the history books through its unlikely status as an award-winner. A little over a year after its theatrical debut, Marisa Tomei won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Mona Lisa Vito, the brash Italian-American girlfriend of brash Italian-American lawyer Vincent Laguardia Gambini (Joe Pesci, who won Best Supporting Actor two years earlier for Goodfellas).
Tomei’s win was so unexpected that for years, rumors persisted—propagated by dapper idiot Rex Reed—that presenter Jack Palance had announced her name by mistake, and the Academy had covered it up. (This was directly debunked by the Academy.) The idea of an Academy selecting a purely delightful comedic performance simply did not compute in Reed’s brain, forcing him to invent an entire conspiracy restoring order to a saner, tonier, more Vanessa Redgrave-dominated world.
It’s easy to make fun of the stuffy middlebrow respectability that somehow eliminated the possibility of a legitimate Tomei win. But the truth is, it’s exactly that sense of propriety that makes Tomei’s Oscar one of the most satisfying on record, alongside Kevin Kline’s Best Supporting Actor win for A Fish Called Wanda four years earlier. Though My Cousin Vinny isn’t as expertly tuned, satirically inclined or flat-out as uproarious as A Fish Called Wanda, it’s fueled by similar cross-pond cooperation: British-born Jonathan Lynn directs a fish-out-of-water comedy about a New York personal-injury attorney attempting to defend his cousin (Ralph Macchio) falsely accused of murder. Like Wanda, the movie establishes a crime story in an opening that avoids big gags in favor of clearly, cleanly laid-out set-up, leaving the rest of the movie plenty of room for character comedy. And while Pesci is very funny—it’s his best outright comic performance—it’s Tomei who really makes music out of her profane, Noo Yawk-accented dialogue.
As written, the role of Mona Lisa Vito shoulders a lot of supportive-girlfriend material, as she alternately encourages and wheedles the exasperated Vinny. Tomei never feels like a caricatured pushover or nag, staying lovably tart throughout; so many of the movie’s laughs come from her delivery. Look at the scene where she tells Vinny that he can win this case, then continues: “If,” she adds crisply as she puts herself to bed, “ya don’t fuck up.” The movie takes advantage of a time when a comedy could casually opt into an R rating purely for language, without physical gags, and while Pesci obviously knows his way around curse words, Tomei has the best casual swearing, maybe because she makes it sound like such an honest part of her character. At one point, she’s appalled by Vinny’s decision to go hunting with his opposing counsel, and when he asks for help choosing his outfit for the occasion, she paints a picture of an innocent deer unexpectedly shot to pieces before asking: “Would you give a fuck about what kind of pants the son-of-a-bitch who shot you was wearing?” She rests her case, in other words.
Her most famous scene (and certainly one that appeared in a lot of ads) is when she confronts Vinny about their long-delayed wedding plans—“My niece, the daughter of my sister, is getting married”—and announces that her “biological clock is ticking like this,” as she stomps her high-heeled foot on a wooden porch to drive home her point. It’s a great moment, and the perfect length for an Oscar-night clip, but the telecast chose an even better one, more pivotal to the story: The climactic scene where Lisa takes the stand in Vinny’s trial to serve as an expert witness in the field of automobiles, just after they’ve had a relationship blow-up. Her flip from silent-treatment fury to gleeful participation—she can’t help but revel in her own confident expertise, pick up what Vinny is signaling about the discovery he’s made and fall back in love with him, all within the span of a minute or so—is about as close as any ’90s comedy came to updating vintage screwball.
How heartwarming, then, to recall that the Academy membership actually saw fit to reward Tomei’s work. It even adds an afterglow to her later nominations for more conventionally dramatic stuff; her three nominations feel more complete because they acknowledge the full range of her career. If only this happened more often! While wedging more comic performances into the lead-acting categories would be great, those are at least understandably competitive races. The supporting categories, while often stacked, are also a lot flukier, and should be more open to comic turns that evince such absolute joy of performance.
Sometimes they are: Last year, Maria Bakalova somehow became a foregone conclusion of a nominee for the Borat sequel, and we just passed the 10th anniversary of Melissa McCarthy’s nomination for Bridesmaids. But of course, neither of them actually won; that was a bridge too far. Your Klines and Tomeis still remain few and far between. Then again, maybe that scarcity helps those richly deserved wins (Kline’s Fish Called Wanda Oscar might be my single favorite win of all time) feel all the more special—all the more deflating of tedious middlebrow respectability. It’s far more common today to push back against that mentality by simply trashing the nominated movies (or over-discussing them until everyone begs for mercy). This makes My Cousin Vinny the rare “awards movie” that has managed to improve upon a modest reputation. Thirty years after its release, all of Marisa Tomei’s scenes feel like perfect Oscar clips.
Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.