The only thing that’s better than the perfect acting performance? The perfect Oscars win.
It happens less often than you’d think—as in, almost never. In fact, it’s so rare that, in one of the only cases of it happening, decades of conspiracy theories and industry legend surround it.
Marisa Tomei’s performance as Mona Lisa Vito in My Cousin Vinny is one of the few times it’s both earned and acceptable to call something “iconic.” She crafted a riotously dynamic character and calibrated an exactly right blend of silly, serious, and scene-stealing; it’s memorable, while never pulling focus away from the narrative.
In fact, the climax of the film, a Cinderella story by way of legal comedy, hinges upon her. She nails every beat of her courtroom testimony, pulling off the magic act of embodying a comedy cliché—the exaggerated, ditzy Italian-American—to crowd-pleasing effect, while subverting expectations at the same time. Who else only knows what “positraction” is because of this performance?
If you were to tell someone who watched My Cousin Vinny for the first time today that Tomei won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for it in 1993, that person would likely say, “Well, of course!” It’s fascinating, then, that 30 years ago, the victory was considered so scandalous that some industry insiders suspected foul play.
Tomei’s comedic turn as a long-suffering fiancée is not what one considers—even now, but certainly at the time—“Oscars bait.” The actress was still new to the Hollywood scene, having mostly worked in New York theater and soaps before being cast in the film. No matter how fantastic her work in the movie was, a performance in a mainstream comedy film by a largely unknown actress being nominated for an Academy Award was considered a shock on its own. Her fellow nominees were esteemed veterans is the expected serious fare: Judy Davis (Husbands and Wives), Joan Plowright (Enchanted April), Vanessa Redgrave (Howards End), and Miranda Richardson (Damage).
When Tomei’s name was later announced as the winner by presenter Jack Palance at the Oscars, there was a palpable surprise. Years would be spent analyzing how this unexpected win, something so out of character for the Academy, happened. As The New York Times surmised after the ceremony, “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.”
Industry publications ran grumpy rumors that Palance had made a mistake when he announced her name. The theory was that Palance was confused and re-read the name of the last nominee on the TelePrompTer as the winner, when really it was supposed to be Davis or Redgrave. How else to explain how My Cousin Vinny was suddenly an Oscar-winning film, and its breakout actress, in a comedy role, a winner over the likes of those nominees? (As we’d all eventually learn with the La La Land and Moonlight debacle, if a mistake were to ever happen, it would be rectified immediately—not left to the rumor mill to debate for 30 years.)
It’s unfortunate that such a cruel discourse colored the win and followed Tomei after the fact. The actress spoke about it in 2017 in an interview with the Times. “When I was younger, it hurt my feelings,” she said. “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.”
But what’s most aggravating is that, in hindsight, it was the right win. Tomei undeniably deserved the Oscar. What a magnificent performance. What a triumph. What a piece of film history. What a fun win, too.
The Academy seems to hate that word, “fun.” It’s well-known how overlooked comedy is at the Oscars. Even as the industry acknowledges that now, it’s still rare for a comic performance to be nominated. It certainly happens; Melissa McCarthy for Bridesmaids, Robert Downey, Jr., for Tropic Thunder, and Alan Arkin (who won) for Little Miss Sunshine are recent examples. But it’s still the exception to the rule.
How great would it have been for Rose Byrne (Spy), Leslie Mann (Knocked Up), or Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover) to be nominated for their epic supporting work? Or, even when it straddles the line, a performance like Matthew McConaughey’s in the first Magic Mike? This year, I’d have loved for Kate Hudson’s hilarious turn in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery to have gained awards traction.
At the very least, we have Tomei’s win. Here’s hoping for more, and soon. My biological clock is ticking like this!
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