Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny (1992) - Supporting Actress Sunday

I've been uncertain about how to broach the conversation about this week's nominated performance. Is there a more notorious nomination/win in the history of the category? One that's the subject of its own urban legend? And is there another supporting actress who (a) became a punchline as a result of her first nomination/win who (b) has also gone on, in the years since, to emerge as one of the most acclaimed stalwarts of the category? If there is a comparable nomination, please remind me in comments. In the meantime, indulge me as I try to figure out how to talk about...

...Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny (1992)
approximately 36 minutes and 30 seconds
32 scenes
roughly 30% of film's total running time
Marisa Tomei plays Mona Lisa Vito, the devoted girlfriend of Joe Pesci's titular cousin Vinny.
For reasons that are never made especially clear, Tomei's Lisa has "tagged along" as Pesci's Vinny arrives to the backwoods of Alabama to defend a cousin from a ridiculous murder charge.
As best as I can tell, My Cousin Vinny is a culture-clash law procedural (novice big city lawyer flounders in a Southern small town) packaged as a comic vehicle for Joe Pesci (whose memorably Oscar-winning turn in 1990's GoodFellas briefly established the character actor as an "above the title" star). However, as skilled Pesci might be in crafting memorably larger-than-life screen characterizations, his comic timing isn't especially keen and he becomes the "straight man" in his own comic vehicle. (Just think of John Turturro or Alec Baldwin in the lead role of Vinny and this cross-cultural comedy of legal manners changes shape almost immediately.)
Indeed, the comedic heavy-lifting in My Cousin Vinny comes mostly from Pesci's two main foils: the formidable Ed Gwynne (somehow layering sublety into the broad cliche required of his imperious small-town judge character) and the astonishing Marisa Tomei as the incongruous Lisa.
The character of Lisa is not really a character at all. Rather, she's actually an all-purpose plot device, adorned with insane outfits and breathtaking dialogue riffs.
(An aside: when I was grabbing screencaps of this performance, it seemed Lisa/Tomei held little emotional interest for director Jonathan Little. Most of her close-ups and reaction shots occur at the character's least dynamic moments, resulting in a lot of vacuous shots where Tomei's Lisa is just shooting an off-screen Vinny a "look." Even when she's speaking, Little seems oddly disinterested in Lisa, except as goofy eye-candy and/or as plot expediter.)
Overall, there's a haphazardness to the construction of the character of Lisa, both on the part of the actress and the film. We never understand why Tomei's Lisa is so in love with Pesci's Vinny, as the two share no discernible chemistry. We don't know why she took this trip with him. The pool hustling, the mechanical expertise, the killer bod, the perfect makeup -- all the pieces of Lisa's backstory remain as meaningful as items listed in a personal ad; they are never revealed to be especially personal details for either the film or the actress. (That said, Tomei handles the intricate "car talk" with an elevating wit and emotional clarity.)
Which leads me to my crackpot My Cousin Vinny theory: the character of Lisa was scripted as "the girl" -- the fantasy helpmeet necessary for most screen heroes (comic or action) in the late 1980s and early 1990s. "The girl" of this era in filmmaking must be likably competent, even unusually so, enough that we'd believe her capable of providing that crucial bit of help to the hero as he saves the day. Yet we're not really supposed to care about her, except to be relieved that she's there as the hero's ready helper. (Think of Kelly Preston and Chloe Webb in 1988's Twins as the emblematic example of this mode of female character construction.) However, something happens with Marisa Tomei's casting in this role. Tomei's performance tips the balance of convention and, by the end, her pretty helpful girlfriend has become the tacit hero/ine of the film.
To be sure, Tomei's far better than she needs to be in the film. Tomei's Lisa emerges as the brightest character in the film -- in every way conceivable -- and her performance is at the center of every memorable thing about this film.
Tomei is absolutely vivid, precise, amusing and -- incongruously enough -- believable in this nearly implausible role.
Perhaps more importantly, Marisa Tomei's performance as Mona Lisa Vito seems to embody a particular ideal of supporting actressness. The actress is sexy; the character is sweet. The actress is fierce; the character is deferential. The actress could be a leading lady; the character exists to pursue the male hero's wants and needs. The actress is exciting and full of surprises; the story's emphatically his journey, not hers. And what do I make of all this? I'm still surprised the performance was nominated, but I'm less surprised that it won.
But what of Marisa Tomei's work in the role? On its own, Tomei's work elevates a negligible supporting role to become a defining feature of the film's appeal and its success. Tomei is charismatic, compelling, and delightfully funny -- a breakthrough performance by a delightfully talented actress. Through sheer force of skill, will and talent, Tomei broke through the confinements imposed by late 1980s conventions of female character construction in comedy to create one of the most memorable characterizations in the category.
So -- to channel Tomei's Lisa -- what's your PROBlem? Nominations for Best Supporting Actress have been awarded for much much less than what Marisa Tomei accomplishes in My Cousin Vinny.


Michael said...

Is there ANYONE who doesn't feel ambiguous about this performance. I don't know anyone who categorically dislikes it, but also nobody who likes it without major reservations.

Michael Shetina

alice_the_goon said...

I love that Marisa Tomei won for this film, I mean, I kinda hate the movie but I love her in it. For me the worst win ever in this category was Jennifer Hudson. An Oscar is for acting, not singing, and her acting was nothing but jilted script reading and sassy looks that really didn't do it for me.

Alex in Movieland said...

It's definitely NOT the worst win ever. We've seen much much worse.

But in the end: should we really applaud her for being somewhat above the material when that doesn't even make for 20% of Judy Davis' screenpower in Husbands and Wives or Miranda's breakdown scene in Damage?!
For her kindergarden level, Marisa is GREAT, but Judy and Miranda are cruising through highschool.

It's an infamous win because they didn't expect it and because the competition, though divided, was fierce.

you could say that in the blogging enviroment Renee's win is even more boooooo-ed than this one. I guess.
[we should really do 2003]

Curtis said...

She's so good now, but that performance should NOT have won the Academy Award. Although it's nice to see them award comedic performances; any of the other women should have won.
The above statement should not take away from the wonderful work she's done in the past ten years, but that performance; no gold.


I totally agree with you when you say that is much harder to understand how she was nominated than to understand how she won.
Her nomination seems so completly out of place. It's a comedic performance, in a movie that opened early in the year (march 13), that wasnt a huge hit that they couldn't ignore, much by the other way, it was a movie that didn't get any kind of atention by any awards group or critics, not for Tomei, not for the movie at all. If you look at IMDB the first mention of my cousin Vinny in any award its her oscar nomination. I was way to young to follow to oscars in 1992/1993, but her nomination seems totally out of nowhere. The only thing that comes to mind as a 100% unexpected as this are the City of God nominations in 2003 (or maybe Marcia Gay Harden in 2000, but she had some awards before the nomination).
To understand how she won - vote spliting, Jack Palance reading the wrong name, the single american theory or even that they liked her more than the other ones (or whatever crazy theory you embrace). To me, is much easier to understand her win than her nomination.

Criticlasm said...

Vote splitting makes sense, but it's interesting in her case that her career since seems to be her earning the Oscar she's already won, rather than the other way around, which is what usually happens. So though she was nominated for phenomenal work in the Wrestler and In The Bedroom, it seems like she'll be retroactively proving this win. And also, American or not, it's still amazing that Judy Davis and Miranda Richardson have never won Oscars.

Alex in Movieland said...

prova pericial, back then in the early 90s it wasn't unusual for a film which opened very early to get Oscar attention. You didn't have the November-December frenzy back then.

The Silence of the Lambs, for example, was released in February 1991; February! and it won all those Oscars... So, times have changed.

jakey said...

I've only seen bits and pieces of this movie on TV, but should rent it considering I've seen her other two nominated performances (and was blown away by them).

Interesting Alex brings up Renee Zelwegger. "Entertainment Weekly" did a feature recently where they polled Oscar voters asking if they'd vote the same way now that they did then. They only did a few years (20, 15, 10 and 5 years ago) but 2003 had Renee Zelwegger at five percent. I've long thought that she won because they wanted to give her one so badly for the past several years, but she was unforunately nominated (and in more competitive races) the years of Nicole and Halle.

Alex in Movieland said...

Marisa's nomination really was a surprise. But not the only one from her category.

I'm thinking Vanessa Redgrave in Howards End. Absolutely no other award mentioning and it seemed like Helena Bonham Carter was the supporting star of the film.

I suppose that the runner-ups for the nomination were HB Carter and Alfre Woodard for Passion Fish. and Miranda Richardson for The Crying Game had the Academy allowed multiple nominations for same actress. :P

Criticlasm said...

@ Alex--there may be no other award mention for Redgrave, but Thompson was Best Actress for it and it was a very lauded film. Also, if you've read the book, Redgrave is wierdly PERFECT in the role. She haunts the film in a way I really can't see another actress doing, and that's imperative for the role to work in the film.

Alex in Movieland said...

Criticlasm, that's a great point. But how many actors/voters had read the book? :)

yes, she does haunt the film. but that's because her character is all over the plot; in spirit, that is.

yet, I did say HB Carter seemed like a more likely nominee from the film (I'm watching it again this week).
I think they went for Redgrave because of the performance, but also because she IS Vanessa Redgrave (in case older conservative voters & Vivien fans didn't dig husband stealer Joan Plowright) :P

Vertigo's Psycho said...

I think Marisa takes a lot of hits because the film's not great. She is, though. It has to be harder to score a major breakthrough via great work in a light, pleasant but (except for her) forgettable comedy, as opposed to shining in A-1 material and grabbing major hosannas. I'll never get why so many people think comedy's much easier to pull off than drama, and therefore less award-worthy. The lineup was great that year, but Tomei's work was distinctive enough to warrant the attention she received, including the Big One.

Vertigo's Psycho said...

Oh, and regarding the out-of-left-field nomination, I do remember Mike Clark in USA Today pushing hard for a Tomei nomination during 1922-93. The movie was a hit, which also couldn't have hurt. However, I think it may have come down to the simple fact that Tomei's work was memorable enough for voters to remember her come nomination time.

Stacia said...

After 3 attempts I finally finished this movie the other day (my husband said I was in such a "I don't care if I live or die" mood that I just let the awfulness of this film wash over me like some kind of cleansing by fire) and I'm appalled by pretty much everything in the film. Bad wigs, bad acting, stupid plot, flat jokes, cheap sets, uninspired camerawork... the entire crew must have been sleepwalking through the whole production.

Austin Pendleton had a few good lines but he's such a pro he should have been better. Fred Gwynne tried his damnedest but still couldn't elevate the dreck that was this film.

And Tomei... well, she wasn't the worst in the film. But her role was offensive (did you notice how surprised Lisa looks at the end when she saves the day? She's practically telegraphing the "Wow, a WOMAN did something right! How funny is that?" message) and her performance a by-the-numbers eye-roller.

Maybe everyone was so surprised that she outacted Pesci that they assumed her performance was good. This was before we realized Pesci needed strong direction to give a good performance, after all.

NicksFlickPicks said...

Alfre Woodard in Passion Fish was almost certainly the runner-up for a nom that year; she was all over the prediction lists, got a Globe nom, and co-starred with an Actress nominee in a (surprise) Oscar-nommed script. There was also some heat behind Geraldine Chaplin playing her own grandmother in Chaplin.

As I recall, Tomei and Rosie Perez in White Men Can't Jump were often mentioned in tandem in prediction pieces leading up to the nominations as "funny scene-stealers the Academy probably won't spring for, but the public loved 'em." A year later, some pundits credited a part of Perez's Fearless momentum to a sense that she had barely missed with White Men....

khaled said...

I think Marisa Tomei deserved the Oscar for this performance--and I have seen all the nominated performances. I think Miranda Richardson was nominated for the wrong role. If she had been nominated for The Crying Game instead of Damage she would be an Academy Award winner for Best Supporting Actress today. I suspect she placed herself in the Best Actress category with that performance to increase her chances of a nomination. Otherwise the Academy would have split their votes three ways in the Supporting Actress category (her performance in Enchanted April along with the two previously mentioned) rather than just two ways. Her role in the Crying Game had more screen time and more delicious bite. I LOVE her performance in Damage BUT it is too brief and comes too late in the film to make her character feel fully realized. No way was Joan Plowright or Vanessa Redgrave gonna win that year--the nomination itself was the award. Judy Davis was too "cold" for the Academy's tastes back then--although I think now that performance might have a bigger shot at the win. So, by default in many ways, Tomei wins. And I would still vote for her today at my own peril! LOL (unless Richardson was nominated for The Crying Game) Tomei made me laugh the entire time (and I guess the Academy and myself are the only ones she made laugh) and STEALS and OWNS that film. I think that's another part of the Supporting Actress criteria: if the Actress STEALS the film from the presumed STAR, that generally bodes well for a nomination and a win (Jennifer Hudson, Renee Zellweger, Marcia Gay Harden, etc.) I'm not saying that's how you should judge a performance but the Academy seems to do just that. Ok so I'm ready for everyone to whip me for loving this nomination and this win. HA!