' ' Cinema Romantico: My Cousin Vinny (Or: Marisa Tomei Won Her Oscar So Step Off)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

My Cousin Vinny (Or: Marisa Tomei Won Her Oscar So Step Off)

As my friend Dave and I strolled down the street after viewing "Cyrus" at the theater we could not help but marvel at how good Marisa Tomei had been and how good she seems to have been in everything lately and this led, inevitably, to the ancient Hollywood conundrum of Marisa Tomei's Oscar.

She earned her statue for her supporting turn as Mona Lisa Vito, a chattering Brooklyn-nite thrust into Alabama, in "My Cousin Vinny." She was nominated opposite four old school heavyweights: Vanessa Redgrave for "Howards End", Judy Davis for "Husbands and Wives", Joan Plowright for "Enchanted April", and Miranda Richardson for "Damage." How did Tomei win? Probably because she was, you know, pretty good. Or probably because the other four split the vote, though conspiracy theories of the most deranged still abound - primarily that presenter Jack Palance read the wrong name and the Academy was too embarrased to correct his mistake. This has been debunked many times over but her Oscar win still seems to have gone down in pop culture as being massively undeserved.

(For the record I should state that none of these five should have won. If I had been blogging in 1992 my campaign to get Jodhi May for "Last of the Mohicans" nominated would have been so relentless that May herself probably would have told me: "Dude. Just calm down. It's not a big deal.")

Marisa Tomei has been downright phenomenal lately. "Cyrus" and "The Wrestler" and "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" and, for crying out loud, the woman even exuded hella charm as a comely chili cooker in the forgettable "Wild Hogs." (Wait....I just admitted I saw that....damn it!) But go back further, not just to her Oscar nominated turn in the devastatingly dark "In the Bedroom", but more charm in "Marilyn Hotchkiss' Ballroom Dancing & Charm School" and vulnerability in "Happy Accidents" and that alluring awkwardness she is putting to such good use these days is "Slums of Beverly Hills" and, of course, in perhaps the finest turn of her considerable canon, she convinces us of her affection for the "short, quirky, bald" George Costanza. (There really is nothing better than listening to Marisa Tomei discuss the finer points of manure.) But the question remained. The "My Cousin Vinny" Oscar. Did she deserve it?

The movie's story: two young dudes from New York City, Bill (Ralph Macchio) and Stan (Mitchell Whitfield) are crusing through 'bama when they are pulled over and booked on charges of a convenience store murder, a murder they, of course, did not commit. Enter Bill's cousin Vinny (Joe Pesci) an aspiring lawyer, who has been practicing personal injury for but a few weeks after passing the bar exam on his sixth try. He and his fiancé Mona (Tomei), with their loud clothing, their garish Brooklyn accents, find themselves as the ultimate paisanos out of the bourough while Vinny learns a little bit of lawyering under the gun.

The film's flaws are obvious. First, of course, there are the obligatory Wacky-Southern-Way-Of-Life references. Dirt and manure is for sale and grits are a foreign, frightening delicacy and so on and so forth. There are a couple Idiot Scenes - kin of the esteemed Roger Ebert's Idiot Plot - such as when Vinny enters the jail cell and the entire time Stan thinks Vinny is their new cellmate getting ready to do, uh, various misdeeds, though if Vinny simply shouted "Hey, I'm your lawyer" then this scene wouldn't exist. And crucially, after their opening moments, Bill and Stan are pushed to the side, ceasing to be characters and functioning solely as chess pieces in the trial. But that's not what I'm here to discuss.

While Pesci is fine in his role, doing as Pesci does, getting vocal, a little violent, and credibly appearing to hone his skills in such a short window, "My Cousin Vinny" should have likely been titled "My Cousin Vinny's Fiancé Mona." Initially Tomei's character appears to be nothing beyond brassy arm candy but as the movie progresses we will see her value to the proceedings are priceless. She guns the engines, pushes Vinny forward, calls him for not doing enough. After expressing what he perceives to be his own cleverness at having obtained the prosecutor's files Mona, having been at the hotel all day with nothing to do but read law books, admonishes him, "It's called full disclosure, ya d---head." Rest assured, she's no lamebrain.

In one of the film's best and most important moments she stomps about a cabin porch, her tight outfit woefully out of place, pestering Vinny because he had promised to marry her after he won his first case and, well, the way this case is going it is fast becoming likely that marriage will never take place. Pesci rants back and then Tomei pauses, considers, and her capping line is both perfectly written and delivered. This is an illustration of one of her greatest strengths - an ability to pull off sincere emotion in moments of genuine absurdity. She stomps about in her heels, hollering like Cher in "Moonstruck" having gone down to dixie, and all you want to do is shake Pesci and shout, "She just wants to get married, you greasy buffoon!"

All of which leads to her Showstopping Scene, her Showstopping Scene that is as good as Cuba Gooding Jr.'s Showstopping Scene in "Jerry Maguire" or Amanda Peet's Showstopping Scene in "Changing Lanes".

She takes the stand as Pesci's key witness, an expert in the area of general automotive, despite being an "out of work hairdresser", which is what she tells the prosecutor (Lane Smith) when he asks in a line reading that is howlingly laid back and dismissive. She then proceeds to establish her impressive credibility and, using a photograph of tire tracks she had previously taken, and that Pesci has found, in a rip roaring monologue prove the innocence of the defendants. (See for yourself.) It is immensely satisfying work, not simply because she cracks the case but because she also plays the scene's double meaning to the hilt - that is, the relationship between she and Vinny getting re-ignited through the pyrotechnics of this question & answer.

This is exemplary work. Oh, perhaps it doesn't achieve the heavyiosity (coinage: Woody Allen) of the work by Judy Davis and Miranda Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave (I've yet to see "Enchanted April", and likely never will) but here's the thing - people are always, always, whining about how the Academy ignores comedy. I'm one of them! So the Academy actually recognizes a comedic performance, a brilliant comedic performance, no less, and what happens? It must be a conspiracy! Palance must have read the wrong name! She didn't deserve it! Whatever.

Over the years she has shown inarguably that she is an actress with the total package. She can handle any role you give her and, through it all, she still shows allegiance to the stage. She's the real deal, always has been, always will be. She's the Kevin Durant to Kate Winslet's Kobe. She's Marisa Tomei, Oscar Winner, and no urban legend will ever change it.


Andrew K. said...

See, now I have to correct you because the best supporting performance of 1992 (and the entire decade, perhaps) was Helena Bonham Carter in Howards End. But no biggie, Marisa is a close second. So funny, so on point and just down right excellent. Easily one of the smartest Academy decisions in the 90s.

Nick Prigge said...

Helena Bonham Carter. That's right. She was good. It's been years since I've seen that movie. I watched that and "Remains of the Day" and "Room With A View" all in one week long, long ago when I decided I needed to get up to speed with this James Ivory fellow. That was a heavy week.

And so glad to hear of the support for Ms. Tomei. She rocks.

Rory Larry said...

If you'd been blogging in 1992, I'm not sure your campaign would have reached many people. Although maybe they would do whatever you said, because you would clearly be from the future.

Derek Armstrong said...

Thank you! Such a well-considered and just post. I haven't watched it recently, but I sure hope My Cousin Vinny "watches" as well as it did back then. A great film, a great performance.

While we're on the topic of the Academy recognizing comedy, thank heavens they also got it right with Kevin Kline for A Fish Called Wanda in 1989.