After Marisa Tomei’s landmark Oscar win in 1993 for her performance as Mona Lisa Vito in My Cousin Vinny, film critic Rex Reed had the audacity to claim it was a mistake. Not only did the critic create a popular-yet-wildly untrue Hollywood myth, but he clearly didn’t expect Tomei to win in the first place — instead, he posited that presenter Jack Palance must have been inebriated, and the Best Supporting Actress Oscar was always intended to go to Vanessa Redgrave for her dramatic performance in Howard’s End.
Since the infamous La La Land/Moonlight incident in 2017, we know that Oscar mistakes — which are certainly few and far between — get corrected immediately, and such a response would have certainly occurred if Marisa Tomei’s name was wrongly announced.
But more so, this undermining act likely comes from a preconceived notion about which female roles deserve Oscars; that usually, the woman who gives the most emotionally taxing performance will win over the woman who makes everyone laugh the most. In simpler terms, the crying woman is a more deserving winner than the clown.
Not only is that notion incorrect, but it actually epitomizes My Cousin Vinny, a film that celebrates its 30th anniversary this weekend (March 13th) and features Marisa Tomei as the hilarious, eruptive fiancee of the film’s namesake. Joe Pesci’s performance as Vinny, who is similarly dynamic and expressive, cements the film as an essential underdog story, an example of taking a character with wildly different customs and values and placing them in the most challenging environment possible, all just to watch him overcome these challenges.
But My Cousin Vinny wouldn’t be nearly as successful with this underdog narrative without Mona Lisa Vito, who does everything she can to help Vinny on his quest, and ends up being the hero of the story in the process.
In the film, Vinny is an incredibly inexperienced attorney on his first trial, tasked with discounting a bastion of circumstantial evidence against his cousin Bill (Ralph Macchio) after the murder of a shopkeeper in Alabama. He arrives in the deep south with Mona Lisa, who, among other things, is an expert on cars after years of working in her father’s garage back in New York.