Tick-tock, tick-tock. Yes, that is the sound of your biological clock ticking…like…this because 2022 marks the 30th anniversary of the Academy Award winning comedy classic, My Cousin Vinny. The fish-out-of-water comedy stars Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei as Vinny Gambini and Mona Lisa Vito, two New Yorkers that arrive in a small Alabama town to help free Gambini’s wrongfully accused cousin of a murder charge. The film was a box office success upon release and became a mainstay of cable television. My Cousin Vinny would acquire a bizarre legacy when Marisa Tomei won Best Supporting Actress in a shocking upset. A very odd urban legend would form after the win and wouldn’t really be fully quashed until the Moonlight and La La Land envelope fiasco at the 89th Academy Awards.
The film opens with college students Bill Gambini (Ralph Macchio) and Stan Rothenstein (Mitchell Whitfield) visiting a convenience store. As they stock up on supplies, Gambini accidentally steals a can of tuna. A few miles down the road, the duo get pulled over. Thinking they have been arrested for stealing the can of tuna, Gambini unknowingly admits to murdering the store clerk. When they realize why they’ve been jailed the guys turn to the only lawyer they know, Bill’s cousin Vinny. Vinny (Joe Pesci) and Lisa (Marisa Tomei) blast into the small town with music blaring and wearing Brooklyn’s finest digs. As Vinny and Lisa hilariously interact with the townspeople and learn about southern culture and traditions these scenes end up being the building blocks of Vinny’s first ever defense case. As the couple sit down for breakfast, Vinny asks “What is a grit anyways?” The explanation of grits are strange to Lisa and Vinny, but wind up helping remove a witness’s testimony. Later, Vinny and Lisa escape to the woods for some peace and quiet. However after getting stuck in the mud and ruining Vinny’s only suit, Lisa uses this experience to appeal to the jury in her final testimony. Vinny is working his first ever defense case and is learning on the fly. His constant mistakes draw the ire of Judge Chamberlain Haller (Fred Gwynne) a strict, by the book judge. Whether it’s Vinny’s casual courtroom attire or Haller’s inability to understand Vinny’s pronunciation of the word ‘youths,’ the two are constantly on different wavelengths and it brings about some of the film’s most hilarious moments. One of the most iconic scenes in the film is an exchange between Vinny and Haller over the word, yute. Vinny drops the word in an exchange with a witness and the resulting confusion is one of the film’s highlights. Lisa not so subtly tries to help Vinny on his case because he promised they would get married as soon as he won his first court case.
In another of the film’s most iconic scenes Lisa has a meltdown as she watches Vinny fall apart. Stuck at a cabin in the woods, Lisa laments about her biological clock ticking away because her younger family member is getting married meanwhile she’s getting older. Wearing a floral jumpsuit and with huge hair, Lisa pushes Vinny over the edge giving us a Pesci outburst that stands amongst the best in his storied career. Lisa constantly takes photos as if it’s a vacation and while this annoys Vinny, Lisa’s photo taking of the bizarre events ends up being the final piece to give Vinny his epiphany of how to win the case. As Vinny and Lisa learn about the south, the audience gets to follow along the journey that will be used to try and clear the yutes of the horrible accusations. The brash New Yorkers contrasting with the townspeople of smalltown Alabama is the major source of comedy in the film, but none of it becomes mean-spirited. It’s a truly smart adult comedy that respects the audience.
Joe Pesci was riding a post Oscar high, having won for Goodfellas just a year prior to Vinny’s release. In 1992 alone he had four films released. Pesci had already begun to play with his tough guy criminal image in movies like Home Alone, but Vinny Gambini gave him a chance to be the tough guy and the law. Vinny may be over his head in his first criminal case, but Pesci plays it cool and confident, never letting the audience lose faith that Vinny will end up on top. Ralph Macchio is second billed in the film and while he doesn’t get as much to do later in the film, Macchio and Whitfield nail the beginning “crime” and subsequent accidental confessions that drive the picture into motion. Fred Gwynne made his final film appearance as Judge Chamberlain Haller. Gwynne was perfect casting as the physically and emotionally imposing judge. There was over a foot of height difference between Pesci and Gwynne so in every scene we can see how Vinny feels as the judge constantly looms large. Gwynne’s voice also provides even more gravitas to the proceedings. Slow and low, every word out of the judge’s mouth is inescapable. Each of the supporting cast are flawlessly cast as well including Austin Pendleton as the nervous public defender and Lane Smith as the prosecutor. However it’s physically impossible to take your eyes off Marisa Tomei as Mona Lisa Vito. She not only wears some of the most eye popping fashion of the 90’s, but she steals every scene she’s in. Not just regulated to being the love interest, Lisa is instrumental in solving the case. She’s constantly trying to help Vinny solve the case and literally bails him out on several occasions. Her expertise and deposition is the final piece of the puzzle for the defense.
Tomei’s performance was such a scene stealer that she was unexpectedly nominated for an Academy Award. This was in a pre-SAG award world, but her performance wasn’t nominated at BAFTA or the Golden Globes. In fact, the only critics award in the tally was a nomination for supporting actress at the Chicago Film Critics and a win for most promising actress at the same association. With no television precursors and a lone critics association nomination those that follow awards season know that it is very unlikely to be nominated at the Oscars. Add in the fact that Tomei was the only nomination for the film and this is an unparalleled feat. Looking back upon it now, it could have been an early sign of the immense passion for the performance that could have hinted at the Oscar upset. Of the five nominees for supporting actress, My Cousin Vinny had also been the biggest box office success. Worldwide the film had grossed over 64 million. Howard’s End as the next highest contender had over 26 million. This could point to the fact that Vinny was perhaps more widely seen than the other contenders even if it was less of a typical Oscar-bait film. The supporting actress race was also split heading into Oscar night. Joan Plowright had won the Golden Globe for Enchanted April. Miranda Richardson had won the BAFTA for Damage. Judy Davis was in a Woody Allen film having won supporting actress prizes at Los Angeles, National Board of Review, Kansas City, National Society of Film Critics and Boston. However, 1992 was the year that Allen was first accused of sexual assault. Even though future performances would win for Allen films, perhaps voters were actually concerned at the time and didn’t want to reward the film.
A weird urban legend would form after Oscar night. For some reason, people just could not believe that Tomei had won the Oscar. When you watch the clip of Tomei’s Oscar win, you can see that presenter Jack Palance is visibly drunk. He makes an awkward joke that lists Richardson from the wrong country. Tomei is the last nominee read and according to Oscar lore, film critic Rex Reed said that Palance just listed the last name because he couldn’t read the envelope. People also speculated that as the only American perhaps the Academy just wanted to reward her for that. It’s strange that people really latched onto this performance to create a controversy. The early 90’s is a hotbed for comedy performances winning in the category. Whoopi Goldberg, Mercedes Ruehl, Dianne Wiest, and Mira Sorvino all won during this time period. Anna Paquin’s winning turn in The Piano stands out as the purely dramatic performance of the bunch. Tomei’s role is substantial and meaty. You miss Tomei’s presence anytime she isn’t on screen. Every line reading is iconic. If gifs had been around when the film came out, they would have been unescapable. Even now, 30 years later we still see them.
Time has proven to be the ultimate truth teller again. The supporting actress category is strong that year. However, of the lineup, Tomei’s performance remains the most influential in society today. It would seem weird now if that performance hadn’t won the Oscar. Academy Award winner Lady Gaga played a version of the character on Saturday Night Live in 2013. Quoting the famous deer shooting monologue would earn you bonus points on ESPN’s Around the Horn. It was a star-making performance for Tomei. However this cloud would hang over the win for years. Even as Tomei continued to deliver brilliant performance after brilliant performance, from her SAG-nominated performance in Unhook the Stars to her subsequent Oscar noms for In The Bedroom and The Wrestler, this legend hung around on internet forums. Finally at the 89th Oscars in 2017, the last remaining whispers of this legend would finally be extinguished. As La La Land was incorrectly declared as Best Picture, chaos ensued as producers and accountants alike rushed to fix the error and declare the correct winner as Moonlight. This messy chaotic situation showed that if Palance had incorrectly stated the winner over two decades earlier then producers would have rushed to fix the situation. Five years removed from the La La Land fiasco, the Jack Palance urban legend is nothing but dust in the wind.
For the rest of us, it just confirmed what we already knew. Marisa Tomei’s Oscar win is a truly bold pick from the Academy and a very deserved recognition for a film that remains a comedy classic.
My Cousin Vinny was released by 20th Century Fox on March 13, 1992 and is currently available to stream on HBO Max.
Photo: 20th Century Fox
Box Office Numbers provided by Box Office Mojo by imdbPro.