Marisa Tomei won the Oscar from her first nomination for her performance as Mona Lisa Vito in My Cousin Vinny.
My Cousin Vinny is a rather entertaining comedy about an unexperienced lawyer from New York who has to defend two young men wrongly accused of murder in Alabama. I wouldn't say it's necessarily a great movie nor one of the funniest comedy I've ever seen, but I liked it more than the first time and it's definitely a nice way to spend a couple of hours. It's an enjoyable film to watch with a nicely written screenplay and some good performances. Joe Pesci gives a solid, entertaining lead performance and among the supporting players Fred Gwynne is particularly memorable.
Marisa Tomei's win for this performance is one of the most infamous in Oscar history, to the extent that people actually speculated for years that Jack Palance read the wrong name that night. Her win must have been quite shocking indeed: she hadn't been nominated to almost any precursor and she was up against more established actresses in far more emotionally charged role. A shocking win doesn't necessarily mean an undeserved one though: perhaps Mona Lisa Vito isn't the most demanding part ever nor My Cousin Vinny the greatest showcase for an actor ever, but there's no denying that Marisa Tomei is an absolute delight in this film and that she steals pretty much every scene she's in. Actually, she does even more than this: she trascends a clichè-ridden role that was probably written into the movie just to have a prominent female character and makes it a real human being.
Mona Lisa is the fiancèe of Vinny (Joe Pesci) and for the most part her role is actually kind of repetitive: she is mostly there to argue with him, questioning his (indeed questionable, at least early on) ability as a lawyer and complaining (rightfully) about his way of handling the case. If the character never actually feels one-note is entirely Tomei's merit who brings such a great deal of fun and energy to the character she's absolutely irresistible. There isn't that much subtlety, there are many large gestures and over-the-top line-deliveries - I usually tend not to love these kind of performances but Tomei pulls it off brilliantly. She isn't afraid of going broad with her mannerisms, even over-accentuating her natural Brooklyn accent, but she skillfully avoids becoming a stereotype and not for a second she comes off as grating. She has a pitch-perfect comedic timing selling every single one of her lines - actually, most of the time she's not so funny for what she says but rather for the way she says it. She turns even the blandest joke into gold because of the lively, energetic fire she brings to every one of her moments. Out of all the cast members she seems the one to be striving the most to make her character memorable - there's real commitment and dedication in her performance and it all pays off. Even the dialogue isn't on her side, she still manages to be extremely impressive due to how strong her screen-presence is and due to how fun she seems having with the role. And when the writing is strong, then she's flat-out brilliant - the deer scene is one of the funniest from an Academy nominated performance and no matter how many times I've seen she always manages to crack me up. Though her shining moments come towards the end of the movie during the courtroom scene in which Mona Lisa is asked to testify as an expert in mechanics: from her outstanding facial expression to her quicksilver delivery, she's absolutely hilarious every step of the way, pretty much owning the screen from the moment she shows up.
A key element for the success of her performance is her chemistry with Joe Pesci and thankfully it's downright perfect. The two of them make for an extremely endearing pair and even when they're arguing the love between the two is always evident - there's not much space for their relationship to breathe and develop, everything has to be conveyed by the actors through their performance as the movie does not give too much focus to it and luckily the two actors are so good we feel we've known Vinny and Mona Lisa since ever. Speaking of their bickering, it's very amusing and Tomei is a hoot in her portrayal of Mona Lisa's sassy, no-bullshit personality. Her greatest achievement though is perhaps her ability to convey different feelings of the character even if, as I previously stated, the movie doesn't really care too much about the character itself beyond its function within the story. In the few moments in which Mona Lisa cheers up Vinny and shows her faith in him, Tomei manages to be actually quite heartwarming and affecting. Scenes like the one in which Mona Lisa complains about her "ticking biological clock" and the fact that they're still unmarried or the one in which she storms out of a restaurant after a fight with Vinny are mostly used for comic effect, but, without ever compromising the light-hearted tone of those moments, Tomei manages to bring real emotional weight to them and realistically conveying Mona Lisa's anger and frustration over her relationship with Vinny.
In the end, this is a truly wonderful performance from Marisa Tomei who goes far beyond what was required from her. She delivers a delightful, hilarious turn while still grounding her character enough to make her feel like a real person. She's by far the most memorable element of the movie and gives an unforgettable, endearing performance that is just pure, fantastic fun, and I would it's refreshing to see that the Academy can reward performances like this too.