Why Marisa Tomei Won An Oscar

Yankee Doodle Mona Lisa

By Rom Watson
c. August 20, 2011

Apparently there is a faction of people who still can’t get over the fact that Marisa Tomei won an Oscar for best supporting actress for her role as Mona Lisa Vito in the 1992 film My Cousin Vinny. They don’t think she deserved it, and consider her win a mystery for the ages.

Whether she deserved it or not is subjective, as are all awards. Personally, I would have voted for Vanessa Redgrave, but I do believe that Marisa was good enough to deserve the nomination. In fact, I was happy to hear of her nomination, because comic performances are too often unjustly overlooked at awards time. However, I’m not going to try to convince anyone that she did or did not deserve an Oscar. I leave judging the merits of her performance to the viewer. I am simply going to explain why I think she won.

She won because the role she played was quintessentially American.

There are lesser reasons as well. For instance: she was the best thing in the film. Performers often garner an Oscar nomination, if not the award itself, when they shine brighter than anything around them. Examples: Tom Conti in Rueben, Rueben; Ginger Rogers in Kitty Foyle; Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth; Willem Dafoe in Shadow of the Vampire; Melina Mercouri in Never on Sunday; Thelma Ritter in Pickup on South Street; Lee Marvin in Cat Ballou; etc. These films are not particularly good. However, their mediocrity has the effect of making a good performance at their center seem even better by comparison. Sometimes a jewel is burnished by the surrounding dross.

(And sometimes, as is the case with Lee Marvin and Thelma Ritter, the performance alone makes the film worth seeing.)

My Cousin Vinny is not a particularly good film. It’s much too long, it isn’t funny enough for a comedy, it has arid patches that last twenty minutes, . . . I could go on but I’ve made my point. Marisa Tomei’s performance, as a lower-class young woman who seems ditzy and shallow but is gradually revealed to be quite intelligent, is the best thing in the movie.

(I must also mention the two other standout performances: Austin Pendleton as the first defense attorney, (the one with the stutter), and Fred Gwynne as the judge. They’re both wonderful in the film.)

However, even though Marisa is the best thing in the movie, I don’t believe that’s the reason she won an Oscar.

She won for the same reason Judy Holliday won an Oscar for Born Yesterday: The role she played was quintessentially American.

In the film Sunset Blvd., Gloria Swanson plays the role of Norma Desmond, and it’s one of the most indelible, iconic and haunting performances in the history of cinema. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, but did she win? No. Judy Holliday won that year for Born Yesterday, a film in which she plays a lower-class young woman who seems ditzy and shallow but is gradually revealed to be quite intelligent. (Apparently, many American men want a woman’s intelligence to be like her vagina: hidden, a secret treasure to be uncovered only after much foreplay.) I adore Judy Holliday, but she should have won an Oscar for one of her other films. Why did she win for Born Yesterday? For the same reason Marisa Tomei won for My Cousin Vinny 42 years later.

Americans love certain roles. The woman who seems ditzy on the surface but is gradually revealed to be quite intelligent (aka The Bimbo with a Brain of Gold): they love that. (Playing that type of role in Legally Blonde made Reese Witherspoon a star.) The underdog who wins everyone over to his side by virtue of honesty and common sense: they love that. The man who overcomes a physical affliction to triumph in the end: they love that too.

Example: Colin Firth won an Oscar for portraying King George VI in a good movie called The King’s Speech. Though it is a British subject, it is also a quintessentially American role: a good man who must persevere to overcome an affliction to become a leader of men. He even has the loving wife at his side to offer support. (Americans love that, too.)

The country of America has a certain spirit to it, an essence, if you will. And when a film role, (or a character in a TV series), embodies that essence: it resonates in the hearts of Americans, and moves them to honor that role. This usually means honoring the actor who plays the role. Which may not be entirely precise, since the actor didn’t write the role, and the vagaries of casting make it less than an exact science. However, it is understandable, since the actor is the one who makes the role come alive.

The role of Mona Lisa Vito embodied an essence that resonated with Americans. Since Marisa Tomei was the one who brought Mona Lisa to life, she was awarded an Oscar.

Mystery solved.