Long before the “La La Land” and “Moonlight” Best Picture debacle became the biggest gaffe in Oscar history, it was Marisa Tomei who found herself at the center of an Oscar dispute.
When Tomei was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her work as Mona Lisa Vito in “My Cousin Vinny” — a film that came out 25 years ago today — she was up against heavyweights including Vanessa Redgrave and Miranda Richardson.
Tomei was a relatively unknown actress at the time, recognized for her role as a spitfire hairdresser from Brooklyn who knows more about cars than almost anyone. None of her fellow nominees were American. She was the long shot.
When Tomei pulled off the Oscar upset, an ugly rumor persisted that she had trouble shaking over the years. Some speculated that the young actress didn’t actually win. A Gawker piece from 2015 traced it back to an article in The Hollywood Reporter that detailed the conspiracy, which was then later picked up by Entertainment Weekly. As the rumor goes, Jack Palance was unable, or was too “drunk” or “stoned,” as a Snopes entry puts it, to read the right name on the card. Instead, theorists alleged, he repeated the last name on the teleprompter, which was “Tomei.”
In a pre-Internet age before anyone could check the tape, it’s easy to see how such a rumor could slowly pick up steam. The legend got so big that Tomei would later joke about it when she hosted “Saturday Night Live.” And in subsequent interviews, she has had to address it.
“That was really hurtful at first,” Tomei said in a 2001 profile after she was nominated for her second Oscar for “In the Bedroom.”
“I remember speaking with her manager and we both thought she was going to win,” said “My Cousin Vinny” screenwriter Dale Launer in a recent interview with TheWrap. “One, her performance is more satisfying, more emotionally satisfying, and two, everybody saw ‘Vinny.’ And she popped in ‘Vinny.'”
Director Jonathan Lynn likewise told TheWrap that, with little star power to go on, the studio initially sold the film through hundreds of pre-screenings as a way of generating word of mouth buzz. He added that Tomei’s team specifically made a push to get the film seen by Oscar voters.
“Everyone I spoke to said, ‘Who is this woman? She’s wonderful,'” Lynn recalled.
Tomei’s victory came as a surprise, but it makes sense that the foreign actresses would end up splitting the vote, favoring the American in the end. And as for whether the wrong name was called, two members of Price-Waterhouse (this was before the accounting firm became Price-Waterhouse Coopers as they are today) were waiting in the wings to rush on stage and correct the error should there be a mistake.
It’s the same system the Academy has in place today. Of course, now we know what happens when the wrong name is called. And so this year’s Oscar flub that was seen around the world serves as vindication for Tomei.
She won her Oscar fair and square.