Every year, as the Academy Awards ceremony approaches, I attempt to check out the 1992 legal comedy “My Cousin Vinny.”
That’s because it was the source of one of Oscar’s biggest controversies and perhaps its greatest-ever conspiracy theory — one that wasn’t resolved until 25 years later.
Most observers were surprised when Marisa Tomei received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for playing the title character’s long-suffering girlfriend. When she was announced as the winner (over such acclaimed nominees as Vanessa Redgrave, Judy Davis, Joan Plowright and Miranda Richardson), some of the same observers claimed that award presenter Jack Palance was either unable or unwilling to read the name of the actual recipient.
Academy officials were quick to shoot down that theory, saying that procedures were in place to immediately correct such an error.
The rumor persisted, however, until the 2017 Oscar ceremony, when Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were handed the wrong envelope before presenting the Best Picture award. That led to an incredibly awkward moment in which the producers of the apparent winner, “La La Land” were instructed to announce onstage that the award actually belonged to “Moonlight.”
As bizarre as that incident turned out to be, it had the dual benefit of denying an undeserved honor to the overrated musical “La La Land” and vindicating Tomei a quarter of a century after the fact.
It may not be quite an Oscar-caliber film, but “My Cousin Vinny” is worth watching for more than merely curiosity sake. It’s an underrated comedy, filled with funny scenes and buttressed by Joe Pesci’s hilarious performance in the lead role.
Ralph Macchio and Mitchell Whitfield play two New York youths (or yuts, as Vinny later describes them in his Brooklyn accent) who are falsely charged with the murder of a convenience store clerk while driving through rural Alabama en route to college. Too impoverished to afford an experienced attorney, Macchio’s character suggests they hire his New York-based cousin Vinny Gambini (played by Pesci) for legal representation.
But having only recently passed the bar after several attempts, Vinny is spectacularly ignorant of courtroom procedure. That puts him in constant conflict with the starchy, Yale-educated trial judge (Fred Gwynne, very funny in his final screen appearance).
Tomei plays Vinny’s fiancee Mona Lisa Vito, a hairdresser whose background as an auto mechanic eventually comes in handy at the trial.
Although acknowledging the quality of the acting, some prominent critics were lukewarm toward the film — a couple criticizing what they deemed its excessive length.
I strongly disagree. At almost exactly two hours, “My Cousin Vinny” is a trifle long for a comedy. But it contains very few wasted scenes. Even a seemingly superfluous sequence in which Vinny and Mona Lisa are introduced to the Southern breakfast dish grits winds up being valuable to Vinny’s cross-examination of a prosecution witness.
Director Jonathan Lynn and screenwriter Dale Launer refreshingly avoid the common trap of portraying rural Southerners as mindless dolts. Even Vinny’s courtroom adversaries are depicted as reasonable people attempting to do their jobs.
Perhaps because Lynn owns a law degree from Cambridge University, the film also gets a surprisingly high mark in legal authenticity. Several prominent attorneys contended it was far more accurate about trial procedures than such prestige dramas as “The Verdict.”
For all its virtues, “My Cousin Vinny” probably doesn’t work without Pesci’s unique brand of street-smart humor (he also reportedly ad-libbed some of the better lines).
Even his frequent use of profanity — a trend that I consider overdone in most modern movies— is tolerable here. Pesci is to cinematic cursing what Fred Astaire was to dancing.
Although 21 years younger than her co-star, Tomei more than holds her own in her scenes with Pesci. Her climactic scene on the witness stand in which she runs the gamut of emotions from hostility to joyous triumph is a comic tour de force.
That’s the scene that almost certainly won her the Oscar. Conspiracy theorists to the contrary, a well-deserved Oscar.
This, incidentally, will be my final movie column.
While I’m not closing the door to future articles, the monthly column is going (to borrow an oft-used contemporary phrase) on indefinite pause.
There are a few factors in this decision, but the main one is pretty obvious. With Hoquiam’s 7th Street Theatre series only now starting to emerge from an extended pandemic-related hiatus and the future of Aberdeen’s Coming Attraction Cinemas in doubt due to structural damage at the Shoppes at Riverside mall, there aren’t many movies to review in the Aberdeen-Hoquiam area.
The 7th Street Theatre Association’s Classic Movies series is scheduled to resume May 22-23 with the children’s fantasy “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” The organization is a true asset to the community and its movie series exceptionally worthy of public support.
The Coming Attractions Cinemas presumably will eventually reopen in some form. If for some reason that doesn’t happen, obtaining a first-run theater for the Aberdeen-Hoquiam area should be a high priority for civic groups such as Greater Grays Harbor.
It doesn’t take an economic genius to figure out that if Harborites are traveling to Olympia to watch movies, they probably will also shop and dine there.
Meanwhile, thanks to readers who provided feedback (both pro and con) on the movie column. I had a blast writing it.