Anyone who’s seen My Cousin Vinny, which opened 25 years ago, on March 13, 1992, can probably quote at least one of Marisa Tomei’s Brooklyn-accented lines, whether it’s her biological clock “ticking like this” or her reaction to arriving in small-town Alabama. (“I bet the Chinese food here is terrible.”) As Mona Lisa Vito, the auto mechanic fiancée of Joe Pesci’s title character, Tomei walked away with every single one of her scenes — and eventually, the film’s only Academy Award (for Best Supporting Actress). So it’s mind-boggling that 20th Century Fox initially wanted to take Mona Lisa out of My Cousin Vinny entirely, in order to give more of the spotlight to Pesci.
“I thought they were looking at the best thing in the movie and wanted to cut it out,” screenwriter Dale Launer told the Wrap last week. “Not only did I not take Lisa out — I decided to put more of her into the movie.”
But it wasn’t as simple as that. In a 2007 interview for the website Writer Unboxed, Launer explained the changes he had to make in order to keep Mona Lisa in the script. And it has to do with that famous “biological clock” scene. In the film, Vinny is an unsuccessful New York lawyer who is called to defend his cousin against a false criminal charge in rural Alabama. Mona Lisa comes along to support him, but Vinny refuses his fiancée’s help at every turn. Finally, she snaps. The scene (watch it below) was added in the second draft in response to the studio’s notes, and it ended up saving the character.
“That scene … was the result of a creative meeting where the studio prez actually made a suggestion I hated,” Launer told the website. “He wanted Vinny’s girlfriend to complain that he’s not giving her enough attention. You often see movies where some guy is hell-bent on accomplishing something, and you’re on the ride with him — and his wife/girlfriend/mother is feeling neglected. And she complains. And I hate this! I have never seen this work in a way where I really felt the wife was anything but an annoying, complaining, taking-up-valuable-narrative-space kind of character.”
Rather than turn Mona Lisa into a nagging stereotype or cut her from the movie (Fox’s other suggestion), Launer came up with a plan that satisfied everyone. “In the end, they got what they wanted and I got what I wanted — she does complain, but at least apologizes for bringing it up, and you don’t hate her for bringing it up, largely because it’s funny,” he explained. “She mentions that he’s screwing up, and she’s frustrated because she can’t help him, and she goes off on a little tangent about the whole biological clock getting married thing. Now, I thought if she brought this up at this point where he is simply going through hell — he should be pissed off. And he is. So he kind of tears into her. It was one of my favorite scenes in the script.”
Ironically, like her character, Tomei couldn’t get the respect she deserved after My Cousin Vinny: Her surprise Oscar win was widely rumored to be an error, the theory being that elderly presenter Jack Palance read the wrong name. Tomei stood above the fray and has since earned two more Oscar nominations (for 2001’s In the Bedroom and 2008’s The Wrestler) — though the sweetest vindication may have been this year’s dramatic Oscar mixup, which proved that presenters can’t get away with reading the wrong name. As Mona Lisa Vito might have said, Tomei’s win was dead-on-balls accurate.
Watch a trailer: