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Take Three: Marisa Tomei

Craig here with the start of the second season of Take Three. Today: Marisa Tomei


Take One: Cyrus (2010)

Tomei is a pure delight in last year’s Cyrus. Her performance demonstrated yet again that great comic turns sometimes pass awards bodies by. But one Oscar win (for My Cousin Vinny, see below) and two other nominations ain’t too shabby. In Cyrus Tomei, at this glorious mid-stage in her career, showed her peers how unblemished by cliché a modern, mature romantic woman should be played. She’s tried more conventional rom-com roles previously – What Women Want, Only You, Someone Like You – but here, with an unstudied attractiveness, she succeeds where others often fail.

There’s no It’s Complicated-style pandering to "maturity" nor feebly vacuous youthful platitudes to her character Molly, a single mother of awkward teen Jonah Hill. She treads finely between One Hot Mama and motherly protection. Her karaoke assistance for drunken John C. Reilly on the Human League’s "Don’t You Want Me Baby" is a miniature, playfully daft act of mature solidarity. But Tomei’s always been good at making her characters feel fully-functional within mere minutes of screen time. She's still a vibrant comic tonic, but now the swig is sweeter for being long-practiced. She looks and performs better than ever in Cyrus. It's a wonderfully carefree performance.

Take Two: My Cousin Vinny (1992)

In this hit comedy, she's Mona Lisa Vito, an attorney’s moll in rural hell. She’s far from the small-time Brooklyn she knows – as evidenced by her array of designer outfits loud enough to set off car alarms. She’s the eventual key, surprise witness in the trial Joe Pesci’s fudging his way to success on, her recollection of extensive automotive trivia saves The Karate Kid and his chum from death row. Fancy that. She pulls a Mona Lisa sneer from the time she enters small town Alabama and communicates her twenty-four hour indignation with a comically-unamused authoritative pout. More often than not she takes the top spot on Vinny’s comedy scoreboard and ends up owning the film outright.

This early role thrust an Oscar (Supporting Actress ’92) in Tomei's lap. Her career went into the stratosphere, quite briefly, before it went into the stratobscure. The sound of the words ‘Wrong Name Read Out’ and ‘Undeserved Oscar’ surely rang in her ears. How unfair to her solidly good supporting turn was that? So boo-hiss-boo to the naysayers. Several performance highlights stand out – bailing Pesci out of jail, the argument over a dripping faucet, her “biological clock ticking” veranda foot stamp – but it’s her delightfully knowing, sass-filled sarcasm that’s most memorable. That and her staunch refusal to do anything other than play her and Pesci’s relationship problems out on the stand for all to bear witness to. She’s the film’s treasure so it's fitting that she was rewarded with (Oscar) gold.

Take Three: The Wrestler (2008)

If it wasn’t enough that Tomei had to snog Joe Pesci in Vinny all those years ago, she had to lock lips with Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler for her sins. Add in Reilly in Cyrus and William H. Macy in Wild Hogs and it seems Tomei gets landed often with the, er, more unconventional leading men. In The Wrestler she plays Pam (stage name: Cassidy), the New Jersey stripper worried about her age in relation to her profession. She befriends Rourke's title character for sensual healing and emotional solace. Romancing a heavily surgery-augmented co-star is one thing, but she appeared fitfully deflated on screen. Ever the acute professional, Tomei smartly extinguished her usual inner spark to play the weary part.The Wrestler was the film that nabbed her a third Oscar nomination. (The second was for In the Bedroom in 2002.)

Cassidy’s life, like Randy's, is a sad song half sung. She's his tender yet damaged flipside, just with baying, paying hecklers flinging dollar bills instead of barb-wired deckchairs. Both lived on the periphery of normal society, just holding on to the tattered coattails of the American Dream. The attentive regard she shows Randy – which Tomei cleverly conveys through minute actions and a gentle, knowing expressiveness – speaks volumes about who Pam is and why she shouldn’t ever be fully consumed by “Cassidy”. The control Tomei exerts in the film is almost invisible. She’s a consummate professional and Pam/Cassidy is a supporting performance of the highest order.

Three more key roles for the taking: Chaplin (1992), The Perez Family (1995), In the Bedroom (2001)

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Reader Comments (16)

100% agree... Also spot-on in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead and The Guru...

March 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFernando Moss

Way to go with Marisa! Now that we've established she has a decent filmography, can we all just put the "accidental Oscar" urban legend to rest? I feel as though she's more than proven herself since. I just saw her mentioned in one of those "Oscar curse" article that keep cropping up lately, and I didn't understand it - how has she failed in her career? Her two subsequent nominations beg to differ. Oh - and great choice with Cyrus; she was disturbingly good. :)

March 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLuke

i love her.......

March 6, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterrick

I really wasn't impressed by her in My Cousin Vinny, and I'm still convinced she got the Oscar because of Emma Thompson rather than anything else. Thompson was a dead cert for Actress, and Supporting was three Brits, an Australian and Tomei: I think Hollywood voted for the American rather than performance. This isn't to say she isn't a wonderful actress - she was superb in In The Bedroom - but next to Miranda Richardson's devastating performance in Damages, or Judy Davis's hearbreaking turn in Husbands and Wives, My Cousin Vinny was nothing.

March 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterScott

I'll admit that I haven't seen any of these three performances, but I did just recently see her in Ron Howard's "The Paper". She was pretty winning in an underwritten role there, although the movie at least tried to give some more depth to the typical "career or motherhood" decision subplot.

March 6, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDave

Marisa Tomei had the misfortunate of winning the Oscar prematurely. Call this blasphemy but Judy Davis isn’t my default frontrunner in the race. I was actually in shock once I saw Davis’ performance years after the controversial win; her character was merely Judy being Judy –or Sally if you’re familiar with the film. Of course under later research realized it was her peak time in the right category for a win. Naked Lunch and Barton Fink were setting her up for the breakthrough of Husbands and Wives, hence the sour grapes over her defeat.
I have a sour grape over this write-up’s placement of The Perez Family as an also-ran – instead the proper attention this performance merits. Any skeptic of Marisa’s range as an actress need not look any further than this performance. Had her initial win not received immediate scorn she would’ve earn a 2nd nomination in the 90s.

March 6, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtfu11

Marisa Tomei elevates every film she's in. Case in point: Someone Like You...
Wait, am I the only one who sat through that film?

March 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlice

She was heartbreaking in "In the Bedroom." The nominees that year for Supporting Actress:

Jennifer Connelly in "A Beautiful Mind," Helen Mirren in "Gosford Park," Maggie Smith in "Gosford Park," Marisa Tomei in "In the Bedroom," Kate Winslet in "Iris"

I'd have happily seen her walk away with that over J. Connelly's boring business.

March 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

She should a been a contender for "Before the devil knows your dead" (perhaps a winner)

March 7, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterstjeans

SanFran -- any of them! that year remains so weird to me since JConn was the worst of the nominees and the performance was just so soggy. and it swept!

March 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

I cosign to what SanFran said. I haven't seen "A Beautiful Mind" in ages, but I can't believe that any part of it has aged well, including Connelly's performance.

If any actress in the near future can win a second supporting Oscar, I believe that she is the one (not saying that she will, of course). She has built such as steady career of solid supporting work over that last two decades. Why people continue to underestimate her abilities is beyond me, especially considering how adept she is at both comedy and drama; just look at the three very different roles for which she was nodded.

March 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H

OK I must say I love "Untamed Heart". Can't believe no one is mentioning it!

March 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

The continued underestimation comes from the infamy of her initial rise to fame “controversial Oscar winner” – we can say she’s lived it down by garnering two subsequent nominations but she needs a breakthrough of some sort with either the industry or a surprise sleeper with the public.

March 7, 2011 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtfu11

I now really want to see CYRUS. Thanks a lot Craig! :)

Another Tomei performance that has always stuck with me is SLUMS OF BEVERLY HILLS, funny and poignant.

March 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWayne B.

Tomei's Oscar win for My Cousin Vinny remains my favorite Oscar upset ever. She was so fearlessly comedic in that role. I would love to see dramatic and/or comedic actresses wiling today try to even come close to pulling that performance off.

March 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

Working today***

March 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSteve
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