Illustration by Kris Mukai
What’s in a face? This week, we invited ten writers to take part in a statuette-free celebration of what draws us to the people we can’t stop watching. Read the whole series here.
Twenty-three years ago, Marisa Tomei stomped her foot on a porch in rural Alabama and declared in a thick New York accent, “My biological clock is ticking like THIS and the way this case is going I ain’t never gettin married!” Crimped with Tomei’s signature high-pitched squeak and her talent for making any fight look like a duet, that scene from My Cousin Vinny is classic. Classic in that Tomei knocks us dead with her flared-up attitude, her clomping heels—Stomp! Stomp! Stomp!–and her floral-print cat suit that brings to mind your grandmother’s Laura Ashley sectional. Classic too in that Tomei’s character, the chatty but razor-sharp Mona Lisa Vito, picks the worst moments to go off and deploy her frustrations at her fiancée (Joe Pesci), a hapless lawyer struggling to win his first case. “Alls I know is that you’re screwing up and I can’t help,” she yells. “I’m watching you go down in flames and you’re bringing me with you!” Tomei’s face melts through the motions of anger and tapers into apology, only partly ceding, as if her entire self were a half-meant curtsy. When she looks Pesci straight in the eye and says, “I hate to bring it up but,” that slight pivot is cautionary, sure—but … Stomp! Stomp! Stomp!—it does however sum up Tomei’s tenacious command of every second she is on screen. The way she inches towards enormity without overreaching, the crisp appeal of her comic timing, and her sparring temper that dodges any Sandra Bullock-type sweetheart likeness.
Tomei went on to win an Oscar for her role in My Cousin Vinny, and while accepting her gold statuette, she bubbled happily through her thank yous, biting her bottom lip in disbelief. But what was more striking was how Tomei paused mid-speech simply to smile, as if any doubts she had were temporarily met with the thrill and real-life luster of feeling like you deserve something. It’s an energy she has imparted to her roles over the years; an energy that time and again makes us root for her. Like when she played Rita, the rehab runaway in Slums of Beverly Hills, who moves in with her uncle and his three kids, and enlists her teenage cousin, Vivian (Natasha Lyonne) to help navigate the madcap messes she invariably finds herself in. Together they speak in a secret made-up Jibberish, letting loose and dancing one night in Rita’s bedroom, tossing her vibrator back and forth and singing into it as if it were a microphone. Tomei plays distracted with focus. She plays pent-up women so well because she wears zaniness not as a disguise but as a quality that attends to what pains us. In more dramatic roles like In the Bedroom, or in Nick Cassavetes’ Unhook the Stars, where she portrayed a single mom with bottle blonde hair and a penchant for guys who mistreat her, her mouse-like features are obscured by how she stormily overshares during introductions, or how she says screw him chin-raised while applying pink lip gloss in a dive bar bathroom, or how her strong-willed belief that things will get better means that when she gives hugs they’re big and when she cries she goes red in the face. Even in more supporting parts, Tomei’s depiction of all-in women who advocate for themselves has been a defining element of her career, enriching the screen with female characters who approach life and all its many stunts with an unflinching and personable power.