If nothing else, the Moonlight/La La Land drama did disprove a lingering urban legend around Hollywood that Marisa Tomei had not really been intended to win Best Supporting Actress. It’s a cruel suggestion that misses what a sterling performance she gave in My Cousin Vinnie, though it’s also true that it’s not the kind of performance that tends to win Oscars. Oh, it was a good slate that year; Best Supporting Actress can be a hit-or-miss category, with a lot of mothers and wives in the slot. And maybe Mona Lisa Vito can be seen as a girlfriend role, but the movie doesn’t work without her.
Leaving aside our now certain knowledge that the Price-Waterhouse-Cooper guys would have been out of the wings in a heartbeat, hers is also the performance from that category that has remained in the public consciousness. A Woody Allen movie. A “people deal with their personal lives in opulent surroundings” movie. Two Repressed British People movies. And Marisa Tomei, practically unknown, not just holding her own opposite Joe Pesci but blowing it out of the park. The scene where she testifies as an expert witness is, so to speak, firing on all cylinders.
I suppose part of it is the fact that she was up against, among others, Vanessa Redgrave. Tomei was five years away from appearing in an Afterschool Special. Yes, she’d been part of the packed cast of the Sylvester Stallone farce Oscar, but hardly anyone remembers that movie and it did about as well as you might expect a Sylvester Stallone farce is going to do at the box office. (Though I love it and it features a great Chazz Palminteri performance.) But Mona was her breakout role, and it was a comedy, and how was she beating Joan Plowright?
Her roles since then have been uneven. Untamed Heart is a descendant of a Sirk melodrama with a truly ludicrous driving detail. She would gain two more nominations, losing both times but doing a lot to push back on the idea that her win had been a fluke. Maybe being in Wild Hogs won’t persuade anyone, but you don’t have to work hard to pick winners out of the movies she’s done over the years. If she’s never reached the heights of Mona, she’s also never been the weak link of a film.
Oh, there was pushback against casting her as Aunt May—some of it because she deserved better, yes, but a lot of it was because she was too young. But she is, after all, thirty-two years older than Tom Holland, and that’s a good gap for someone’s aunt. Aunt May increasingly looks like she’s Peter’s great aunt in her usual art style; everyone had to be having kids at some pretty major extremes for that to look right. If people can’t admit that they find Aunt May hot, they might want to think about the standards they’re applying.