Friday, March 9, 2018

In Character: Marisa Tomei

What a long, great, twisty career Marisa Tomei has had. She started in the sitcom world, took a while to find her footing in film, won an Oscar, hit the indie film scene, refound her footing, got nominated for more Oscars, and has now transitioned to wonderful character roles in which she steals scenes from some of best people in the business. I’ve always been a great admirer of her work; no matter what she’s in or when she’s in it, I’m there.

Five Essential Roles
My Cousin Vinny (1992)
Mona Lisa Vito
Tomei’s film career started somewhat slow, but in March of 1992, a small movie called My Cousin Vinny joyously announced Tomei as a comedic powerhouse. Let’s get the politics out of the way first: for her work as Mona Lisa Vito, Tomei eventually won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, which was highly contested at the time. The award was destined to go to Judy Davis (for Husbands and Wives) or Vanessa Redgrave (for Howard’s End). But Jack Palance (himself a semi-surprise winner the year before for City Slickers), read Tomei’s name, and the rest is history.

Now, Oscar politics aside, Tomei is simply incredible in My Cousin Vinny. Her Mona Lisa Vito is insanely quotable, fiercely intelligent, and proudly herself. It is such a sneakily great turn, one that I can watch repeatedly. 

Slums of Beverly Hills (1998)
Slums of Beverly Hills is one of those unapologetic, fringe ‘90s comedies that was weird when you were a kid, but resonates profoundly as an adult. In the film, Tomei plays Rita, the niece of a bumbling loser named Murray (Alan Arkin), who is desperately trying to keep his family afloat. Rita is an absolute mess: she’s young and aimless, a drug addict and liar. There is a certain manic charm Tomei brings to the role that you can’t take your eyes off of. She’s a woman lost on her own, with virtually no direction to guide her. And then things change; not for Rita, but for us. In the film, without warning, writer/director Tamara Jenkins offers us some insight as to why Rita is the way she is. It’s a haunting moment, the type of scene that makes you revisit a movie with a completely different perspective. I’ve always appreciated how much depth Tomei is able to bring to her characters. 

Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007)
I think Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is a modern crime masterpiece. One that showcases some of the best respective work of Sidney Lumet, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney, and, of course, Marisa Tomei. The Wrestler is often regarded as Tomei’s big screen comeback, but I think it started with Gina in this film. Gina is so lost and scared; her identity is so tightly wrapped between two deeply troubled men. One of my favorite scenes of Tomei’s career is her final scene in this movie, when she and Hoffman have a quiet, devastating conversation of betrayal, and goodbye. When Gina leaves the movie, I want to follow her. I want to know where she goes and how she lives. She’ll have a lot of catching up to do in life. A great performance always leaves you wanting more.

The Wrestler (2008)
The Hooker (or in the case, Stripper) with a Heart of Gold is a difficult role to pull off. There is so much built-in criticism to those types of performances that it takes a really good performer to elevate the role beyond character stereotype. But that is exactly what Tomei does here. Cassidy is a fierce, loyal, selfless single mother who befriends Randy (Mickey Rourke) because she cares about him. These are two broken people who attempt to find each other through mutual appreciations of ‘80s nostalgia, their children, and an unlikely kinship between them. The full impact of Tomei’s work can be found in her final scene, when her character fully and finally reveals herself to Randy, making Randy’s refusal that much more heartbreaking. 

The Ides of March (2011)
Ida Horowicz
I love the new, character-driven turn Tomei’s career has taken recently. She keeps popping up for a scene or two in fine films, stealing the moments from other veteran actors. I’m talking about her roles in The Lincoln Lawyer, Crazy, Stupid, Love., Love Is Strange, The Big Short, Empire, May Parker in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and so on. The peak of this character work is her fiery turn as New York Times reporter, Ida Horowicz, in The Ides of March. What a joy it is to watch Tomei go toe-to-toe with (and repeatedly take down) the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ryan Gosling. Ida exudes confidence; she carries a type of no bullshit professionalism that is required when you battle against career politicians. And I can never look away.

The Best of the Best
In the Bedroom (2001)
Natalie Strout
Todd Fields’ In the Bedroom is grief. Very few movies understand, and are able to so accurately convey, what grief does to us. The grief in In the Bedroom is shared by the main characters involved, but it manifests itself differently in each individual person. Natalie Strout’s grief is some of the worst kind, that which is consumed in guilt and shame. After her younger boyfriend is murdered by her ex husband, Natalie can hardly endure. She isn’t fully responsible for her boyfriend’s death, but she is partly to blame. And she carries it. She carries it on her tear-stained and swollen face, in her tense shoulders, in her shamed confusion. 

Natalie’s grief is just one facet of Tomei’s performance, as the work she does before the murder is a genuine mix of youthful delight, and frightened intimidation. But ultimately, In the Bedroom remains such haunting and unforgettable work. The last time we see Natalie, she’s stammering through an earnest apology to her slain boyfriend’s mother. It doesn’t go well, and Natalie exits, completely defeated. And to think, where does she go from here? Mona Lisa Vito gets married and lives happily ever after, Cassidy leaves the wrestling match and quietly goes back to her life. But where the hell does Natalie go? And I wonder.

Other Notable Roles
in The Big Short
A Different World (1987-1988)
Oscar (1991)
Chaplin (1992)
The Paper (1994)
Only You (1994)
Four Rooms (1995)
Happy Accidents (2000)
What Women Want (2000)
Someone Like You (2001)
Anger Management (2003)
Alfie (2004)
Factotum (2005)
Rescue Me (2006)
War, Inc. (2008)
Cyrus (2010)
The Lincoln Lawyer (2011)
Crazy, Stupid, Love. (2011)
Love is Strange (2014)
The Big Short (2015)
Empire (2015)
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)


  1. People said that Marisa Tomei's win at the Oscars was a mistake and a fluke. I HIGHLY disagree. As good as Judy Davis and Vanessa Redgrave were in those films. Tomei just displayed a sense of charisma and energy. Especially in that scene where she talks about cars as she is just a fireball that is so fun to watch.

    She has become one of those great actresses who doesn't get enough appreciation as I think her performance in The Wrestler is her crowning achievement. Especially as I found her role to be that of similar of what Rourke's character is going through as 2 people who are definitely on their way out due to aging as they're just trying to survive with whatever skill they have left in them.

    Since Spider-Man: Homecoming has been on Starz lately as I've been re-watching it. Her performance as Aunt May is truly a joy to watch. While I maybe partial to Rosemary Harris as the character in Sam Raimi's trilogy. Tomei I felt brought something new in terms of a youthful energy as well as being someone who isn't willing to take any kind of shit from anyone. Even as the scene where she confronted Peter Parker about what he's been doing as it is clear that they're still kind of hurting over the passing of Uncle Ben (who isn't mentioned in the film nor in Captain America: Civil War but does have subtle hints) as she also knows the idea of growing pains. Plus, who couldn't love the final shot of the film in what she saw.... WHAT THE F...?

    1. Correction.... it's Todd Fields who directed In the Bedroom. Not Todd Haynes.

    2. Hell yes, could not agree more. She is a powerhouse in My Cousin Vinny. That was such old-school Oscar politics there. The same group that awarded Dances with Wolves over Goodfellas. Safe safe safe. And then BAM, they award a truly original nominee, and everyone loses their minds. Nonsense, she completely deserved that win.

      Can't argue with your pick for The Wrestler. She's so damn good in that film.

      Also completely agree about your assessment of her Aunt Ruth. The youthful energy she brings to the role is a nice change of pace.

      And thanks for the Todd catch... I was moving too fast! (God, I which Fields made more movies.)

  2. It amazed me how much the quality of In The Bedroom dropped after Tomei left the screen. She (and Stahl) really were the life of that film for me.

    I love Tomei, I'm glad you singled out The Wrestler and Before The Devil Knows You're Dead too. She's great in those.

    I haven't seen My Cousin Vinny, but the Oscar conspiracy theory about her win alone makes me glad she won. It's ridiculous how long that seemed to have lasted.

    1. Awww I really like all of In the Bedroom, but I hear what you're saying. It shifts so dramatically after the murder. And that last third is so tense, but yes, very different than the first third of the movie.

      Please watch My Cousin Vinny asap. It is absolutely hilarious. MUCH smarter than you think it's going to be. Also very interesting that many lawyers and judges say it is one of the most realistic court room movies ever, and it's still so damn entertaining!

  3. What a great post! And I'm so glad you picked In the Bedroom as the Best of the Best. (Somehow, I knew you would.)

    1. Thanks! That's such a fine film, isn't it? It gets better as I get older, and I have ALWAYS loved it. I which Todd Fields made more movies!

  4. I haven't seen a lot of her movies, but I do like her presence in the ones I've seen. I loved her in The Lincoln Lawyer and The Ides of March. I'll definitely check In the Bedroom out.

    1. She does have such a unique presence, doesn't she? I hope you can check out In the Bedroom... it's a very well made film, and Tomei is so good in it.

  5. You've sold me on My Cousin Vinny. Will seek it out this year (finally).

    1. Excited to hear your thoughts. That is one hell of an enjoyable movie.

  6. I like Marisa a lot, she is always terrific - I recently saw utter trashfire with her and Rockwell called "Loitering with Intent" and the fact both of them managed to do something so good in a film this bad only shows what wonderful actors they are.

    I love her work in Before the Devil....and she was so hilarious in Crazy, Stupid, Love. Shame she is so underused in MCU, like most of the actors there.

    1. It really is incredible when actors can stand out while in the midst of a crap film. I never even heard of Loitering with Intent, but I'm so happy they're both good in it.

      Also love hearing that you're a fan of her work in Before the Devil.

  7. I love Marisa Tomei. I think she was one of the first actresses i had a crush on back in the day. I remember watching My Cousin Vinny on repeat as a kid just because of her. And i have been following her career ever since then. My favorite performance from her has to be in The Wrestler though. I need to check out In The Bedroom though. It sounds really good.

    1. Hell yeah man, she's so damn good. Can't argue with your Wrestler pick at all, but I would LOVE to hear your thoughts on In the Bedroom.

  8. Tomei is one of those actresses that I adore but haven't seen nearly enough of her work. Heck, I'll even watch questionable movies as her being in it must mean she saw something in the material, I'm looking at you The Guru! Heather Graham being in that movie helped too.

    1. That's so true. We adore some actors so much that we'll watch them in anything. I'm that way with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, which made Assassin's Creed that much more insufferable.

    2. It probably paid for a nice car for him. I forgot I was anticipating that film, as I like both him and the franchise but the more I thought about it, there is no way to pack any of those games into one film, even just the concept of the present day/mindscape, feels like it'll take 20 minutes.
      I guess that film has come and gone. Poor Fassbender, that and Snowman are two hits but he's a magnificent actor so he'll be fine.
      I need to watch more Cotillard films, I still view her as from being Dark Knight Rises and Inception though I do recognize that she's a very well respected actress.
      Having a four year old at home has really put a halt to films for me. Though I'm quite familiar with all of the Best Animated Film category nominees whenever it is award show season.

    3. Oh I hope he got a big check from that movie. The Snowman... that thing is a fascinating example of studio interference. What a disaster.

      And I laughed out your last sentence. That's gotta be true... you never have to worry about seeing all the films in that category!

    4. Luckily we live in the age where there are actually five (at least four) quality animated films a year, so it isn't all bad.