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The Untold Truth Of My Cousin Vinny

In 1992, an underdog movie about a Brooklyn lawyer getting out of his depth with a murder case in the Deep South claimed an unexpected victory, winning over movie lovers, lawyers, and the Academy. 

"My Cousin Vinny" cast Joe Pesci — an actor best known for playing serious criminals in gory dramas — as the earnest but ill-equipped defense lawyer Vinny in a courtroom comedy. It also cast a virtually unknown actress, Marisa Tomei, who was more than 20 years Pesci's junior to play his brash and brainy fiancée Lisa. And unlike most movies focused on the legal profession, the filmmakers were intent on digging into even the most mundane procedures.

On paper, the movie looked doomed to be overshadowed by more glamorous fare. But audiences were swept up by the combination of high-stakes drama, witty one-liners, and ever-piling-up farce. And those in the legal profession were delighted that someone had found the humor in court proceedings, without turning them into a joke.

"My Cousin Vinny" was the 29th highest-grossing movie in America in 1992, beating now-classics including "The Mighty Ducks," Malcolm X," and "Howards End." The latter suffered a second defeat at the Oscars, when its nominee for best supporting actress, Vanessa Redgrave, lost to Tomei

For everyone who learned about Positraction and the proper amount of time it takes to cook grits from "My Cousin Vinny," this is the truth behind the little legal drama that won big.

A different Goodfella nearly played Vinny

Joe Pesci won the best supporting actor Oscar for "Goodfellas" while shooting "My Cousin Vinny." Although it was a testament to his performance in the gangster classic, it also highlighted a potential issue.

As "My Cousin Vinny" director Jonathan Lynn told Abnormal Use in 2012, Pesci had become known for playing violent thugs, thanks to movies like "Goodfellas," "Once Upon a Time in America," and even "Home Alone." Vinny had the same fiery temper as Pesci's more dangerous roles: "but [the audience] had to love him," Lynn said.

This delicate balancing act may explain why screenwriter Dale Launer had a different actor in mind for the role of Vinny — although he wasn't thinking too far out of the box.

Launer said in an interview with Writer Unboxed that he suggested Pesci's frequent co-star Robert De Niro for the lead, based on his performance in the 1988 bounty hunter comedy "Midnight Run." Although De Niro played the straight man, Launer pointed out that was exactly what that brand of over-the-top situational comedy required.

As we know, Launer lost this argument. He recalled being told that De Niro wasn't funny and his movies didn't take in enough at the box office. So Pesci got the chance to put on the cowboy boots instead, and De Niro had to wait until "Meet the Parents" and "Silver Linings Playbook" to prove the naysayers wrong.

The screenwriter fought to save the best part of the movie

Vinny (Joe Pesci) gets the title shout-out, but his case and the movie as a whole would have flunked without his fiancée Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei). 

Tomei turned a character who could have been a punchline into a heroine who more than holds her own against Vinny — and prosecutor Jim Trotter III (Lane Smith), for that matter. But if the studio had its way, Lisa would never have gotten her day in court. In fact, she would have been cut entirely. Executives saw her as just another thorn in Vinny's side, and one that didn't add much to the plot.

Screenwriter Dale Launer recalled that the studio asked him to add a scene common in male-led movies, which had Vinny's girlfriend interrupting his work to complain about not getting enough attention. Launer said that he hates these kinds of scenes — but he also knew the studio was leaning towards scrapping Lisa altogether. "I thought they were looking at the best thing in the movie and wanted to cut it out," Launer told TheWrap.

He wrote the scene, but made Lisa and Vinny so funny in it that it only made the audience love both of them more. And instead of giving Lisa's courtroom victory to Vinny, like the studio wanted, Launer made sure she provided the vital testimony. "Not only did I not take Lisa out, I decided to put more of her into the movie," he said.

Screenwriter Dale Launer didn't need to research Lisa's testimony

For those skeptical of Mona Lisa Vito's (Marisa Tomei) ability to recall highly specific details about old cars, the defense calls expert witness Dale Launer, aka the screenwriter of "My Cousin Vinny."

Launer told TheWrap that thanks to his teenage hobby of studying cars, he didn't need to do any research to write Lisa's famous testimony. "When I was in high school, there was a time I could give you the weight, engine displacement, horsepower options and suspension description of every car sold in America," he says. You never know when your weird obsessions will be helpful.

However, Launer also has an apology for the handful of people in the world who could have come up with that speech off the top of their heads. He admits that there's a deliberate mistake in the case-winning testimony: There was actually a third car that had "Positraction, and independent rear suspension, and enough power to make these marks," to quote Lisa. That would be the Chevy Corvair.

Launer knew about this at the time, but left it out. You can understand why: The momentum of the scene meant he needed Lisa to identify the only possible tire mark-maker quickly. Plus, he says, he thought no one else would know.

Launer didn't get away with it entirely before this confession. "I can think of one person I personally know who would know that ... and I saw him at the premiere."

Vinny is an amalgamation of real people

There is not, as far as anyone involved can tell, a real Brooklyn lawyer who got two falsely accused "yutes" acquitted of murder charges in Alabama.

However, there are real lawyers who failed the bar multiple times. "My Cousin Vinny" screenwriter Dale Launer told the American Bar Association (ABA) Journal that he got the first sparks of the idea for the plot in the '70s, when he learned that you could take the bar exam as many times as you like. The record, according to law student legend, was 13, although Launer says he later heard of someone taking it 26 times.

"Now, how would you feel if suddenly you learned that guy is your lawyer?' he says. He continues, "And then even funnier ... what if you're driving through the Deep South [and] you're arrested in a small town for a murder you did not commit?"

Joe Pesci also turned to his real life when preparing to play the character. "Goodfellas" fans may know that Pesci drew on his experience growing up around real "wise guys" to play Tommy, most notably for the "Funny how?" scene. That experience provided material that proved useful for Vinny, too. He told Australian network SBS, "There's probably a lot of people in the neighborhoods like that ... so I just put a few of them together in my mind and come [sic] up with Vinny."

Marisa Tomei enjoyed working with Joe Pesci

The chemistry between leads Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei is a key element in the success of "My Cousin Vinny." You need an equally talented opponent to hone your arguing skills with, after all. And although Pesci hasn't always charmed his co-stars (he bit then-nine-year-old Macaulay Culkin in rehearsals for "Home Alone"), he won over Tomei.

In an interview with The Guardian, Tomei even credited Pesci with choosing her for the role, and says that since it was her first big movie, she appreciated him guiding her through the process. (How involved Pesci was in Tomei's casting is unclear, but director Jonathan Lynn knew she was the right choice the moment she delivered the line "Oh, yeah, you blend" in Lisa's first scene — the first scene Tomei shot.)

Tomei elaborated slightly on her experience shooting "My Cousin Vinny" with Pesci on "Watch What Happens Live." "Joe Pesci's really a softy," she said. According to Tomei, the pair liked to pass the time on set singing along to Pesci's guitar. Tomei confirms that he has a beautiful singing voice, and she's not the only one who thinks so: Pesci has made multiple albums.

Joe Pesci used this Hollywood anti-aging trick

Joe Pesci is almost 22 years older than Marisa Tomei, who was 26 to his 48 when they made "My Cousin Vinny" in 1991. Although such age gaps are not uncommon between male leads and the actresses playing their female love interests, the production made some attempts to make Pesci look younger. 

Makeup technician Carmen Willis told Entertainment Weekly that the makeup team gave Pesci a temporary non-surgical facelift. They used super sticky tabs to pull back his skin at the same points a plastic surgeon would, and tightened them up using a hook-and-eye system. They also added a hairpiece, partly for the "yute"-ening effects, and partly to hide the tabs. The whole process took about three hours, although Willis adds that Pesci handled it like a pro.

Despite their best efforts, the tabs did occasionally slip down and snap, and some even ended up in the finished movie. But you'll have to re-watch it again with an eagle eye to see when: that's one secret Willis didn't reveal.

Some people couldn't believe that Marisa Tomei won an Oscar for My Cousin Vinny

Marisa Tomei proved herself a force to be reckoned with in "My Cousin Vinny." Although her turn in the climactic court scene was the pinnacle of her performance, she consistently kept Joe Pesci — not exactly a wallflower — on his toes throughout the movie.

So when Tomei was nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actress, fans weren't surprised. What was somewhat surprising was that she won. Not because Tomei didn't deserve it, but because the Academy often overlooks comedies in favor of dramas to say nothing of the fact that she was up against acting royalty Vanessa Redgrave and Dame Joan Plowright.

It was such a shock win that some people simply refused to accept that it had happened. Some claimed that presenter Jack Palance had either read the wrong name, or panicked when he couldn't read the name printed in the envelope, and picked Tomei because her name was still displayed on the teleprompter. The Academy was allegedly so embarrassed that it never corrected him.

None of that's true: Tomei won her Oscar fair and square. As we now know for certain, thanks to the 2017 "La La Land"/"Moonlight" best picture debacle, Price Waterhouse, the accounting firm that calculates the winners, is more than ready to jump in if a presenter makes a mistake. 

Tomei has since notched up two more best supporting actress nominations — so far, at least.

Lawyers have no objections to My Cousin Vinny

Hollywood loves courtroom dramas, but legal professionals tend to hold them in contempt. However, despite some inaccuracies, many lawyers love "My Cousin Vinny." It's even used as a training tool in law schools, and the American Bar Association (ABA) Journal ranked it at number three on its list of Top 25 Movies. ("To Kill a Mockingbird" and "12 Angry Men" nabbed the top and second spots, respectively.)

It may have helped that both screenwriter Dale Launer and director Jonathan Lynn were obsessive about getting the legal details right. According to Screencraft, Launer's method of research was asking a litigator friend questions about his experiences. Whenever the litigator suggested something was too boring to delve into for a movie audience, Launer pushed for more detail. Meanwhile, Lynn has an M.A. in law from the prestigious Cambridge University. During filming, he made small changes to the action to ensure the depiction of the trial was as accurate as possible.

In addition to this commitment to legal accuracy, Launer and Lynn believe that unlike many legal movies, "My Cousin Vinny" doesn't attempt to make anyone in the legal profession into a clear villain. As Lynn told Abnormal Use, "the judge is not corrupt. He's very correct and a little straight-laced, but he's not a bad guy ... The prosecutor is more than fair ... lawyers are probably happy to see a movie in which the system actually works and in which all the participants behave correctly."

People who have speech impediments were unimpressed

Although lawyers are ready to defend "My Cousin Vinny" over its depiction of the legal profession, people who have speech impediments were furious with one scene.

One of the co-defendants (Mitchell Whitfield) loses faith in Vinny (Joe Pesci) and asks for the public defender. Played by Austin Pendleton, the lawyer seems cool and calm — especially compared to Vinny — until he can barely get through his opening statement because of a stutter.

Director Jonathan Lynn described Pendleton's performance as the funniest of any movie he's directed. "I had to hide because I was laughing so hard," he told Abnormal Use.

However, when "My Cousin Vinny" was released, the National Stuttering Project called Pendleton's character offensive, and planned to protest at the Oscars. The organization called on theater owners to warn viewers about the scene and to issue refunds to anyone who was offended.

Pendleton ultimately regretted the role. He had stuttered intensely as a teenager and worked hard with vocal coaches to overcome it. He only agreed to take the part because he was good friends with Lynn. 

Although playing the public defender didn't bring the stutter back, as Pendleton had feared, it pigeonholed him. "The director would say, 'I really loved you in "My Cousin Vinny,"' and that would be code for 'No way am I hiring you,'" he told Broadway World. From then on, Pendleton turned down parts that required him to stutter, no matter how good the rest of the material was.

You can visit many of the locations — but not in Alabama

Much of "My Cousin Vinny" was shot on location in the Deep South: but primarily in various small towns in Georgia, rather than Alabama.

Monticello, Georgia, provided several of the movie's most memorable locations, including Mitchell's Department Store, the secondhand store responsible for that suit, and Dave's Bar-B-Q and Seafood where Vinny (Joe Pesci) has his epiphany about the tire tracks.

Perhaps most excitingly, Monticello is home to the Sac-O-Suds convenience store. The real store closed and fell into disrepair sometime after the shoot, but was later acquired by a new owner and restored, complete with its iconic sign. (The tell-tale tire tracks are gone, however.) As of writing, it's open for business — and yes, they take shoplifting very seriously.

Monticello's courthouse also served as Judge Haller's (Fred Gwynne) courthouse, but only for exterior shots. Director Jonathan Lynn explained to Abnormal Use that he used the interior for research, even sitting in on a murder trial, and had the courtroom recreated as a set. 

Shooting in the actual room was out of the question, partly because it was needed as a court, and partly because Lynn wanted to shoot from angles the room couldn't accommodate. He told Abnormal Use, "we had walls that flew in and out. We needed to be able to reproduce weather [conditions]." However, the offices of Judge Haller and prosecutor Jim Trotter III (Lane Smith) are in the building.

My Cousin Vinny comes up in pop culture

You're not the only one who drops references to "two yutes" and Positraction into everyday conversations. "My Cousin Vinny" has lived on in pop culture, coming up at unexpected moments.

In 2015, Bill Belichick, Head Coach of NFL team the New England Patriots, used the movie to deflect questions about the Deflategate scandal. At a press conference that went into extreme detail about air pressure in footballs, Belichick informed the journalists, "I would not say that I'm Mona Lisa Vito of the football world, as she was in the car expertise area." In a subsequent radio interview, Tomei confirmed that not only had she heard about the comment, but she and Joe Pesci also texted about it — with emojis.

Tomei was less impressed when another public figure cited the movie to make a point. During a press conference where he repeated lies about the 2020 Presidential election, former Mayor of New York and Trump legal counsel Rudy Giuliani said that "My Cousin Vinny" was "one of my favorite law movies because he comes from Brooklyn." He also claimed Republican voting monitors were further from the polls than Vinny had been from near-sighted witness Mrs. Riley (Paulene Myers).

Tomei responded by tweeting a gif of Lisa rolling her eyes, under the caption "mood..." And director Jonathan Lynn told the Hollywood Reporter, "I regard Giuliani's praise of 'My Cousin Vinny' as generous from the man who is currently giving the Comedy Performance of the Year."

You can find out what Vinny did next

Vinny's legal adventures did not stop when he and Lisa sped out of Alabama! They simply took on a different format.

In 2017, real-life Brooklyn attorney Lawrence Kelter published a book sequel to the movie, titled "Back to Brooklyn." Lest you dismiss this as non-canon, Kelter did so with permission from "My Cousin Vinny" screenwriter Dale Launer, from whom he'd purchased the rights.

The book is set shortly after Vinny and Lisa's triumphant return and introduces a new murder case and new characters, including Lisa's parents and Vinny's brother. Judge Henry Molloy, Vinny's legal benefactor, also makes an appearance. And no, the couple isn't married yet.

In a foreword, Kelter implied that despite the matrimonial delay, Vinny and Lisa are still a team, "with Lisa investigating and Vinny litigating." He also said he and Launer "foresee a bright future for our sidesplitting couple," implying there were more stories to come. Indeed, the following year, Kelter published a novelization of "My Cousin Vinny," and in 2020, added a third to the trilogy, "Wing and a Prayer."

You'll have to reproduce Tomei's pronunciation of "positive" and Pesci's "yutes" in your own head, but at least you'll get to find out where that long, muddy Alabama road took the legal profession's least likely heroes next.