My Cousin Vinny
What do Judy Davis, Joan Plowright, Vanessa Redgrave and Miranda Richardson all have in common? They were the four capital-A Actresses who lost to Marisa Tomei in the Best Supporting Actress Oscar race in 1993. They were all nominated for serious thespic performances. Tomei had the lone comedic role, in My Cousin Vinny.
At the time, people couldn't quite believe she won. (As recently as 2015, the controversy over her win was still being talked about.) Comedy tends to get the short shrift when it comes to the Oscars. Even today, her win seems anomalous. It's like when Judy Holliday won Best Actress for comedy over four powerhouse dramatic roles.
As someone with a little acting experience, I can tell you that the phrase "Dying is easy, comedy is hard" is true. Comedy requires a different kind of awareness of yourself, your cast and your setting, a different sense of timing. You'd think the Academy would be more sensitive to this, but they tend to respond to drama more. So when a comedic performance wins an Oscar, it's significant.
Watching Vinny again last week, I was reminded of what a sharp, witty and charming performance Tomei gave. Her subsequent career has proven it was no fluke, either. She has grown into a fantastic actress who was Oscar-nominated two more times (for drama, naturally). She hasn't quite reached Sandra Bullock-level superstardom, but anyone who has seen her post-Vinny work knows she's the real deal. (It's a little depressing, however, to realize she's now old enough to play Aunt May in the Spider-Man movies.)
Vinny was a vehicle for Joe Pesci that came along at the right time, in the wake of his GoodFellas success. It was a fish-out-of-water, R-rated comedy, meaning he got to be his gleefully profane self.
Pesci is the kind of actor who wouldn't exist back in the Golden Age. Cagney comes close: short, motormouthed wise guy with an attitude, but the lack of profanity aside, Pesci's shtick is specifically, quintessentially Italian, not Irish. Cagney had roguish charm. Pesci's just roguish. In a comedy like Vinny, though, it's appealing.