Ask anyone the best part of the classic comedy, “My Cousin Vinny,” and they’ll likely say Mona Lisa Vito. Ask anyone the best line of the classic comedy, “My Cousin Vinny,” and they’ll likely say, in perfect exaggerated Brooklyn accent, “Oh yeah, you blend.”
Mona Lisa Vito, the tough-talking fiancee of the film’s titular character, is one of the more memorable of American cinema’s last 30 years. Newcomer Marisa Tomei won an Oscar for her portrayal of the smartass, Spandex-wearing siren from the Empire State. But Lisa almost never made it to the screen.
Screenwriter Dale Launer remembers an early meeting about the script with executives: “At one point, the studio wanted to cut her out of the movie and I thought, she’s like the best thing in the movie!”
The studio was initially perplexed as to why Lisa gets the star turn on the stand at the end of this courtroom drama.
“Can’t we give those lines to Vinny?” was the suggestion. The answer from Launer was a resounding “no.”
Released in March of 1992, the comic legal drama puts two college kids from New York in an Alabama jailhouse charged with murder and accessory after a case of mistaken identity, with no one to call but Billy’s (Ralph Macchio) cousin Vinny Gambini, played by Joe Pesci. Gambini has taken the bar six times since graduating law school and has no courtroom experience, which becomes obvious as the brash New Yorker clashes with the stately Southern judge (Fred Gwynne). Vinny is accompanied by his gum-smacking fiancee, who happens to have grown up with a family of mechanics, worked as a mechanic before becoming a hairdresser and possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of American car manufacturing, which saves the two accused “yutes” from a guilty verdict.
At a time when the movie industry is falling all over itself to create and reward strong female characters, and the industry’s newfound wokeness can cause it to dismiss all that came before, Mona Lisa Vito’s courtroom triumph is one to remember. She is no mere romantic interest of the lead but has some of the best lines in the movie. She is underestimated due to her sex and looks, but saves the day with a wealth of knowledge on a subject usually considered the province of men.
“He puts her on [the stand] basically to say ‘win the case for me’…and he needs her help,” Launer said. “He couldn’t have done it without her.”
Another famous Launer script, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” also featured a strong female character getting one over on the main male characters, played by more established actors— Steve Martin and Michael Caine. I loved both movies as a kid, partly for this reason. These women weren’t ornaments or cliches. They were strong and funny and kicked ass when needed.
Good writing demands Lisa be there for a reason, Launer said, and he wasn’t willing to take her down a notch at the studio’s suggestion. Quite the opposite.
“Here’s what I did. I decided to embed her deeper and deeper into the story so you could never take her out.”
That was the impetus for adding her marriage motivation to the movie. Launer bemoaned the Hollywood trope of the wife or girlfriend complaining about her neglect at the hands of the main character as he pursued his dream, and wanted Lisa to be active and likable.
“It’s a cliché in…movies about a guy who’s obsessed with doing something that the wife is saying he’s not paying enough attention,” he said. “[The viewers] don’t care…You’re more concerned that his guy finds the serial murderer or wins this case against somebody or whatever it is. They’re on a hot pursuit of truth and justice and the American way.”
So, when higher-ups were angling for such an arc for Lisa, Launer wrote the now-famous “biological clock” rant, in which it’s revealed Vito planned to marry Vinny after he passed the bar and won his first case. Six years later, standing on the ramshackle porch of their Alabama motel room, Vinny flailing in the courtroom, it hits Lisa— “I don’t think I’m ever getting married!”
When Vinny reacts by getting angry she’s bringing this up while he’s dealing with a lot of pressure and the fate of his cousin, she backs off quickly. She’s as interested in him winning his case as he is. It’s a symbol of their relationship, a rite of passage for the couple, not just Vinny. They win it as a team, not a hero and a nagging girlfriend.
Vito’s character was based on several real-life women Launer knew, two of them actresses who eventually read for the part that ultimately went to to Tomei. His first encounter with, for lack of a better term, “Jersey girls,” was on a trip abroad as a young man, backpacking in France. He went swimming and ran into a group of women, also swimming but all done up in hair and make-up and jewelry.
“They wear jewelry in the water. I never saw that!” Launer said. “That always kind of stuck in my head.”
“As I approach them, I can’t quite understand their language,” Launer said. He asked them where they were from. They replied, “New Jersey,” and it dawned on him, they’re Americans.
Then when Launer was writing the script, he took a road trip through the South for research. He’d never been before. He rented a Ford Probe in New Orleans and drove through Mississippi and into Alabama, eventually stopping in the small town of Butler, where he encountered a diner advertising simply, “Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner.”
This concept amused him and made it into the movie. When he told an actress friend about the restaurant when he was back home she said, “I bet the Chinese food is terrible.” That line made it into the script. Another actress friend was a potent mix of street smarts and book smarts, and carried her own pool cue to pool halls.
Then there was the couple friend of his who had knock-down, drag-out verbal fights, on whom Launer modeled the dynamic between Vinny and Lisa.
“They were just nasty and they were funny they would do this in front of their friends. It was like a performance and when one of them would say something especially cruel or devastating, the other would go, ‘Whoa, that was a good one.’ They kinda did this for fun.”
As for the car knowledge, that was all Launer’s.
“It was also sort of a misspent youth for me,” he said. “When I was 16, I could tell you the weight, displacement, horse power, configuration…the suspension of every single car sold in America.”
All of this took place on a backdrop of a small Southern town and its inhabitants, portrayed with affection, not condescension. Launer said his road trip through the deep South taught him Southerners are sensitive about how they’re portrayed in Hollywood, and he brought those concerns into the movie.
“I used that kind of reverse bigotry,” Launer said, particularly with the Ivy-League-educated judge who has a “bit of a chip on his shoulder” about being considered slow because he’s from Alabama.
“To be honest with you, if anybody’s a hick, the closest thing would be Vinny,” he said.
It’s that element that has made “Vinny” a surprisingly well-traveled film. A 1997 Boston Globe article, “Translate dis,” explored why the movie was relatable, even in Mandarin. Every country has big cities and rural areas. Every country’s big cities have a wrong side of the tracks and characters like Vinny, who speak a certain way. Every country has both big-city and country folks who are insecure about how the way their counterparts see them.
It was that universal feeling that helped “Vinny” conquer the world.
Mona Lisa Vito already had, with Tomei taking home the 1993 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress— rare for a comedy and controversial enough that there was a longtime urban myth that Jack Palance read the wrong name. Launer said he wasn’t surprised, calculating that the other nominees, Vanessa Redgrave and Joan Plowright among them, would split the “grand dame” vote and leave Tomei with a plurality.
“Some people found it hard to believe that a comedy could win an Oscar. Usually people have to get angry, or they have to have a physical affliction, or they have to cry. That’s the stuff that gets you nominated, but she doesn’t do any of that. But she gets to make us feel good and that’s what’s important.”