When the best picture prize was yanked from the hands of Team “La La Land” on Sunday night and thrust belatedly at the producers of “Moonlight” after confused presenters were handed the wrong envelope and announced the wrong film, it produced one of the most shocking moments in the history of the Oscars.
But the stunning error and chaotic scene that followed also did something else: In a roundabout way, it appears to have vindicated a long-ago Oscar winner – Marisa Tomei.
The 52-year-old actress was nowhere near the stage Sunday and was not affiliated with either benighted movie. But the spectacle that unfolded should finally kill the cruel conspiracy theory that has dogged her for years – that she won her 1993 best supporting actress Oscar only because presenter Jack Palance called the wrong name.
Let us explain.
The 1993 best supporting actress race was a Mount Rushmore of pedigreed talent. The contenders included Judy Davis, Miranda Richardson, Vanessa Redgrave and Joan Plowright – all classically trained thespians at the height of their careers. And all of them were being recognized for roles in some of the year’s most prestigious films – the type that just scream “Oscar movie.”
Richardson would win a BAFTA that year for her role in “Damage,” a brainy literary adaptation; Plowright, the widow of Sir Laurence Olivier, appeared in the elegant costume drama “Enchanted April”; Redgrave had a key role in “Howards End,” nominated for eight other Oscars that year, including best picture.
But most eyes were on Davis, then 37, a previous Oscar nominee whose spiky, scouring performance as a spurned spouse lighted up Woody Allen’s “Husbands and Wives.”
. . . and then there was Tomei.
A little-known soap and sitcom actress, she had scored a major breakthrough in spring 1992 at age 27 with “My Cousin Vinny,” a slapsticky sleeper comedy about a mob lawyer (Joe Pesci) sent to spring his wrongly accused cousin from an Alabama jail. Tomei played Mona Lisa Vito, the lawyer’s tough-talking Brooklyn girlfriend with a fondness for press-on nails and shoulder pads. . . . and a surprising expertise in auto mechanics that comes in handy in the courtroom.
Not only did few critics think she had a chance of winning an Oscar, many couldn’t even believe she was part of the lineup.
“Are we supposed to take Marisa Tomei’s nomination for ‘My Cousin Vinny’ seriously?” then-Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser wrote.
The Post’s Rita Kempley picked Davis. Hal Hinson predicted Plowright would win.
These days, there are so many other award shows in the run-up to the Oscars – most of them usually awarding trophies to the same actors – that the Oscars themselves generally offer few surprises. But there were fewer second-tier shows then – no SAG Awards, no Critics Choice. And, meanwhile, Plowright had won the Golden Globe, and Davis was vacuuming up most of the critics’ prizes.
On the big night, 74-year-old Palance, who had won an Oscar the year before, dragged out the announcement with some hemming and hawing and self-dramatizing. He opened the envelope and read the name: Marisa Tomei.
Shrieks of surprise and joy went up in the crowd.
And the conspiracy theories were launched.
According to a 2015 Gawker post, the Hollywood Reporter laid out the rumor in a March 1994 item. The piece, which ran about a year after Tomei’s win, stated that the rumor was “fanned by no less than the former son-in-law of a distinguished Academy Award winner.”
“According to the rumor, it happened because Oscar presenter Jack Palance hadn’t been able to read the name written in the secret envelope when he was on stage announcing 1992’s best supporting actress winner,” the piece states, according to Gawker. “Instead of asking for help, so sayeth the tale, Palance arbitrarily called out Tomei’s name instead of the actual winner.”
But even while airing the rumor, the Hollywood Reporter piece took pains to pooh-pooh it, calling it “bunk” and “provocative gossip” that “didn’t happen.” The story noted that the accountants from the vote-certifying firm, then known as Price Waterhouse, were prepped for any such mistake and authorized to immediately go to the podium to correct it.
“So Marisa, stand assured that Oscar is adamantly yours, no matter what rumor may sayeth to the contrary,” the Hollywood Reporter declared.
Still, the rumor was detailed again in a 1994 Entertainment Weekly piece, which began: “This year’s Oscars are over, but here’s a nasty – and totally un-founded – little tidbit about last year’s ceremonies.”
“As the rumor goes,” EW continued, “award presenter Jack Palance inadvertently read the name of the final nominee off the TelePrompTer, instead of the name in the envelope. And depending on who tells the story, the winner was either Judy Davis for Husbands and Wives or Vanessa Redgrave for Howards End.”
All the rumors, though, were based on a peculiar premise: They all seemed to assume that, had Palance actually read the wrong name, that the entire Academy – or at least the small universe within that knew the true results – would play along and pretend that the fake winner was the rightful one.
That’s why Sunday’s madness offers a sweet measure of vindication for Tomei: It demonstrated that, in the case of a miscalled name, show officials are ready and willing to rush out and correct it – no matter how much embarrassment or humiliation might ensue.
Those critics and conspiracy-mongers overlooked a few things about the winner in question. One, Tomei was hilarious in “My Cousin Vinny.” No, seriously, go watch it. She makes the entire movie worthwhile.
And, in many ways, it made perfect sense that Oscar voters would pick her. The academy has always loved rewarding fresh-faced ingenues – think of the premature trophies that would go a couple of years later to Mira Sorvino (“Mighty Aphrodite”) and Gwyneth Paltrow (“Shakespeare in Love”), also in lite-comedic roles.
But here’s the most likely secret of her success that year: Tomei, who would later joke about the rumor during an “Saturday Night Live” appearance, was the only American nominated in that category. All those posh-accented thespians split the vote – allowing the Hollywood community to throw in for one of their own.
In fact, while many thought her win was a surprise, Roger Ebert actually went out on a limb that year and predicted that Tomei would take home the prize, for exactly that reason.
“Marisa Tomei, Joe Pesci’s wisecracking girlfriend in “My Cousin Vinny,” prevented the category from being populated entirely by foreigners,” wrote Ebert, who years later would defend Tomei as the rumor persisted. “She is still not widely known to the public, but in Hollywood, she’s the flavor of the month, positioned to be a top star in 1994.”
Indeed, Tomei never hit Julia Roberts-style heights of box-office stardom – but she did continue to score interesting roles in a variety of films (“Slums of Beverly Hills,” “The Paper,” “What Women Want”), and nine years later, she was back at the Oscars, as a best supporting actress nominee for “In the Bedroom.” In 2009, she was nominated again, for “The Wrestler.” And no one questioned her legitimacy in being there.