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Actor Profile: Marisa Tomei

Marisa Tomei is an actress with many memorable roles through the years; here is a rundown of some of her very best.

Actor Profile: Marisa Tomei

Growing up I often found myself feeling as though the actors I saw in movies were extended members of my family. It’s probably due to the fact that I would binge watch movies long before it became the pop culture norm of Netflix. There were a couple movies that I would watch on repeat and one of the actors that came up in quite a few of them was Marisa Tomei.

As an Italian-American, I felt a kinship to her because she looked like a lot of the people I grew up with. She was one of the first actors who felt attainable to me and made the power of cinema even more personal. Watching her, even in wacky circumstances, broke down the facade of film and storytelling being something that was “over there” or something far away from my reach.

To this day, I find myself quoting movies of hers and doing her signature shoulder strut. While she hasn’t always headlined blockbuster films, her career has remained steady and eclectic. Her range is quite admirable, as she is able to pull off over the top comedy and give believable and raw dramatic performances.

Brooklyn Beginnings

Marisa Tomei was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1964 to an Italian-American family. Her mother, Adelaide, was an English teacher and her father, Gary, was a lawyer. Tomei described her childhood as artistic and very Italian. While the family was not particularly religious, the Italian traditions remained. Her parents often brought her to Broadway plays and she began doing theater in junior high school.

Tomei would perform in theater throughout high school and knew that acting was going to be her career. She attended Boston College and began auditioning for film and television. After one year at BU, she dropped out and accepted a role on the soap opera, As The World Turns. She continued to work in film and television for a couple of years before landing a role on the television show A Different World, starring opposite Lisa Bonet.

As the 1980’s proved to be successful for Tomei in television, the 1990’s would bring success in the film world. And rather quickly, at that.

Oscar (1991)

Actor Profile: Marisa Tomei

source: Buena Vista Pictures

We all have our guilty pleasure movies. These can be films that we watched as children, or films that are so outlandish that they become cult classics. For me, Oscar is one of those films. Tomei plays Lisa, the daughter of Snaps Provolone who is a gangster trying to go straight, played by Sylvester Stallone. Snaps promises his father on his death bed that he will become an honest businessman. On the day he tries to attempt “going straight”, he is confronted with a bunch of problems. His daughter Lisa tells him she is pregnant and is running away with the chauffeur. The police are watching over his house to see the comings and goings, because they are convinced he is orchestrating a master scheme. And he has a meeting with a group of bankers for his soon-to-be legitimate job.

Oscar has a lot of moving parts and would work perfectly in a play format, as well. Tomei is part of this comedic cast that brings an Italian stereotype to the forefront of her performance without making it off putting. Her character is a spoiled and whiny, privileged daughter, but Tomei finds a way to make her lovable. In one scene in particular, playing opposite Stallone, she begins to let out an exasperating sob before Stallone snaps his fingers to stop her. Right after he snaps, Tomei does her sob in reverse and stops sobbing with a calming stare. I’m not going to lie, I used this move once or twice in my childhood.

What Marisa Tomei proved in this film is that she has perfect comedic timing. And she also has the capability of making an annoying character endearing. Neither one of those things are an easy feat.

My Cousin Vinny (1992)

Actor Profile: Marisa Tomei

source: 20th Century Fox

Tomei’s next supporting role is what put her on the map and garnered her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. My Cousin Vinny positions Tomei across from another iconic Italian-American actor, Joe Pesci. She plays the role of Mona Lisa Vito, the girlfriend of Vinny, an inexperienced lawyer. Vinny’s cousin Billy and his friend Stan are on trial for a murder they did not commit. Vinny travels to Alabama, with Mona Lisa, to be his lawyer. Being stereotypical New Yorkers, Vinny and Mona Lisa stand out like a sore thumb. The trial does not go according to plan and it looks as though Vinny and his cousin are going to lose. In a last ditch attempt to save the trial, Vinny puts Mona Lisa on the stand as an automotive expert to help dispute the supposed damning evidence against Billy and Stan.

While it could be very easy to dismiss the character of Lisa as just a nagging girlfriend, it’s her testimony that proves Billy and Stan’s innocence. Much like the character of Lisa, Tomei’s performance cannot be dismissed. She holds her own and even stands out amongst the male dominated cast – the final performance on the stand is easily what helped her win the Academy Award. She rattles off car knowledge with a sense of certainty, unbecoming of a hairdresser from New York. But Tomei’s delivery, which could easily come across  as over rehearsed, was delivered with such a matter of fact ease.

For a relatively short career up to this point, Marisa Tomei solidified that she could bring a certain power to a male dominated industry. While she was a supporting role, she easily upstaged Pesci to make this film what it became.

Only You (1994)

Actor Profile: Marisa Tomei

source: TriStar Pictures

Creative people often have films, or pieces, of art that shape them into the people they become. While Only You can be labeled as a cheesy romantic comedy, it is one of the films that helped shape my childhood. It’s the reason why I dragged my family to a random hotel while we were vacationing in Venice because I just had to see some of the sites where this film was shot!

Faith, played by Marisa Tomei, is told the name of her soulmate, “Damon Bradley” by a Ouija board and fortune teller. As she grows up, she finds herself engaged to a man, not Damon, and lives a normal life. She receives a phone call for her fiancé and as she takes down the message, the caller states that his name is Damon Bradley. In a frenzy, Faith rushes to the airport to follow his whereabouts and gets on a plane to Italy, hoping to track him down. Her sister-in-law, Kate, played by Bonnie Hunt, thinks Faith has lost her mind. But Kate follows suit and gets on a plane to Italy to be by Faith’s side. The two travel from Venice to Rome, trying to get in the presence of Damon, when they stumble across Robert Downey Jr., who reveals that he is Damon. Faith and Damon have a romantic night exploring the city until he reveals that he’s not actually Damon, but Peter. What ensues is Peter trying to win over Faith and Faith continuing her journey to find Damon.

Tomei, once again, pulls off flawless comedic timing and shows the depth of a character feeling lost and searching for purpose. I was relatively young when I first saw this film, but the duo of Tomei and Downey has left a lasting effect on me. Aside from the classics, like Abbott & Costello, Tomei and Downey were the first comedic modern day duo that showed me just how well actors and comedians work off of each other. There was a fluidity in their performance that comes from genuine talent. My love for this film, and that duo, goes so deep that the theme song to this movie plays in my head any time I think of love. Don’t judge me, I was a kid!

In The Bedroom (2001)

Actor Profile: Marisa Tomei

source: Miramax Films

In a stark contrast to the three aforementioned films, Tomei leaves behind her comedic genius to display her pure dramatic talent. In The Bedroom tells a story of Frank (Nick Stahl), his parents Matt (Tom Wilkinson) and Ruth (Sissy Spacek), and his girlfriend Natalie, played by Tomei. Natalie is older than Frank and has two children from a previous, abusive marriage. Frank’s parents have a difference of opinion when it comes to their sons relationship with Natalie, but she shows to be a loving and doting girlfriend. Unfortunately, she still deals with her ex-husband, Richard. Frank gets a call from Natalie’s children crying because their father destroyed their home in a rage. Frank comes to Natalie’s defense, but ultimately is killed by a jealous and crazed Richard. Natalie testifies against Richard, but he is let out on bail. Matt does not settle and takes vengeance for his son.

What we see from Marisa Tomei in this film is a woman in despair. Often times the characters that we were used to seeing her play were ones with a certain strength, but Tomei’s portrayal of Natalie was hopeless and frightened. Tomei received another Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress for this film and displayed that she is truly and actor of range.

The Wrestler (2008)

Actor Profile: Marisa Tomei

source: Fox Searchlight Pictures

If there were a running theme for Marisa Tomei’s career it would be her ability to break gender norms and often times outshine her male scene partners. That sentiment is certainly displayed with her performance in The Wrestler. The film was heralded as a comeback for Mickey Rourke, and he certainly did not disappoint. But it was Tomei who pushed the envelope with her performance as Cassidy, a stripper, who becomes the love interest of Randy, an aged wrestler, played by Rourke.

The film highlights how industries push people to the wayside that are “past their prime”. Randy is too old to wrestle, although it’s all he knows, and Cassidy is too old to be stripping, but it’s what she needs to do to survive. It can be argued that Mickey Rourke might have been too old to take on this role and was past his prime of the success he achieved in the 1980’s. Tomei was also what some would consider to “old” to be nude in a film, but let’s be honest, she rocked it more than most women in their twenties. Both Rourke and Tomei used their age to the advantage of their characters but also proved that they are far from retiring their talents.

Tomei was awarded her third Academy Award nomination for her role as Cassidy. Many of the characters she played in her early career were fun loving and witty, but as her career has progressed she seems to be choosing roles that are more raw and reflective of a different cultural landscape. Whether that was a purposeful choice or not, it has turned out to be a wise one.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Actor Profile: Marisa Tomei

source: Columbia Pictures

I will freely admit that superhero movies are not really my favorite thing in the world. But one thing that is, is an actor who refuses to be pigeon hold by a genre or template. And Marisa Tomei refused both by taking on the role of Aunt May in Spider-Man: Homecoming. The role in the comic books was a much older, matronly character, which Tomei is clearly not. While the press has deemed her interpretation of Aunt May as the “hot aunt”, her role actually goes a little deeper. She acts more as a counselor to her nephew, Peter. Where the Aunt May of the comic books was an old school support system, the new Aunt May shows that she has brains and ideas, as well as a nurturing spirit.

Tomei’s career has spanned over three decades, but this was the first time she appeared in an action packed blockbuster. It’s a testament to her creative capabilities that she is able to not be confined to playing by certain genres. And while the role of Aunt May is not at the forefront of the Spider-Man series and comic books, it’s still a noticeable character who fans have grown accustomed to seeing in a certain way. To be able to bring a fresh take to a beloved character is no small task, but it’s safe to say that Marisa Tomei brought Aunt May into the 21st century.

Marisa Tomei

As Hollywood, and the world, continue to become aware of the power of women, I feel like it’s important to give praise to the women in my life that have affected me. While I have never met Marisa Tomei, her presence in my life makes me feel like I have. Some of her films are parts of my childhood that I cherish. And her ability to do television, film and theater is a quality that I admire.

I’ve found that the actors who have deeply touched me are the ones who gravitate to character work in supporting roles. Tomei doesn’t have to headline five back-to-back blockbuster films in order to be relevant or compelling. It’s her small nuances that bring her characters to life and make them memorable.

What are some of your favorite films of Marisa Tomei? Do you feel more female actors should follow the mold she has created? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below!

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Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.

Michelle Sabato is an actor and writer from Cleveland, Ohio. By the age of 2 Michelle had memorized all the words to The Wizard of Oz. So, yes, she can carry a conversation with just using movie quotes.

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