The charm and laughs of the 1992 fish-out-of-water comedy My Cousin Vinny have stood the test of time. Small-time lawyer Vinny Gambini and his fiancée, Mona Lisa Vito - a pair as New York as New York gets - are beckoned to the deep South after Vinny's cousin Bill, along with his friend Stan, are falsely accused of murder - the result of bad timing and unfortunate coincidence. Despite never having tried - let alone won - a courtroom case, Vinny is commissioned to serve as the pair's defense attorney.
The stakes couldn't be higher for the college students, who must rely on Vinny to defend them in court, despite his lack of courtroom experience and the fact that it took him six tries to pass the bar exam. By now, the comedy is firmly entrenched in the annals of Hollywood comic history, but going from concept to classic took a whole lot of key decisions, unexpected inspiration, and one legendary Oscar upset.
In these behind-the-scenes stories about My Cousin Vinny, find out about the real-life origin of the oft-quoted "two yutes" line, the film's surprising legal accuracy, and why Marisa Tomei almost got cut out of the movie entirely.
The 'Two Yutes' Scene Reflected An Actual Moment Between Joe Pesci And The Film's Director
Joe Pesci was born and raised in Northern Jersey, just south of New York. Director Jonathan Lynn was born in England. They may speak the same language, but there were certainly a lot of differences in their jargon.
The most quoted line from My Cousin Vinny, "two yutes," comes from an early courtroom scene in which the Southern judge (Fred Gwynne) has a problem understanding the New York lawyer's accent:
Vinny Gambini: It is possible that the two yutes...
Judge Chamberlain Haller: ...Ah, the two what? Uh... uh, what was that word?
Vinny Gambini: Uh... what word?
Judge Chamberlain Haller: Two what?
Vinny Gambini: What?
Judge Chamberlain Haller: Uh... did you say 'yutes'?
Vinny Gambini: Yeah, two yutes.
Judge Chamberlain Haller: What is a yute?
Vinny Gambini: Oh, excuse me, your honor... Two YOUTHS.
Turns out the hilarious culture clash was real. Lynn revealed in the DVD commentary that he spoke with Pesci during the pre-production phase of the movie. Here's Lynn's recollection of their conversation: "He said something about 'these two yutes' who were on trial and I said 'What?' and he said 'What?' and I said 'What's a yute?'"
Lynn knew right away that the "yutes" conversation had to make it in the script as an exchange between Gambini and the judge.
Screenwriter Dale Launer Deliberately Wanted To Invert The ‘Southern Redneck’ And ‘Nagging Girlfriend’ Tropes
Screenwriter Dale Launer did not want to write yet another screenplay filled with old Southern stereotypes. His goal was to avoid painting Southerners as just dumb rednecks. He explained why he made the judge an Ivy League graduate and why he gave the prosecutor (Lane Smith) a name that indicated wealth and prestige:
I would say that they're not stereotypes because in most American movies southerners are portrayed as rednecks or as stupid or as ill-educated or some other critical way. This judge went to Yale. He's highly educated, and he's highly intelligent. The prosecutor is Jim Trotter III, which suggests there was a first and a second, and that he's from a wealthy and successful family. I think the culture clash, because I'm British, I think it's a class clash.
Launer also wanted to avoid making Vinny's fiancée, Mona Lisa Vito, a mere romantic interest who doesn't contribute to the court case. In fact, Launer wrote the story so that Vinny would not have been able to win his first court case without her assistance. Launer talked about how he avoided the typical whiny girlfriend trope by making Lisa a likable and relatable character:
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. The viewers don't care... You're more concerned that his guy finds the serial [slayer] or wins this case against somebody or whatever it is. They're on a hot pursuit of truth and justice and the American way.
One of the most memorable scenes in the movie is when Lisa stomps her foot and tells Vinny she's worried about her biological clock:
Well I hate to bring it up because I know you've got enough pressure on you already. But, we agreed to get married as soon as you won your first case. Meanwhile, ten years later, my niece, the daughter of my sister is getting married. My biological clock is [taps her foot] ticking like this, and the way this case is going, I ain't never getting married.
Vinny's reaction to his fiancée's rant is to get upset with her. He can't believe she would bring up their personal life while he's in the middle of a case that could literally mean a terrible fate for his cousin. At this point, Launer opted to have Lisa take a step back; she's just as invested in the legal case as Vinny.
Lisa admits: "Maybe it was a bad time to bring it up."
Rex Reed Spread A Conspiracy Theory That Tomei Only Won Her Oscar Because They Read The Wrong NameVideo: YouTube
By now, we've likely all heard the rumor. Oscar presenter Jack Palance was unable to read the card for 1993's Best Supporting Actress winner. He ended up announcing the last nominee on the card, which was Marisa Tomei. The rumor did not seem entirely far-fetched. Tomei was only in her 20s and did not have a lot of acting experience. Plus, My Cousin Vinny was a comedy, hardly the type of fare that regularly earns Academy Awards. Finally, Tomei was not even considered a contender for the prize; it was supposed to be a fight between veteran actresses Vanessa Redgrave (Howard's End) and Joan Plowright (Enchanted April).
"Some people found it hard to believe that a comedy could win an Oscar," said the film's screenwriter Dale Launer. "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."
The rumor began in 1994 in an article published by The Hollywood Reporter. The piece stated that Tomei only won her Oscar by mistake and that the truth would soon come out. Film critic Rex Reed concurred with the conspiracy theory and helped spread the Hollywood tale. He even added his own twist to make the rumor a total scandal, claiming Palance was actually drunk during the ceremony and that the Academy went to great lengths to cover up his massive mistake.
The Academy has repeatedly addressed the rumor, assuring everyone that Tomei really did win the award.
"That was really hurtful at first," Tomei admitted. "I was young, and I really didn't know the ways of the world on any level. But now I know the ways of the world, so I'm just, like, OK. I mean, it's so in the past."
The Director Had To Literally Hide During The Public Defender’s Scene Because He Couldn’t Stop Laughing
Lynn cast his old friend veteran character actor Austin Pendleton to take on the role of John Gibbons, the original defense counsel. The casting decision turned out to be a great choice, even if Pendleton's opening speech made the director laugh so hard he had to hide behind the camera.
Lynn explained how he couldn't keep it together:
There were lots of things that were in the script that were funny when they were played. I suppose the one time that I was utterly convulsed was when Austin Pendleton, playing the public defender, stood up to make his opening speech to the jury and couldn’t get a word out... I knew he would be really funny in that part. But I really didn't quite imagine just how funny. And I had to literally hide behind the camera. I normally sit by the camera. But I had to hide because I was laughing so hard. I had to somehow stop myself from making a sound, and I couldn't let Austin be put off by seeing me. So, to me that was undoubtedly - that's the funniest moment I've had on any film I've ever made.