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.
Before he became a film director, Jonathan Lynn received a law degree from Cambridge University. On My Cousin Vinny's DVD commentary, he talks about how important it was to him to get the law exactly right during the movie's courtroom scenes:
I get terribly irritated when I see films in which the legal procedure is obviously wrong. I’m very pleased with the fact that, although this is heightened for comedic purposes, everything you see legally in this film could happen and is approximately correct. Which, by the way, makes it the more frightening.
Lynn's meticulous attention to detail paid off. Lawyers and judges largely regard My Cousin Vinny as one of the most accurate law movies ever made, and it is often used in law schools as an educational aid. The American Bar Association ranked the comedy No. 3 on its list of the 25 Greatest Legal Movies.
Additionally, John Marshall Law School professor Alberto Bernabe lauded Vinny Gambini's (Joe Pesci) knowledge of how to correctly do several important things that aren't typically taught in law school:
[How to] interview clients, to gather facts, to prepare a theory of a case, to negotiate, to know when to ask a question and when to remain quiet, to cross examine a witness forcefully (but with charm) in order to expose the weaknesses in their testimony.
My Cousin Vinny has proven to be an enduring comedy - and one of the main reasons is Marisa Tomei's Oscar-winning performance as the street-wise, outspoken, Brooklyn-bred Mona Lisa Vito. Turns out, the studio wanted to cut Tomei's character from the movie entirely, to which screenwriter Dale Launer reacted: "I thought, she's like the best thing in the movie!"
The studio executives did not understand why Vito got to be the hero at the end, in which she uses her automotive expertise to get the accused off the hook. Instead, the studio wanted to give Tomei's lines to the eponymous Vinny.
Thankfully, Launer had the foresight to see that Mona Lisa Vito was cinematic gold. He told the executives he wouldn't give away her lines - emphasizing the dramatic importance of the way she figures into the resolution of the plot. "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."
All of the scenes in My Cousin Vinny were filmed on location around the state of Georgia. The only exceptions are the interior courtroom scenes, which were filmed on a set in Covington, GA.
That means the prison scenes were filmed in an actual prison - to be exact, the Lee Arrendale State Prison, located in Alto, GA. It's the facility in which Bill (Ralph Macchio) and Stan (Mitchell Whitfield) are held during their trial.
Whitfield described how terrifying it was to film on location at the prison:
We actually filmed that in a real prison, and when we were walking down - you know when Ralph and I were walking through the prison the first time like holding our blankets and walking to our cell and you hear the prisoners screaming at us. Those are real prisoners, and they really were yelling at us... They had to tone it down with what they put in the movie because they were saying some horrible stuff.
Screenwriter Dale Launer was born in Cleveland, OH, and raised in Los Angeles, CA. Today, people from all around the world have an idea about "Jersey Girl" stereotypes thanks to reality television. However, Launer had not come in contact with Garden State women until he traveled abroad to France.
Launer was on a backpacking trip when he came across a group of women from New Jersey. He was stunned to find that even though they were swimming, they still looked the part with their jewelry, makeup, and done-up hair:
They wear jewelry in the water. I never saw that! That always kind of stuck in my head.
Then, there was their particular way of speaking:
As I approach them, I can't quite understand their language.
The image of the girls from Jersey stuck with him, and they became the basis for one of the most beloved characters Launer ever wrote.