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Assessing Marisa Tomei: A Mixed Body Of Work

By Agent Bedhead | Career Assessments | March 16, 2011 |

By Agent Bedhead | Career Assessments | March 16, 2011 |

Subject: Marisa Tomei, 46-year old American Actress

Date of Assessment: March 16, 2011

Positive Buzzwords: Sensuality, pluckiness, longevity

Negative Buzzwords: The Academy, romcoms

The Case: Just last week, I discussed how Gary Oldman has suffered no adverse effects after experiencing a career of neglect at the hands of The Academy. Naturally, Gary doesn’t give much of a shit whether or not he’s receiving relatively worthless reinforcement from his fellow actors; and in this week’s assessment, we explore the simple notion that an Oscar can actually hurt one’s career prospects.

Very early on in Marisa Tomei’s career (following stints on “As the World Turns” and “A Different World” as well as bit roles in a few negligible feature films), the actress received a substantial boost after winning the 1992 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Mona Lisa Vito in My Cousin Vinny. Now, whether or not she deserved the award is a matter of personal opinion, but to this day, Tomei endures speculation surrounding a nasty rumor claiming that she had “accidentally” beat out the likes of Vanessa Redgrave. It’s strange how such questioning always involves female winners, yet no one ever questions the male Oscar recipients, correct? Kevin Kline was at approximately the same stage of his career when in 1988 when he won Best Supporting Actor over Martin Landeau, Alec Guinness, and Dean Stockwell; but I don’t recall anyone harassing Kline in such a manner. Still, regardless of Tomei’s relative worthiness in winning that Oscar, she has suffered much more of a stigma than most winners, and this difficulty has unfortunately followed throughout her (by now) lengthy career.

Following Tomei’s big win, she was swiftly rewarded with a leading lady roles in a couple of righteous bombs: Only You and Untamed Heart. The first of these movies was a clichéd romcom, and the latter cast Tomei as a waitress who captures the heart of a man (Christian Slater) with a baboon’s heart. It’s possible that Tomei actually found merit within these two inferior scripts, or perhaps she merely fell in with the Hollywood producers who were throwing themselves at her Oscar-winning feet. Whatever the cause might have been, there was a subsequent chilling effect upon Tomei’s career prospects, and she’s only recently climbed out of this purgatory of sorts.

Upon taking a sweeping view of Tomei’s body of work, one realizes that she’s appeared in a handful of critically acclaimed movies, a couple of cult classics, and a ton of crap that people either don’t remember or didn’t watch in the first place. Out of the sixty projects listed on her IMDb profile, most people only have fond feelings for the following: My Cousin Vinny; Slums of Beverly Hills; In the Bedroom; Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead; The Wrestler (and, to a lesser degree: Chaplin; Unhook the Stars; Welcome to Sarajevo; Anger Management; and Cyrus). If Tomei hadn’t won that Oscar, she’d probably be judged less harshly as a result of unimpressive career turns because, like it or not, she’s always found steady work and has given herself wholly to each role in even her most forgettable movies. What I’m trying to say—quite poorly, might I add—is that Tomei’s career would be considered pretty damn successful if she’d only peaked much later in the game. Instead, that Oscar vaulted her to great heights with only a few ways to go; that is, to tread water or immediately drown.

At such an early point in her career, Tomei still needed to find herself as an actress and navigate inevitable stretches of success and failure, but she didn’t have the luxury to do so while toiling unnoticed. Instead, all eyes were on her and were just waiting for her to not live up to that allegedly undeserved award.

Fortunately, Tomei’s enjoyed something of a career renaissance lately, which means that she’s getting better roles than the “Woman at Pool” she played in Grace Is Gone. Naturally, she’s best known these days for her stripper character in Wrestler and deservedly so. It took a lot of skill to keep such a character from descending into the “with a heart of gold” archetype. Tomei also had a lot of creative input in regard to costuming (such as it was) and even came up with the character’s tattoos and other details in an effort to give Cassidy a real history instead of playing her as a two-dimensional hussy. Indeed, The Wrestler proved that Tomei is an incredibly likable, alluring actress as well as a great supporting player, not only in indie flicks but also in blockbusters.

Of course, only three of Tomei’s movies can fairly be classified as blockbusters; naturally, these films featured large marquee names to qualify them as such: What Women Want (Mel Gibson); Anger Management (Jack Nicholson and Adam Sandler); and Wild Hogs (John Travolta and several other completely heterosexual guys). Unfortunately, Tomei’s own leading roles have fared poorly at the box office. Part of this failure are the vehicles that she chooses, and part of the problem is that Tomei shines much more brightly as a supporting player (usually as a character who has powerful interaction with the main character) than as the main attraction in what are inevitably underwhelming movies with a less than impressive box-office take.

Prognosis: After The Wrestler, Tomei’s male (and female) fanbase could very well follow her through shark-infested waters just to rub suntan lotion on her back. However, it’s only realistic to ask how much longer an actress can pull the nudity card, even if the actress in question is also as competent as Tomei has proven herself to be. Further, her personality doesn’t seem particularly suited to carry off leading roles unless she chooses to revert to romcom hell (and she might very well go there, since she’s in talks to star in a Sarah Jessica Parker movie). God forbid.

Certainly, the most promising future for Tomei remains in supporting roles such as the upcoming courtroom drama, The Lincoln Lawyer, and the upcoming comedies, Salvation Boulevard and Crazy, Stupid, Love (co-starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling), as well as the George Clooney political vehicle, The Ides of March. Fortunately, Tomei’s upcoming films mix it up a bit, so she’ll be able to escape from the “gritty” roles of her career resurgence. Smart woman, that one.

Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at