If you’re hungry for a good old-fashioned legal comedy with a side of tasty grits, look no further than 1992’s My Cousin Vinny. People are still quoting those lines so brilliantly delivered by Joe Pesci, Marisa Tomei, and the hilarious ensemble. But now it’s time to peek further behind the scenes. New details have been released — including a key flaw in that final testimony. What happened?
Screenwriter Dale Launer got the idea for My Cousin Vinny after meeting a law student who was anxiously waiting for his bar exam results. The student explained to Launer that it’s very common for students to fail their bar exams, and to simply retake them again and again until they pass.
After learning that there was a student out there who’d actually failed the bar 13 times before passing it, Launer thought to himself: “What if you have been accused of a crime — and clearly you have what appears to be the worst lawyer in the country?” That’s what inspired the character of Vinny, played by the brashly talented Joe Pesci. But making the movie work would turn out to be far harder than it looked.
Marisa Tomei was so memorable as Mona Lisa Vito, the girlfriend of Joe Pesci’s Vinny, that she won an Oscar for her performance. That’s what makes it so unthinkable that the studio originally wanted to get rid of her character entirely. They were afraid that her big moment at the end, where she gives the perfect testimony, would take the spotlight away from Vinny.
They ultimately agreed that she could stay in the film, but only if there was another scene where she complained about not getting enough attention, making her into more of a stereotypical girlfriend character. Dale Launer was happy they agreed to keep her, but he still wanted to change a few things.
Launer didn’t like the studio’s one-sided, clichéd vision for Mona Lisa. He felt that audiences wouldn’t respect her if she didn’t support Vinny during a very critical time in his career. Launer ultimately struck a fair compromise with the studio.
They added a scene where she complains to Vinny that her “biological clock is ticking,” and that she’s still waiting for a marriage proposal. But Launer wanted Vinny to push back a little, and for Mona Lisa to ultimately concede that, “Maybe it was a bad time to bring it up.” He also wanted to make sure she helped him win the case. But that wasn’t the only key thing he wanted to change.
Unfortunately, there’s a long-standing stereotype that people from the American South aren’t always the brightest, especially thanks to the legacy of not-so-subtle shows like The Beverly Hillbillies. Launer wanted to fight that common trope by making the Southern characters in My Cousin Vinny command intellectual respect.
That’s why he made the presiding judge a Yale graduate, with a drawling, commanding voice. It’s also why he gave the district attorney a name that suggests he comes from aristocratic wealth, Jim Trotter III. But it wasn’t just the characters of the South he wanted to be loyal to. In fact, he took some pretty incredible measures to make sure the movie would be as authentic as possible.
Launer wanted to know everything he possibly could about Southern life and mannerisms so that his movie could be accurate in how it portrayed its subjects. So before writing the script, he rented a car down in New Orleans and took it down the Gulf Coast, spending time in Mississippi and Alabama.
He learned that grits are a common menu item, how easy it is to get your car stuck in the mud, and about the screech owls that wake you up at the crack of dawn. These elements eventually all found their way into the movie. But inspiration for the writing also came from the actual set — which paved the way for one scene in particular.
One of the funniest scenes in the movie is when Judge Haller can’t understand Vinny when he says the word “yutes.” Since Vinny hails from Brooklyn, his pronunciation obviously creates some confusion for the judge. Once Vinny realizes what’s going on, he hilariously reiterates that he’s saying the word “youths.”
This scene was written after director Jonathan Lynn had the exact same exchange with Joe Pesci on set, encountering his actor’s thick New Jersey accent (not too far removed from Brooklyn), and realized it simply had to be in the movie. Culture clash is a very prevalent theme in this flick, making this moment a symbolic one. But Lynn had other, more deeply-rooted motivations while filming.
To understand the director’s motivations, let’s first get to the bottom of what this movie’s about. The crux of the story revolves around two innocent young men (or, you know, “yutes”) from New York, wrongfully accused of murder in Alabama. Lynn wanted to use the film as a platform to teach the world about the slippery slope from false charges all the way to capital punishment.
He spoke about how “frightening” it is that innocent people can be so easily executed in the real world without a proper lawyer or good enough evidence. In fact, in the years since the movie came out, many lawyers have praised the film for its accuracy in portraying how people are falsely accused all the time. To save the day, the film needed a home-cooked hero.
One of the reasons My Cousin Vinny is so iconic is because of the cast members’ outstanding performance — and they were all led by the enthralling Joe Pesci. The movie wouldn’t be what it is without his character Vinny, which begs the question of how he was able to pull it off so convincingly.
It turns out that Pesci was able to bring such an authentic performance as Vinny because he grew up in an environment with countless men who sounded just like him. Pesci said that Vinny was basically a combination of all those different men. And there was yet another fan favorite character who was drawn straight from real-world inspiration.
Similar to Vinny, Mona Lisa was also a character viewers couldn’t help but obsess over, taking special relish in quoting and imitating her. In fact, she was such a memorable character that the actress who played her, Marisa Tomei, won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance! So where did the idea for Mona Lisa Vito come from?
When screenwriter Dale Launer was traveling in France, he happened upon a group of girls from New Jersey who were swimming. He was shocked to find that even though they were in the water, they were all clad in jewelry, with makeup on and everything. He was also struck by their thick, unmistakable New Jersey accents. Incredibly enough, the authenticity of the movie extended far beyond just the characters.
Other than the courtroom, almost everything in My Cousin Vinny was filmed on location. This made for a very inexpensive film, but it also allowed for everything to feel that much more real. You can actually visit a lot of the locations, most notably that Sac-O-Suds store, which was the scene of the fictional crime.
However, not everything in the film was completely accurate to a tee. The movie was based in Alabama, but it was in fact filmed in Georgia, where the Sac-O-Suds is located in the city of Monticello. But Alabama or Georgia, there were some locations that became a little “too real” for the actors while shooting.
Not only were the prison scenes in My Cousin Vinny shot in a real prison, but things got a little too close for comfort for the actors. When protagonists Bill and Stan walked past the jail cells, inmates could be seen and heard screaming all kinds of nasty words at them.
Apparently this wasn’t an act at all. Actors Ralph Macchio and Mitchell Whitfield have admitted they were terrified while it was happening. They ultimately kept it in the film, further adding to its authentic feel. However, a completely different jail scene, a fan favorite no less, nearly found itself on the cutting room floor.
When Vinny arrives at Bill and Stan’s jail cell, Stan thinks he’s there for a much more “intimate” reason. Vinny walks in the cell, and Stan feels very intimidated, thinking he’s about to be asked to do things he wouldn’t normally do. Stan doesn’t realize that he’s Bill’s lawyer cousin, and since Bill is sleeping, he can’t tell him otherwise.
Director Lynn said they almost axed it because it’s factually inaccurate for a lawyer to meet clients in the actual cell. However, the scenario was simply too funny to get rid of. Speaking of funny scenes, this next actor managed to crack everyone up despite his very limited screen time.
Austin Pendleton played the role of the public defender, who stutters his way to getting fired after Stan takes a brief chance on him. Pendleton was cast by director Jonathan Lynn, who he’s actually good friends with in real life. As they filmed the scene, Lynn said he was laughing so hard he had to hide.
Lynn told Abormal Use in an interview about that moment: “My shoulders are going up and down like I’m crying, I was laughing. I couldn’t help it.” This just goes to show that even lesser-known actors can make an impact. That being said, some huge names almost got cast — but didn’t make the cut.
Dale Launer’s initial choice for Vinny was actually none other than Robert DeNiro. However, Launer was scoffed at by the Fox authorities, who told him that DeNiro, known for playing serious roles at the time, was “not funny.” Worse, he said that the studio president looked “uncomfortable” and even “embarrassed” that he had suggested such an actor for that role.
Years later, Launer had the last laugh when DeNiro actually appeared successfully in several comedic roles, such as Meet The Parents. Danny DeVito and Jim Belushi were then considered for the role, before Joe Pesci was finally chosen. But even crazier still, wait until you hear which other A-listers were almost cast — in a supporting role.
All the film’s roles were highly coveted — and a young Will Smith was actually considered for the supporting role of Bill’s friend Stan, the “other” guy who didn’t shoot the clerk. Actor Mitchell Whitfield had just arrived in Los Angeles from New York when he heard about the My Cousin Vinny auditions. That’s when he did a complete 180, and flew right back.
But the former Fresh Prince was there waiting in the wings. “Believe it or not, Will Smith was also up for the role,” he said gratefully. Decades later, we can’t imagine the movie without Whitfield. Funnily enough, he wasn’t the only young cast member who almost didn’t get cast.
Believe it or not, the studio was at first quite hesitant to cast Marisa Tomei. While the actress is basically a household name at present, back in the early ’90s she hadn’t acted in many big films. The production studio was afraid Tomei wasn’t experienced enough in the industry.
But after seeing Tomei act on the set of the 1991 comedy Oscar, director Jonathan Lynn fell in love with her quirky brilliance and decided to roll the dice. In her very first scene, where they roll into Alabama and she tells Pesci, “Oh yeah, you blend” — Lynn knew they had made the right choice. Another decisive choice would further alter the film’s plot.
While making the film, someone in the studio pointed out an apparent plot hole, asking: “Where is Bill’s mother in this whole story?” In a real life scenario, if her son was being put on trial for murder, innocent or not, wouldn’t she want to come down from New York to support him?
After some deliberation, they wrote her character into the film. But then, even further deliberation made them realize that she didn’t really add much to the plot, and would just be a distraction. So Bill’s mother was snipped out of My Cousin Vinny once and for all. However, the cast didn’t seem to mind the plot hole.
The cast of My Cousin Vinny is well aware of how good the movie they made is. They’ve all given glowing tributes to it after all these years, with Ralph Macchio joking that: “If you’re going out to dinner at 8 and you’re leaving the house at 7:30 and that movie is on — you’re just going to be late for dinner.”
Director Jonathan Lynn praised the characters’ uniqueness, saying that the reason the film is still so popular is because “these characters have not been seen on the screen before and probably not since.” Of course, Marisa Tomei in particular was a true joy to watch. Yet even though she won an Oscar, there was confusion and even consternation surrounding her big moment.
Marisa Tomei heard about her Oscar nomination in a very roundabout way. She’d been sleeping on the couch of a close friend who was pregnant and due any day. Out of the blue, her friends exclaimed loudly, waking her. Naturally, she thought her pregnant friend was going into labor. But it was actually because they had just found out about her nomination!
Considering she was still a new actress in Hollywood, one can only imagine how excited she would have been. After all these years, she’s still “so happy” to have been a part of My Cousin Vinny. But there’s just one big problem with one of her seminal scenes.
As the film’s murder trial nears its climax, Tomei’s Mona Lisa Vito barrels into a testimony that has become one of the most memorable moments in on-screen courtroom drama history. After shocking the courtroom (and the viewers) with her impeccable automotive knowledge, she’s able to help Vinny win his first case.
But a big part of her proof centers around a key statement she makes. Mona Lisa states there are only two cars in the ’60s with positraction and independent rear suspension. Even screenwriter Dale Launer was aware that there were three when he wrote the film — woops! So what made him include this critical mistake?
It turns out that screenwriter Dale Launer happens to know quite a lot about cars. With that in mind, the error regarding ’60s cars facts is actually something he was well aware of while writing it. So why did he write it in? He said to himself, “Well, no one’s really going to know that.”
He joked that the only person who would know the truth was an old high school friend, who he ironically ran into at the film’s premiere. Either way, it was a pretty minor flaw, and that testimony helped two innocent boys go free. Yet while we’d easily say Marisa Tomei’s performance is legendary, some people felt that her Oscar win was fake.
Not long after she won the 1992 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, rumors circulated that it was falsified information. A story spread that presenter Jack Palance was under the influence and hadn’t read the name on the envelope correctly. People spuriously claimed that the true Oscar winner was Vanessa Redgrave, who was nominated for the film Howards End.
However, the conspiracy theory has since been debunked — and a good thing too, because most critics agree that Tomei truly deserved that gold statuette. Movie critic Catherine Pearson even wrote that Tomei gave “a masterclass in making the most out of limited screen time.” Beyond the acting, what do experts think about My Cousin Vinny‘s plot?
Quite often we hear about films that succeed in the box office, but are criticized by respected professionals who say that the information on the silver screen isn’t accurate. But My Cousin Vinny isn’t one of those films. Countless real-world lawyers have professed that everything in the script could actually happen in real life.
The movie is even referenced in real law classes all around the world as a teaching method, praising the way Vinny discredits his witnesses by using context clues such as how long it takes for someone cook their grits in the morning. As you’ll soon see, it turns out that all of this legal knowledge didn’t come from thin air.
My Cousin Vinny director Jonathan Lynn has a legitimate law degree from the esteemed Cambridge University. This enabled him to ensure the utmost accuracy for his film. He expressed his disdain of other movies in the law genre that completely get it wrong, saying in the DVD interview, “I get terribly irritated when I see films in which the legal procedure is obviously wrong.”
But it wasn’t just the technical stuff Lynn got right. It was also his attention to the details, and the intangible things in the courtroom, that made the movie feel so real. To support this claim, Alberto Bernabe, another law professor, said that Vinny “is terrible at the things we do teach in law school, but very good at the things we don’t.” With such an all-around solid film, what happened to that energy?
Nostalgia films are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we’d all love to see our beloved characters come together for a new story. On the other hand, sometimes it’s better to leave the classics untouched, for fear of possibly ruining something classic with new cheap thrills.
As far as a sequel for My Cousin Vinny goes, screenwriter Dale Launer was quoted in a 2004 biography, saying that a rough draft was written. There had even been talk of filming it, but Marisa Tomei wasn’t interested. Years later she changed her mind, but by that point the idea had died down. Launer is still hopeful and optimistic of it maybe happening some day. Would you want to see it?
Sources: The Wrap, Mental Floss, BuzzFeed