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Sad Role Provides Sweet Vindication for Tomei

January 03, 2002|CHRIS KALTENBACH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In 1992, Marisa Tomei was the surprise winner of a best supporting actress Oscar for the comedy "My Cousin Vinny," beating out respected British actresses Joan Plowright, Judy Davis, Vanessa Redgrave and Miranda Richardson.

In some ways, she's been paying for that win ever since. Maybe her performance in "In the Bedroom," as the woman whose love of a much younger man leads to tragedy, will finally pay that debt in full.

Almost from the day she won her Oscar, the Hollywood rumor mill couldn't simply acknowledge that Tomei had given an assured, terrifically funny performance as the gum-chewing, wisecracking girlfriend of a neophyte lawyer played by Joe Pesci. No, there had to be some other reason why this 28-year-old cinematic newcomer took home the golden statue.

And so the rumors started. Presenter Jack Palance had not worn his glasses, so he simply read off the only name he could make out. Or he figured it would be a good joke to announce Tomei's name. Or he wanted to be sure an American got the nod.

To this day, there are those who swear she did not really win her award. No matter how many times the motion picture academy swears she won fair and square, no matter how many times Palance insists he read the name that was in the envelope, the doubts persist.

"That was really hurtful at first," Tomei says over the phone. "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."

With luck, her heartbreaking performance in "In the Bedroom," which already has earned her a Golden Globe nomination, will silence the rumormongers forever. Especially given her other performances this past year, in the recent "Happy Accidents" and last year's "What Women Want," this woman's acting chops should no longer be called into question.

Tomei says there's no grand plan behind the films she chooses to make or even behind her approach to acting as a craft. "It's not really a matter of saying, 'Oh, I want to do this and that,'" she says. "It's more a matter of putting one foot in front of the other, kind of stumbling through."

When it comes to choosing a role, her considerations "take on a different proportion for each project, whether it's a great role, or it's a director I've always admired. A lot of times, I respond thematically to a role. What's it about? Is it provocative? Does it display a social conscience?

"The greatest thing for me is for a director to trust me, to let me do my thing. It's hard to verbalize what you're going to be playing until you show up and do the character. Otherwise, it kind of kills the magic."

Director Todd Field's "In the Bedroom," she believes, is a film of which to be proud, one that resists easy categorization. "There's really no horse-beating, there's nothing that's really black and white. There's a lot of room for discussion after you walk away from the film, which I think is great. There is no one character who is really good, or who is really evil. There's no one who is really a stock character."

Tomei reveals no real plans for the future. For now, she's happy to keep jumping from project to project, often with little time between films or even during the actual production. "There's a part of me that would like to know what I'll be doing next, would like to have a couple of things preparing while I'm working on something, would like to have time to do a little more research. But I can't dictate the entire business. I'm just a part of it."

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