'My Cousin Vinny': The Character of Mona Lisa Vito Was Almost Cut From the Film

My Cousin Vinny was a bit of a sleeper movie when it was released in 1993. Today, almost 30 years later, it is a cult classic that has nearly infinite rewatch value. While the flick was about Vinny Gambini, a newly minted lawyer, figuring out how to defend his cousin and his cousin’s friend from murder charges in the deep south, Vinny’s fiancé stole the show. Mona Lisa Vito, portrayed by Marisa Tomei, brought a lot of comedic fun to the film. Did you know she almost didn’t appear, though? Studio executives wanted the part cut.

Studio executives wanted to nix Mona Lisa Vito from the film

Dale Launer, the movie’s writer and producer, spent time road-tripping through the south to research My Cousin Vinny. When he was done, the script offered a bit of drama, plenty of comedy, and a nuanced portrayal of culture clash. Launer, known for writing strong female characters, ensured that Vinny had a partner who was just as adept at banter and sarcasm as him. Still, studio executives weren’t into it.

Launer once recalled that a meeting with executives left him unsure of the movie’s future. They asked if it would be possible to removed Lisa Vito from the script entirely. They theorized that they could give Lisa’s lines to Vinny. Launer insisted it wasn’t possible since she was pivotal to the outcome of the case. He left the meeting intent on ensuring that fans would get to meet the character.  

Dale Launer fought back, insisting Lisa was central to the storyline

Tomei’s inclusion in the film is almost entirely thanks to Launer. According to The Federalist, Launer fought hard against the studio, insisting that Lisa was a necessary part of the film. He said he was shocked when they came back with feedback suggesting she be dropped. He said he felt like she was the best part of the movie.

Launer admitted that he used inspiration from his own life for the character. Describing Lisa as a “Jersey girl,” Launer said he utilized an experience he had in Europe with a group of women from the famed state to craft Lisa’s personal. He built out the character using inspiration from actor friends he had. Later, Launer developed Lisa and Vinny’s dynamic using inspiration from a couple he knew.

Marisa Tomei, a newcomer, took home an Oscar for her role in My Cousin Vinny

Launer was correct in his assessment. The strong, sarcastic female role seemed necessary to make the movie work. She, just like her fiancé Vinny, was a fish out of water. While the couple didn’t have a traditional romantic dynamic, it worked for them and ultimately allowed Vinny to succeed. Tomei, a relative newcomer, played off her co-star, Joe Pesci, exceptionally well. The Academy agreed.

When Tomei landed the role of Lisa, she was transitioning from television to movies. Before My Cousin Vinny, she appeared in a made-for-TV movie after a stint on A Different World. The role earned her an Oscar. In 1993 Tomei took home the Best Actress in a Supporting Role category. She beat out Judy Davis, Joan Plowright, Vanessa Redgrave, and Miranda Richardson for the award. Tomei’s nomination was the only one the film received. 

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