from In the Bedroom

Even if you have a hard time forgetting her earliest roles — as the gum-chomping, big-haired Brooklyn automotive expert Mona Lisa Vitti in My Cousin Vinny (1992) or the hopeless romantic Faith opposite Robert Downey, Jr. in Only You (1994) — Marisa Tomei has only become a better actor as she’s grown older and has found more interesting (usually supporting) roles. She has a delicate way of balancing humor and pathos with a slightly heartbreaking eagerness to please that is, in fact, a pleasure to watch even more now that we can see the lines on her face that show the cost of the effort. The way her mouth draws down now when she’s not flashing that eager smile at us — I find this unbelievably touching. Here’s my question: will she earn a starring turn that shows off her chops, or will she be forever relegated to making other actors look good?

from Slums of Beverly Hills

Tomei gradually developed a skill for being that girl — the one who’s fast-talking and gorgeous, but also neurotic and unpredictable and prone to self-destruction. As far as I can see she set the pattern with her scene-stealing supporting role in Slums of Beverly Hills (1998), as the protagonist’s flaky cousin Rita, eager to find prescription painkillers on her flight from rehab. I still laugh when I catch it again on TV, with her in the back seat of the car, engaging in this rapid-fire conversation with her cousin Vivian (Natasha Lyonne) and the older Eliot (Kevin Corrigan):

Eliot: I know this neighborhood. I do a lot of business up here.
Rita: Really? What do you do?
Vivian: He deals drugs.
Eliot: Vivian! Will you mind not going around misrepresenting me like that? Jesus. I just don’t want anyone to the get the wrong idea that I’m like some kind of school yard pusher.
Rita: Oh, I don’t mind. In fact, do you have anything for my nerves? You know, just laying around? Seconal, Demerol, Tuinal, Valium, Quaaludes, Percocet…
Vivian: Rita!
Eliot: Not my merchandise. I deal exclusively in pot.
Rita: That shit makes me paranoid.

from The Wrestler

If her earliest variations on this part had solely comedic goals, they quickly transformed into a kind of sweet pathos. For years a minor rumor circulated that she had not really won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for My Cousin Vinny, and that the aging Jack Palance, who announced it, had simply mis-read the card; but what we’ve seen for 20 years now is an increasingly talented actor who continues to win awards and nominations for her great performances. In Happy Accidents (2000) she played Ruby, who’d gone through too many relationships with loser boyfriends — so by the time she meets Sam (Vincent D’Onofrio, when he was actually a good actor, before his sad descent into Law & Order) she’s got a hair trigger for anticipating problems. In In the Bedroom (2001) and The Wrestler (2009), she appears as even more poignant women, single mothers whose past wild lives have left them in bad circumstances, wary. Don’t get me wrong — in both films she’s decidedly a supporting actress, not a lead (and in both cases was nominated for that award by many film awards institutions; for the latter she received a stunning eighteen nominations and eleven wins). Those many nominations indicate her terrific skill with a fundamentally limited part.

from Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

It’s limited because ultimately these stories focus on the men who offer themselves to her, whether or not she wants their help. Only in the latter movie does she get to reveal much complexity — and she’s wonderful as the erotic dancer Pam. (Let me note here that she might well have won so many awards for her part because she showed no hesitation in draping herself over the hives-inducing Randy [Mickey Rourke] — I cringed almost as much at the idea of touching his freakish body as I did during scenes of Randy’s post-wrestling injuries.) There’s a great scene in which the sad-sack Randy, facing forced retirement from wrestling, spirits her out of the club to talk privately in the cab of his van. The minute she realizes that he wants to date her, she recoils — her sympathy for his health disappears behind her need to protect herself from every single one of those sad joes who fall a little bit in love with the idea of her in her topless, lap-dancing persona. Her performance there was pitch-perfect and so true in its flow that it felt almost like an experience of my own. In fact, I’ll bet you a thousand dollars that this scene split perfectly down gender lines: men respond by thinking, that bitch, why won’t she save poor Randy? while women think, please keep up that determination not to date customers outside the club; it can’t go anywhere good. Unbelievably, of course, her determination cracks.

from Cyrus

That’s the weird thing about Tomei’s parts: she seems to have become America’s #1 Attainable Girl. All those years ago on Seinfeld, George Costanza spent an episode or two trying to get a date with her, believing that he was just her type; she’s since had on-screen relationships with the gamut of shlubby Hollywood dudes, from Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny to Philip Seymour Hoffman in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007) and John C. Reilly (and Jonah Hill, for that matter) in Cyrus (2010). Maybe it’s helped by the fact that she’s been willing to do nude scenes; by googling her one can find any number of fans’ screen caps of her in various states of undress from a range of films, making her nude body available to shlubby real-life men everywhere. Considering her remarkable beauty and serious acting skills, Hollywood seems to have decided that she is the last remaining hope of all those insecure, balding, and neurotic average guys out there.

One final note: the next time you see her, watch how much she can do to express her character via her admirable head of hair, that unruly mop of hers. Time and again, she uses her disorderly hair to convey both her beauty and yet also an abiding willingness to forget the lessons she was supposed to learn from past mistakes. (In those roles, she could be the poster child for Steve Earle’s haunting song, “Sometimes She Forgets.”) Her hair sends mixed messages, always pulling against her mind that knows better; it seems to signify that her body is tempting her toward more bad decisions in life. That, in conjunction with that eager smile which can so easily turn to disappointment, makes her compelling to both men and women.

Marisa Tomei will be 47 this year. Hollywood, can you find a leading part for this actor, or will she be forever relegated to supporting-actor limbo before she hits her 50s — a dreaded age of fewer and even more limited roles? Can we watch this sweetheart of ours become something more?