If there’s one good thing about last night’s bizarre Oscar mix-up — other than “Moonlight” rightfully beating “La La Land” for the Best Picture prize — it’s this: It puts to rest that old, awful urban legend that claims Marisa Tomei’s Academy Award win was a mistake.
The story goes like this: The year was 1993, and this actress from Brooklyn — then mostly known for the first season of “A Different World” — beat out a quartet of established goddesses for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. And it was for a comedy! Nevermind that Tomei gave one of the great starmarking performances. Nevermind that she stole the movie from headliner Joe Pesci (and in one of his funniest, grouchiest turns). Presenter Jack Palance obviously read the wrong name, because … we guess he hated fellow nominee Vanessa Redgrave? In the ensuing 24 years we’ve seen just how unworthy she was, as the terrible Marisa Tomei has only received two more Academy Award nominations.
The rumor began life around early 1994. According to the tireless debunkers at Snopes, patient zero was an unnamed “former son-in-law of a distinguished Academy Award winner,” which already makes this sound legit. No surprise that a few years later, catty Rex Reed was going on television to fan this one’s stupid flames. This was all before the Internet became the toxic sinkhole it is today, so the fact that this was a household conspiracy theory, the kind of joke you can slip into late night opening monologues and such, speaks to how seductive it was. For some reason, people really had it out for Marisa Tomei and her delightful, razor sharp work in that TNT staple.
And of course, the whole thing is easily debunked. What happens if a presenter calls out the wrong name is this: Officials from the accounting firm of Price Waterhouse, who tabulate the votes, stand on either side of the stage. If the presenter calls out a name different than the one inside the envelope, one of them comes out and announces the true winner. As it happens, that’s exactly what went down at the 89th Academy Awards, when Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty were allegedly handed the wrong ballot and read the wrong movie title. The Oscar fuzz came out, issued a correction and made the deeply awkward apology to Team “La La Land.”
No such thing happened to Tomei. The Internet’s amateur detectives may comb over the clip of her win, treating it like the Zapruder film. But all they’ll do is prove Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle — put a bit too simply, that studying something too much causes you to understand it less — is all too real. So if Occam’s Razor doesn’t do it for you, feel free to spend way too much time poring over the clip of Tomei’s win. You’ll convince yourself Palance’s pause before reading her name is him thinking, ‘You know what? I’m going to read the wrong name!’ Then you’ll find plenty of other tinfoil trolls who agree with you. And then, one day, one fine day, you’ll get a job working for Alex Jones.
Or you could just watch it and marvel at one of the few times AMPAS voters feted a comedic performance:
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge