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Oscar nominee Marisa Tomei

Oscar nominee Marisa Tomei — The star of ”My Cousin Vinny” has a shot at the big prize

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Marisa Tomei was asleep on her very pregnant friend’s couch in L.A. when she got the news.

”I heard a scream from the bedroom and I thought, ‘Oh my God, the baby’s coming!”’ she recalls. Tomei raced in to see her pumpkin-plump friend practically bouncing off the walls, pointing at the TV set. There, next to pictures of four Best Supporting Actress nominees — Judy Davis, Joan Plowright, Vanessa Redgrave, and Miranda Richardson, whom Tomei breathlessly describes as ”royalty” — was a glossy of herself as Mona Lisa Vito, the big-haired, gum- chewing auto-parts whiz from My Cousin Vinny. ”And that,” she says, ”is how I found out I was up for an Oscar. I laughed for like 20 minutes. It was totally surreal.

”A few hours later,” she adds, ”we were at the hospital and the baby was born. The excitement, I guess, just jolted her along. What a day, huh?”

What a month. Along with the Oscar nod (Tomei, the only American in her category, is considered by many to be the year’s surprise nominee) and the birth of her goddaughter came the opening of Untamed Heart, a weepy romance that brought the Brooklyn-born actress raves for her first starring role. ”At the press junket we did,” says Heart costar Christian Slater, ”I kept saying to journalists, ‘Watch this girl — she’s going to be an award-winning actress.’ And damn if it didn’t happen two weeks later.”

Tomei is a bit overwhelmed by all the attention. Delicate and wan, she slumps into an interview at L.A.’s Four Seasons Hotel in a polka-dot dress and biker boots, orders rosehip tea (”I need the vitamin C”), and immediately makes a bizarre proposition.

”Don’t get the wrong idea,” she says, ”but I was thinking on the way over here, what if I suggest we just go upstairs and take a nap? I mean, I’m exhausted. So much has happened. The baby, the nomination, I had a friend pass away. These are things it takes weeks to assimilate, you know?”

The twentysomething Tomei (she won’t give her exact age lest it ”taint the viewing audience’s perception”) caught the show-biz bug performing in amateur plays as a child on summer vacations. She attended Boston University for one year, dropped out and worked Off Broadway, and in 1987 did a less-than-memorable stint on the sitcom A Different World (as Denise Huxtable’s ditzy roommate). Her big break in Vinny, says director Jonathan Lynn, was a case of serendipity and other actresses’ shortsightedness. ”Here was this terrific funny role and I couldn’t get any actress interested, and believe me, we offered it to everyone,” he says. Finally, John Landis showed him some footage of Tomei playing Sly Stallone’s peroxided pixie daughter in Landis’ period comedy Oscar.

”I was blown away,” Lynn recalls. ”Here was a girl with a rare gift: She had screen presence and she could act. I got her to test, showed Joe Pesci the audition, and he immediately said, ‘That’s the one.”’

Getting Mona Lisa’s teetering walk and nasal, cheddar-sharp delivery, very different from her own standard-newscaster accent, took Tomei weeks of research. ”I went back to Brooklyn and hung out at a hairdressing school there,” she says. ”And I’ll tell you, there are a lot of Mona Lisas in this world.” Do she and her character have anything in common? Tomei smiles. ”We both believe in dreaming big.”