Oh Yeah, You Blend

My Cousin Vinny (1992) and the Wonders of Being Gloriously T4T

Joe Pesci in a scene from My Cousin Vinny | 20th Century Fox
20th Century Fox

It’s an incontrovertible fact that My Cousin Vinny (1992) is the greatest movie ever made. I say this with the authority of someone who’s played God and imposed upon one of this country’s daughters a set of alchemical processes resulting in irreversible damage and, ultimately, her demise. Rest in t, sweet girl-child. You’ve grown up to have hair on your tits and an affinity for the f-slur. Who knew.

So with the audacity of a minor deity, I will add that My Cousin Vinny is not only the greatest movie ever made, but that it’s also iconically and canonically t4t. Like, unabashedly, and without subtext, the movie explicitly centers a trans man and a trans woman who are doing their damndest to do a good job and care for each other and find some decent breakfast in town. I didn’t say it first.  

Watching My Cousin Vinny for like the 42nd time in my life, I can’t help but reflect on the piece “No One Makes It Out Alive,” a conversation between Morgan M. Page and Casey Plett, where the writers talk about 1986’s Little Shop of Horrors as a trans story. There’s so much I come back to in this essay, but primarily its fulcrum of the “power in reading our trans lives into stories not intended for us, stories that don’t have to hold up questions of authenticity but can instead serve as metaphors for the more difficult truths of our experiences.” 

This might be a silly essay, about a silly movie, but at its core, I do think that My Cousin Vinny contains a seed of truth about the audacity that it takes to be publicly, glaringly trans and in love with another trans person. It’s an audacity that doesn’t always feel like a choice, so where there is room for choice, you max out. You hit it big.“You stick out like a sore thumb around here,” Vinny says to his girlfriend Mona Lisa when they first roll into Alabama. They’re both wearing big sunglasses and all black and leather—Joe Pesci’s Vinny with a fat gold pendant necklace and Marisa Tomei’s Mona Lisa in a short dress with cutouts down her chest. 

“Me, what about you?” shoots back Mona Lisa.

“I fit in better than you. At least I’m wearing cowboy boots.” 

“Oh yeah,” she says, all snark and seeing, “you blend.

I’ve written before on this site about my transness as a joke that I’ve taken too far. Here, I see My Cousin Vinny as distilling the pleasures of t4t through jokes. It’s the joke whose outside and inside audiences are contested, and ultimately inverted. It’s the joke that, in its living collaboration, does not ever have to end. I mean, to pitch My Cousin Vinny of all movies as a kind of t4t utopian vision—that’s funny, right? Still, there’s more to the movie and to t4t than “tall glamorous woman” and “short goofy man.” There’s more to it than looking like exotic birds in a town committed to clipping your feathers. There are these moments that really get me, and then there’s the fact that the couple wins. 

My Cousin Vinny is about a couple of young New Yorkers who are arrested at a gas station in Alabama for a murder that they didn’t commit. When they can’t afford a lawyer, Vinny (Joe Pesci) comes through. A personal injury lawyer from Brooklyn who’s just passed the bar after his sixth attempt, Vinny has no trial experience and brings his better half, Mona Lisa (Marisa Tomei), with him. For a movie with a grisly murder at its center, the vibe is thrilling, zany. I’ve watched this movie since I was a kid, and it’s never once occurred to me that the too-fancy-for-their-own-good outsiders couldn’t win. 

The film has the tenor of a heist—the winning is inevitable, but the pleasures are found in getting there, in seeing how all the pieces fit together like a well-made, gaudy watch: the grits and the tire marks and Mona Lisa’s lifetime of growing up around mechanics. When she’s delivering her expert testimony at the very end, I’m holding my breath. I know how it ends. It’s t4toogoodtobetrue, which makes it more than true: it’s iconic, it’s aphoristic, it’s the moment. I eat it up. They get out, and win big, with survival and dignity at stake. It moves me, in my utopian heart. They were always going to win, but something else is upheld in their uncompromising commitment to style. 

About halfway through the movie, Vinny gets the chance to look at the district prosecutor’s files, a chance wrapped in an afternoon invitation to go hunting. “It’s a bonding thing, you know? Show him I’m one of the boys,” Vinny harps to Mona Lisa, incredulous, on their motel bed. When she’s upset that Vinny could, potentially, shoot a deer, I recognize the bluff in his retort: “I mean, I’m a man’s man. I could go deer hunting.” 

I’ll admit that I remembered this moment wrong, and cast over it a transparency of moments from my longest relationship: a relationship with a trans woman in which, early in the relationship, I realized that I was actually a funny little man. At the beginning, the humor was inside, because the outside felt so charged, fragile, serious. While I was getting ‘pussyboy’ tattooed on my pubic bone in private, I was terrified of not being a ‘real enough’ man in public. Which meant, to me, that my attempts had to be legible to other men in order for my gender, and my desire, to be real. What a gift to have a partner at the time who would tell me truthfully if a shirt concealed my hips or made my shoulders look good, and I knew that I could trust her because she had a similar stake in the game of publicness. And, stake, too, in loving me.

In the actual scene in the movie, Mona Lisa is so disturbed that her boyfriend’s going to shoot a deer that she mimes it for him:

“BAM! A fuckin bullet rips off part of your head! Your brains are laying on the ground in little bloody pieces! Now I ask ya. Would you give a fuck what kind of pants the son of a bitch who shot you was wearing?”

It’s so fucking funny—did I mention the performances are amazing?—but now I’m a few years into medical transition, where my transness feels like a given, not contingent. The part of me that cares about what the fuck kind of pants I am wearing feels like it’s lovingly holding the part of me that needs the world to receive and acknowledge my maleness. The sweet, innocent, harmless, leaf-eating, doe-eyed little deer doesn’t care what kind of pants I have on, but, like Vinny, I fucking do. This is where the joke in this movie feels like an inversion, or an unspooling thread of little secrets. 

Getting to be loved by a trans person at the beginning of my transition buoyed me in a way that I think functionally shaped my life. I’ve said before that I wish that I could gift this experience to other trans people. My ex and I could embrace sticking out for our transness, squared in each others’ presence, by sticking out sartorially. Sure, being trans in our reality means that I am scared of, lol, being hatecrimed—but being trans also means that there is no inappropriate occasion for my hot shorts and little mesh top, my mustache and gold chain, and that maybe it’s the thrill of looking like sex with my honey at the CVS that allows me to throw that ‘lol’ in front of my real fear. 

For me, there’s a real pleasure in presenting my transness in the world as an ostentation that I am in on. In the celebration of/and/with another trans person, it’s abundant. It’s overflowing. It smacks of gender. 

So it’s just incredible when Mona Lisa Vito, the actual star of this movie, stomps around on a busted wooden porch in Alabama with something on her mind. She’s wearing a backless, skintight, full-sleeved floral jumpsuit with shoulder pads with black high-heeled boots and a red lip. Her hair is so big, and so are her earrings. She’s mad that Vinny is clearly screwing up his case, that she can’t help, and it’s holding up her dreams.

“My biological clock is TICKIN’ LIKE THIS,” she shouts and stomps. I mean, it’s iconic

I mime this moment with my friends. I project us and our lives, and all the little jokes that we make about gender onto the screen and these performers and their big-time hamming. Sometimes being trans around cis people feels like you’re aware of all the functions and textures of cisness in a way that they’re just barely parsing together. They’re not in on the joke, which in my body and way of being in the world becomes a kind of revelry. And in t4t, this joke becomes a home for its overt vulgarity.

MY BODY IS READY I tweet in response to a picture of a spoon or a Pokemon or a bridge that I’ve decided is hot. I’m not explaining why it is hot to an audience of cis people who are committed to their skepticism of me. By the time they’ve caught up, I’m too far along in the joke anyway. Who else besides Mona Lisa Vito could believe that Vincent Gambini, just barely a functional lawyer, could give her everything that she wants? Perhaps it’s her belief in him that creates him, too. Her desire makes the joke,  not the joke itself, and when the two leave the courthouse laughing, it’s the inevitability that makes me well up. 

They win in what feels like a series of sleights of hand, and then a biiiiig fucking sweep. Vinny’s close observance of the strange world he’s thrown into gives him the clarity of outsiderdom. But he’s also aware of his approach, and slices with tenderness. For someone so garish in his poorly thrifted suit, it’s remarkable how careful he is with how he comes off. But he can’t do it without his girl. If this isn’t your favorite part of the movie, I can’t trust you, I think: Mona Lisa is brought to the stand for her expert testimony, and she’s pissed after just being blown off by Vinny. It takes her a second to catch on, and then the scene is pure sex. She saves her man and his defendants with a lifetime of experience with cars that no one, not the hostile prosecutor nor the entire state of Alabama, can take away from her. She and Vinny are basically fucking in that courtroom, I swear, racing towards a juicy and inevitable serve that everyone else is still catching up with. I know how it ends, but sometimes I still can’t believe this shit. That they showed up. That they stuck it out. I know it’s a movie, but it looks like an uncompromising and cool way of being with another fucking weirdo in a public that understands you so barely that they can’t even see that you’re coming out big.

Somehow, in this moment, you recognize that maybe Vinny wasn’t so convinced that he’d win after all, but that Mona Lisa always was. She just wanted to collaborate, because alone, he’s a freak. Together with her, they’re an institution. So whereas my life is unabashedly trans, the way I love is, too. What can I possibly do otherwise? Besides pick out flowers for the prettiest girl in the city. In head-to-toe leather on a Tuesday afternoon. I must.