Hollywood loves a fairytale, and on March 29, 1993, it got one all to itself.

That night, at the 65th Academy Awards, a young underdog with a handful of bit roles in movies, one soap opera, and one sitcom under her belt beat out her four fellow nominees in the Actress in a Supporting Role category—for a role in a comedy. The category’s four other nominated actors—Judy Davis, Joan Plowright, Vanessa Redgrave, and Miranda Richardson—all had more experience and critical respect. Their movies (Husbands and Wives, Enchanted April, Howards End, and Damage, respectively) were decidedly heavier and more Oscar-friendly than the crowd-pleasing sleeper hit, My Cousin Vinny, for which the Oscar was awarded to Tomei. Maybe worst of all, Vinny had been released over a year before the 1993 ceremony—and the Academy has a notoriously bad memory for anything released before Q4's “Oscar season.”

But against all odds, Marisa Tomei won. On the way up the stairs to the podium, she nearly tripped. It was a bad omen. Within a year, her fairytale night had been overtaken by fiction: a rumor circulated that Marisa Tomei wasn’t the intended winner of the Oscar she took home.

It started, ironically, as a correction. On Tuesday, March 22, 1994, the day after that year’s Academy Awards ceremony, The Hollywood Reporter printed an item called “And the loser is: bad Oscar rumor,” which detailed an alleged word-of-mouth conspiracy theory:

A rumor is currently making the rounds in Manhattan, fanned by no less than the former son-in-law of a distinguished Academy Award winner, to wit that last year Marisa Tomei received her Oscar statue by error, with a resultant scandal about it soon to be exposed, much to the shame of the Academy. (All of this quite erroneous, I hasten to add, but do read on.) According to the rumor, it happened because Oscar presenter Jack Palance hadn’t been able to read the name written in the secret envelope when he was on stage announcing 1992's best supporting actress winner. Instead of asking for help, so sayeth the tale, Palance arbitrarily called out Tomei’s name instead of the actual winner. (Since the story is bunk, there’s no need to reveal the name of the lady who was/is being bandied as the “real” winner of that specific prize.) It makes for provocative gossip, all right, but it didn’t happen. And for a good reason: When the Oscar ceremonies first went public on television back in 1953, Academy officials were aware of the possibility that one day some presenter might make such an error, either accidentally or for some mischievous purpose. So ever since then, at each and every Academy ceremony — including last night’s event, and the preceding year’s — two members of the accounting firm of Price-Waterhouse, the company that has tabulated the final Oscar ballots since 1935, are present in the wings during each Oscarcast. In the event a presenter should err in naming the correct winner in any category, said P-W official has been instructed to immediately go to the podium and announce that a mistake had been made. So Marisa, stand assured that Oscar is adamantly yours, no matter what rumor may sayeth to the contrary.

Virtually every item that has been written about this theory (its snopes entry, for example) names the Hollywood Reporter item as its printed origin. It only spread from there—in the April 8, 1994 issue of Entertainment Weekly, the rumor crossed over from the trades to a consumer rag with a much wider circulation. EW’s piece further twisted the “nasty-and-totally-unfounded little tidbit”:

As the rumor goes, award presenter Jack Palance inadvertently read the name of the final nominee off the TelePrompTer, instead of the name in the envelope. And depending on who tells the story, the winner was either Judy Davis for Husbands and Wives or Vanessa Redgrave for Howards End.

The EW piece repeated the bit about a Price Waterhouse official being authorized to interrupt the ceremony, and implied that the rumor spread because Tomei had “made a few enemies” since winning the Oscar. It also included a quote from her publicist at the time, Gina Rugolo, who said, “It’s not even worth commenting on.”

Later that year, Tomei disregarded Rugolo’s words when she hosted SNL. During the opening monologue of the Oct. 1, 1994 episode, Tomei addressed the gossip seconds after walking out on stage:

Before we start, I wanted to say something, just wanted to clear the air. There’s this crazy rumor, some of you may have heard it, some of you may have not, that when I won the Academy Award for My Cousin Vinny, that I didn’t really win the Oscar, that because Jack Palance accidentally read the wrong name off the teleprompter. But that’s just absolutely not true! I won the Academy Award, fair and square, and I was just the happiest I’d ever been, since, um, since I was named Ms. Teenage America, thank you, back in 1987, the year it was hosted by Jack Palance. Or three years later when I stepped up on stage to receive—though I didn’t think I was eligible for it—the Heisman Trophy from Jack Palance. Anyway, the only award I ever felt slightly guilty about was when I was 16 and I was named Employee of the Month at Roy Rogers restaurant by the assistant manager, Jack Palance. Anyhow, that’s out of the way...

Two years later, SNL revisited the rumor in a skit called “The Joe Pesci Show,” during which Cheri Oteri played Tomei and Jim Breuer played Tomei’s Vinny co-star, Joe Pesci. In the skit, Pesci and Robert De Niro (played by John Goodman) mock Tomei by suggesting that she received her Oscar in exchange for sex and that her “fair and square” claim was a lie.

[There was a video here]

It didn’t matter that the story was presented to the public in the form of a denial (with Academy Awards officials repeatedly weighing in) or that Tomei herself addressed it and attempted to laugh it off—it persisted. In a Los Angeles Times article that ran on March 23, 1995, columnist Steve Harvey reported “the rumor still hasn’t died” and said it had been invoked at the recent Southern California Sports Broadcasters Assn. Awards. During a 1997 episode of Geraldo, the quintessentially bitchy critic Rex Reed is said to have deemed the supposed truth behind Tomei’s win “Hollywood’s best-kept secret.” A reader named James Berg wrote in to Roger Ebert’s “Movie Answer Man” column asking him to shed light on Reed’s allegations, reporting what he’d seen on Geraldo:

According to Reed, a blunder by presented Jack Palace erroneously resulted in the awarding of the statue to Marisa Tomei for My Cousin Vinny, instead of Vanessa Redgrave. Reed explained a “stoned” or “drunk” Palance read the last name on the Teleprompter and did not properly open the envelope and name the winner as Redgrave.

Ebert referred back to a column he’d written just months before on the matter and then quoted Academy Executive Director Bruce Davis, who said, “There is no more truth to this version than to any of the others we’ve heard.” Davis also repeated that Price Waterhouse officials would take to the podium in the case of an error, adding, “They are not shy.”

From the start, all evidence explicitly pointed to bullshit, and yet enough people believed the story to keep it alive for years. Maybe it was selective exposure, the psychological theory that people will believe what they want to believe, regardless of the actual information being communicated. (When I thought back to this rumor, I remembered that Entertainment Weekly printed it—I did not remember that EW ran it in the form of a correction. That such a fuck-up could occur and be allowed to stand is a tantalizing prospect.)

Can you blame them? The setting for Tomei’s win was a perfect storm: She was a dark horse newcomer nominated for a comedy that was by then over a year old. Presenting her the award was a 74-year-old wild card who’d done one-armed pushups during his Oscars acceptance speech the year before (incidentally, he also won for a comedy: City Slickers). Before naming Tomei in 1993, Palance called Judy Davis “Joan” and said that Davis was British (she’s Australian). If any presenter at the Oscars could be called unreliable, it was Palance. Just believable enough to be spread, spread just enough to take hold, it was the kind of Hollywood rumor that would be impossible to kill.

Would be, if you didn’t have access to the video.

What makes the rumor particularly fascinating in retrospect is that it occurred before the rise of instant video online. If Tomei had won this year, there would never have been a question about the integrity of her Oscar—just a few keystrokes would allow you to disprove the story to all but the blind and very dumb. Search YouTube and you’ll see that Palance clearly reads Tomei’s name off the card in the envelope—there’s no second consultation of the teleprompter, he’s not making it up as he goes along.

(If nothing else, the Tomei rumor will go down as one of the last great Hollywood conspiracy theories of the pre-internet era. It was much easier to miss things, much harder to retrieve what you’d already read and remembered just a bit of; in the ‘90s, if you missed SNL, you were out of luck. Sure, maybe you recorded it on VHS, but if you didn’t, you had no blogs to rely on to report on what happened the night before. You can see how easy it was to say, “I heard on SNL they said Marisa Tomei didn’t win her Oscar...”)

In any event, it quickly became clear that the rumor was only one of Tomei’s problems. Worse than the whispers was the actual direction of her career. She’d fallen victim to the so-called “Best Supporting Actress Curse”—the same one that afflicted Geena Davis, Mercedes Ruehl, Mira Sorvino, Kim Basinger, Marcia Gay Harden, Renée Zellweger, Jennifer Hudson, Penélope Cruz, Mo’Nique, and Melissa Leo, who all saw their acting careers slump or cease existing after their wins. Getting an Oscar, of course, isn’t a bad peak to anyone’s career. But no one wants to peak that early. This quote from a 2001 profile in Australia’s Sunday Telegraph says it all:

“After My Cousin Vinny...I expected my career to be bigger than it is now,” [Tomei] said as she celebrated her 36th birthday.

Soon enough, it got bigger. The following year, Tomei was nominated for another Oscar (for In the Bedroom); seven years later, she was nominated again, for 2008's The Wrestler. She didn’t win either time, but inevitably the Vinny controversy came up in press regarding both nominations. She was asked to explain the rumor repeatedly (“hurtful” is how she put it)—at least the continued reporting on it included her voice. Tomei was allowed to reclaim her story.

Tomei is now one of only 21 people to be nominated for the Actress in a Supporting Role trophy three times or more; she’s appeared in several movies that have grossed over $100 million (including Anger Management, Parental Guidance, and Wild Hogs); and she was recently cast as Gloria Steinem in HBO’s upcoming Ms. miniseries. That Marisa Tomei ended up doing pretty well for herself.

Now that Tomei’s career is ascendant again, the most pernicious effect of the rumor might be the implication that she didn’t deserve the Oscar in the first place. She did. Out of all of the movies nominated in her category, My Cousin Vinny is the only one that remains relevant today through cable and broadcast reruns (thanks to it being, you know, entirely enjoyable). And a big component of its charm is Tomei’s sparkling performance as one of those tough-broad East-Coast Italian roles loved by actors and audiences alike. Playing a broad comic part with depth and nuance is a difficult feat, and Tomei nailed it. She earned her Oscar just as much as Vinny earned that acquittal.

[Photo via AP]