‘Oh, Really?’ Yes, ‘Vinny’ still a hit after 25 years

In our ‘Oh, Really’  feature, the Biederman Blog’s editors and alumni— voracious consumers of trendy matters — cast a curious, skeptical, fun and smart end-of-the-week eye on popular culture and its entertaining products, sharing their keen observations about legal matters these raise.

How’d that happen? Has it really been 25 years since a low-budget, gentle comedy about two New York youts—Bill (Ralph Macchio) and Stan (Mitchell Whitfield) and how they get into deep hot water in Dixie, only to be rescued by a Brooklyn wise guy—sneaked into theaters nationwide, became a hit, then a cult classic?

My Cousin Vinnyexperts note, not only has charmed audiences for awhile now. It also has earned a special spot in many lawyers’ hearts and minds because of its attention to telling truths. Its director holds a Cambridge law degree. It has been deemed by a respected legal publication as one of the 25 greatest legal movies, and it has been written up in legal textbooks and online sites.

The eminent jurist Richard Posner has written that the film is “particularly rich in practice tips: how a criminal defense lawyer must stand his ground against a hostile judge, even at the cost of exasperating the judge, because the lawyer’s primary audience is the jury, not the judge; how cross-examination on peripheral matters can sow serious doubts about a witness’s credibility; how props can be used effectively in cross-examination (the tape measure that demolishes one of the prosecution’s eyewitnesses); how to voir dire, examine, and cross-examine expert witnesses; the importance of the Brady doctrine … how to dress for a trial; contrasting methods of conducting a jury trial; and more.

Vinny has a notable fan at Southwestern Law School, too: Prof. Norman M. Garland (right), an expert on constitutional criminal procedure and evidence. Garland, who has served as the Irwin R. Buchalter Professor of Law and the Paul E. Treusch Professor of Law, offered a few observations about the film and its long and high-standing among legal practitioners:

Q.—Why are lawyers and lay people so smitten by court room scenes in Vinny?

A.My mother was from an Alabama family, and I spent a good deal of my youth in Birmingham in the 1950s.  I was taken aback as a youngster at the integration of African Americans into the daily life of the white citizenry.  Yes, I say integration, because the races mixed in the mundane activities of life, even though segregation ruled in so many ways.  I had to sit in the front of the bus, even though my favorite seat was in the back; I could not sit in the balcony of the movie theater, and many drinking fountains were taboo for me.  That sense of daily mixing of the races was well depicted in the film, even though the events take place long after the integration years of the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s.  

 Joe Pesci (Vinny) was 49 when this film was released and Marisa Tomei (Mona Lisa Vito)  was 27.  But they played as though they were contemporaries of one another.  And, what a job they did. She won an Academy Award for best supporting actress. Fred Gwynne  (Judge Chamberlain Haller) died the year after the film was released, but his portrayal of the elegant judge marked a significant departure from many of his former roles.  And, he displayed his enormous acting ability.

Q.— How accurate and real is Vinny?

A. —Does the film do justice to the law?  I have seen it written many times that My Cousin Vinny is one of the best films depicting courtroom scenes and matters related to the law generally.  That is a bit surprising because the action in the courtroom consists of about 30 minutes out of almost two hours.  But the law stuff is so well done, that it seems like most of what one sees in the film.

Q.— What do movies like this teach the public about the law? Do they have value as legal teaching tools?

A.— Procedurally, many other dramatic depictions do not accurately capture such procedural niceties as preliminary hearing, voir dire, opening statement, proper objections, and effective cross-examination.

Early in the film, Lisa is criticizing Vinny’s performance at the preliminary hearing and asks if he didn’t learn about it in law school.  Vinny defends himself by saying “in law school, they teach you contracts, precedents, interpretations, then the firm that hires you, they teach you procedures.”

Even before the initial appearance in court, Judge Haller talks with Vinny in chambers to approve the out of state lawyer for appearance and trial.  Of course, Vinny doesn’t tell the judge the truth, but convinces him that he can handle a murder trial.  Later, Vinny brags to Lisa that he connived to get the prosecutor [Lane Smith as Jim Trotter III], to turn over all his files, and Lisa quips: “He has to by law.  It’s called disclosure, you dickhead. …  They didn’t teach you that in law school either?”

The opening statements, Vinny’s cross-examination of the three eye witnesses, the qualification of Lisa as an ‘expert on general automotive knowledge,’ the direct examination of Lisa to elicit her opinions-facts about the tires and vehicles, and the final examination of the FBI expert all play out with great drama.  Are they totally accurate in their depiction of real trial stuff?  Maybe not completely, but I say, ‘Close enough for government work.’

The bottom line is that this film is a top vehicle for interesting the public generally in the justice system, and serves to help law students too.  It is no wonder that so many law professors tell their students to see this movie.  Or, see it again.  I must admit that I watched it again, for maybe the 20th time, in preparation for writing these comments.

Norman M. Garland graduated cum laude from Northwestern University in 1964, then moved to Washington, D.C., where he tried cases by day, and earned his LLM at night. He was as an attorney at the corporate antitrust firm Howrey & Simon, handling most of its pro bono criminal defense work in addition to civil cases. He later returned to NU to teach, then to serve as assistant dean of admissions. He simultaneously was general counsel for the Better Government Association, a watchdog group investigating graft and corruption in Chicago government. In 1975, he was appointed to Southwestern’s faculty. He was one of the first nation’s first law professors to incorporate computer and internet sources in the classroom. In 1998, he received the first “TWEN Innovation in Teaching Award” from West Group. A year later, he was awarded one of five CALI Fellowships to create a database of computer-based learning materials. He is the author of seven CALI lessons on Criminal Law and Evidence. He recently adapted his Evidence and Constitutional Criminal Procedure classes into hybrids, partially online and incorporating practical applications. He has served on Emory University School of Law’s Trial Advocacy Program and spent a semester there as a visiting professor. He has been American Arbitration Association arbitrator for more than two decades.