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The Crying Game
Alan A. Stone
The Crying Game
good films are doomed at the box office. Ignoring the prevailing wisdom,
the filmmaker aims too high for an American audience. Even if the critics
love it, the result is commercial disaster. That sad but predictable
fate is much easier to explain than the extraordinary success of The
Crying Game. Written and directed by Ireland's Neil Jordan and shot
on a shoestring budget, the movie (like his critically acclaimed Mona
Lisa) was created without any apparent artistic compromises for the
American mass market. If Jordan had an audience in mind (and what artist
does not?), it was probably sophisticates, particularly Anglo-Irish
types: people who know the film's political context and London's interracial
night scene. If that was his idea, then the American reception is doubly
perplexing. For The Crying Game was not well-received when it opened
in London. Time Out, London's compendious weekly guide to entertainment,
gave it only a lukewarm review, and fewer than 12 people were in the
audience when I saw it there during the first week of its run.
directed by Neil Jordan
Why, then, did The Crying Game take off like a rocket in the United
States? Any plausible answer must implicate the film's "secret."
So if you still plan to see it and do not want the experience ruined,
stop reading now. People who are told about or somehow catch on before
the revelation miss a startling human experience. That experience, with
all its implications, has to be an important reason for the film's popular
success here. We are allowed, perhaps compelled, to reconsider the categories
we conventionally use to make sense of our experience. Those who are
already initiated, or too sophisticated, or repelled by Jordan's revelation,
or simply unable to assimilate it as an aesthetic device, are less likely
to have this rare opportunity for self-reflection. To achieve its full
aesthetic/emotional impact, the film requires both that one be taken
in by the device and then stirred to afterthought and self-reflection.
The beginning of the movie must be bewildering to many Americans. It
is set in Northern Ireland, at a South Armagh Fairground. We see an
interracial couple: a large black man in a British military uniform
and a moderately attractive white woman. The relationship is explicitly,
even crudely sexual, and the woman (Miranda Richardson) seems willing
to take on the raunchy and drunken black soldier (Forest Whittaker).
They find an isolated spot, she pulls him on top of her, and as we prepare
to witness interracial sex, three angry white men break in and assault
the black man. One might think this was sex and racism Irish style.
But, like everything else in the film, it is something other than we
The apparent sexual escapade was a carefully planned IRA operation.
The woman, an IRA operative, intended to trap Jody, the soldier, who
is to be their hostage. She in fact finds him repulsive. The IRA wants
a British soldier as a hostage because the British have one of theirs.
Jody's blackness is apparently irrelevant to them. He is a fungible
While the blackness of this soldier is a matter of indifference to the
IRA, it is absolutely essential to Neil Jordan's movie. A famous essay
by Roland Barthes analyzes a postage stamp portraying a proud black
African in a French uniform saluting the Tricolor. The bloody history
of French Imperialism in colonized Africa is transformed by that representation
into the myth of interracial liberty, equality, and fraternity. Jordan's
black is the British equivalent; his uniform and his love of cricket
cannot conceal the history of racist oppression that he represents.
The IRA blindly refuses to recognize that its British prisoner is black.
He is a member of a race whose history of oppression seems to trivialize
the intransigent and bloody religious/political struggle in Northern
Ireland. The IRA may insist that they also are an oppressed minority,
but if they can kill a black man in the name of their own liberation,
then the category of the oppressed is no longer meaningful. Fergus,
who is asked to guard the blindfolded hostage, will begin to have second
Whittaker is big, burly, and fleshy. His character is a man of extraordinary
human appeal; he cajoles, he confides, he chats up, and he breaks down
his guard's wall of willed emotional distance. He befriends his captor,
Fergus, the hero of the film, played by the nondescript Stephen Rea.
Both of them realize that Fergus may be asked to kill him. But the victim
never loses the emotional upper-hand.
Jody's psychological strategy is to involve Fergus on human terms. He
wants Fergus to question the difference between them: British and Irish,
black and white, prisoner and guard. Jody has his own binary scheme
of classification. He divides the human race into frogs and scorpions
-- the exploited and their exploiters. He insists that Fergus is a frog.
The relationship is brilliantly directed and acted. It is entirely believable,
establishing a solid foundation for what will follow. The prisoner confides
in Fergus that the IRA woman was not really his type. Fergus is inveigled
into removing Jody's wallet and examining the photographs it contains.
We see Dil, who is the soldier's type. He describes Dil, a light-skinned
black, as unlike any other woman.
In these scenes the actors negotiate a series of treacherous emotional
interchanges. The black actor must play a role in which by every connivance
in his repertoire he engages the white man's sympathy. He walks an emotional
tightrope, never begging, never menacing, and knowing that his guard
knows exactly what he is trying to accomplish. If the black soldier
had begged, he would have lost his dignity and his guard's respect;
if he had menaced, the poignancy of the scene would have been shattered.
His performance is a kind of psychological hustling, a seduction to
which his captor must in some sense succumb without losing his own dignity.
There is a moment when Jody needs to urinate, but with his hands tied
behind him the guard has to help. Has to only because this captor is
a decent human being. Early in the movie, while still being lured on
by the IRA woman, the black soldier had asked her, with lascivious overtones,
to perform the same function. One realizes that she and the other IRA
operatives would surely have let their hostage suffer or humiliate himself.
Fergus is the one discomforted as he performs this intimate and demeaning
By now it is clear that Fergus is himself a captive of the situation
and has begun to question the political extremism of his IRA group.
His growing human connection to the black prisoner has led him to doubt
the logic of their eye-for-an-eye tactics. When the order comes for
him to kill his prisoner he hesitates and Jody seizes the opportunity
to run for his life, only to be crushed under one of the British armored
cars that have come in search of him.
Fergus's identity as a member of the IRA and his commitment to the politics
of terrorism are shaken by the black soldier's death. The further psychological
transformations of Fergus's identity will be the real plot line of the
film, but that line has been woven into an IRA action/thriller. The
latter plot requires Fergus to assume a different identity and go undercover
in London where he will be called on for further IRA terrorism. But
Fergus now has his own mission. He feels tied to the dead black soldier
and obliged to find Dil, the girlfriend in the photograph. Fergus is
being pulled out of the iron cage of his old identity by a new kind
Fergus tracks Dil down in a night-life world beyond his ken. Played
by Jaye Davidson, who was nominated for an Academy Award for the part,
Dil is a hairdresser, a would-be club singer, and a battered woman.
She, like the soldier, is a victim, and Fergus is soon fighting to protect
her from her abusive white boyfriend, who comes on like a tough and
sadistic pimp. The relationship between Fergus and Dil quickly becomes
intimate and erotic and in the first episode of lovemaking, when things
start to get intense, she pushes his hands away and her head goes down.
Fergus presumably is being given the type of special treatment that
It is crucial to The Crying Game that every human interchange the audience
has seen up to this point has been believable, if somewhat lurid, and
fits within the categories of the viewer's experience. The black soldier
killed because of the IRA, his special girlfriend beaten by an English
pimp-- these people can be seen as victims of a racist world. Our understanding
also tells us that such people are capable, perhaps because of their
victimization, of feelings and erotic extravagances for which the white
race envies them. Fergus, a good guy, had been befriended by his hostage,
and now he has been initiated into the extra pleasures of the flesh
by the special girlfriend. This possibility of interracial friendship
and erotic connection is plausible, and one can think one understands
what has been transpiring on the screen.
Jordan's revelation occurs in their next love scene. Like all earnest
lovers, Fergus wants to give as good as he has gotten and Dil seems
to think he is ready. Dil dons beautiful lingerie, and there is an erotic
unveiling as Jordan's camera pans down what we now see is a breastless
body to the black penis -- the woman is a man. Fergus vomits in revulsion.
He has been passionately embracing a man; this transvestite performed
oral sex on him. Fergus has crossed the racial and, unwittingly, the
This black penis is Jordan's cinematic device, his instrument of psychological
and moral instruction. All that has gone before in the film takes on
a new and different significance. Everything one remembers and thought
one understood requires fresh memory and understanding: the black soldier's
statement that the IRA woman was not his type, his claim that his own
woman was unlike any other, his practiced ingratiation of Fergus, the
urination scene, the head that went down in the first love scene, even
the gender ambiguous names Jody and Dil. Almost every line of dialogue
one can remember from the early part of the film becomes a double entendre,
but only in retrospect and upon reflection.
Jordan's device also challenges men in the audience to deal with their
own sexual attraction to this man/woman. The less they suspected the
transvestite imposture the more likely they are to have difficulty in
denying that they felt sexual desire for the provocative Dil. This difficulty
is the very thing that thrills many transvestites; their ability to
excite even the homophobic man who does not know the secret concealed
between their legs. Fergus vomits when that secret is revealed. But
what about the men in the audience who, like Fergus, did not know what
was coming? Many experience discomfort and women tend to enjoy this
male discomfiture. The male's sexual turn on is a form of masculine
empowerment. Every man who whistles or leers at a woman is like a gorilla
beating his chest. How humiliating then to catch yourself leering at
another man. You put your masculinity and your aggressiveness in question
at the same time. Women, who intuitively recognize what is going on,
are understandably amused by such masculine foibles unmasked by the
The erotic complication is psychologically instructive. By forcing us
to reconsider impressions that we had already formed into memories,
Jordan demonstrates how much the categories of human experience are
dominated by gender differences and reveals the ways that the interpersonal
politics of gender identity shapes our knowledge of reality.
But The Crying Game is not just about psychology or even epistemology.
It is also about love. Love is the only "game" certain to
make people weep. Fergus and Dil are both unexpectedly transformed by
the feelings that subsequently develop between them. Neither had recognized
that the other was in disguise. Fergus learns that Dil is a man. Then
Dil learns that Fergus is the undercover IRA operative who was involved
in the killing of Jody, the man who was capable of loving him. Their
feelings for each other manage to overcome their deep instinctive revulsion
for each other.
Each risks his life for the other without thinking, and each thus transcends
his identity and discovers his humanity. Love triumphs over every important
traditional difference: politics, religion, race, and gender. That is
why the film is romantic. When Fergus overcomes his homophobic disgust
and kisses Dil on the lips, he redeems the alienated other. The kiss
is also an act of courage -- Fergus's moment of heroism.
It is impossible to ignore the fact that this film, like The Kiss of
the Spider Woman and Jordan's own Mona Lisa, involves its audiences
in the enterprise of understanding gay and lesbian sensibilities. The
man whose manner is avowedly effeminate, the homophobe's hated drag
queen, is embraced and redeemed by a hero of the straight world. It
is also a story of love in the time of AIDS with no reference to that
terrifying subject. Despite its gritty details, the film is not a complete
departure from movie escapism. This is therefore a film with a politically
correct message, the acceptance of gay love and openly gay identity.
The Crying Game is less successful in its treatment of racial sensibilities.
Homosexuality is still a highly controversial subject in the African-American
community, and some of its conservative leaders reject the idea that
gay rights should be part of the civil rights agenda. Beyond that, watching
the black prisoner cajole his white master, or the black "whore"
going down on him, are not the kind of cinematic images calculated to
please proud African-American sensibilities. Jordan uses the stereotype
of blackness as a basis for disrupting other conventional categories,
and so leaves himself open to the charge of at least unconscious racism.
If one is certain this interpretation is completely wrong or the critical
reaction is unjustified, try a thought experiment: Imagine white Americans
viewing an identical film set in Africa where straight black men will
do the capturing and gay white men will do the cajoling and the fellatio.
This racial interpretation might also support the assertion that Jordan
had a particular audience of sophisticates in mind that did not include
African-Americans -- who make up an increasingly significant proportion
of America's mass market for movies. Had he been concerned about the
sensibilities of African-Americans and recognized how few young Americans
understand the politics of Northern Ireland he would have made a different
film. But The Crying Game has succeeded with an audience for which,
according to this reasoning, it was not intended. If this is correct,
then Neil Jordan's film making success in America is largely a matter
Here is the idea. Sophisticates would recognize that Fergus is becoming
involved with a transvestite before he does. Familiar with the interracial
London night scene and with Neil Jordan's quirks, they might see through
the impersonation. Such an audience would not be taken in by the device.
Their sophistication would allow them to see through the disguise and
they would have less direct emotional involvement in the film. A less
sophisticated American audience, on the other hand, would be caught
up in what seemed to them an action movie with a believable interracial
relationship. Thus involved, they would be more shocked by the revelation
and more deeply moved by the film. Whether English audiences are, in
the relevant ways, more sophisticated than American audiences, it seems
clear that the film "works" better if you do not anticipate
There are of course many other possible interpretations of the film's
success here. Even if some African-Americans do not like it (IRA sympathizers
would like it even less), the film's message is politically correct
for most American audiences. It touches a raw nerve, but it does not
deeply offend. The black penis is revealed in a frame that makes it
into a sign rather than the connected part of a human being. And the
hero, Fergus, finds the American dream; the love relationship that provides
a personal salvation one cannot expect to find in politics, religion,
patriotism, or vocation.
It has been reported that in an earlier version of the screenplay, Dil
or Fergus was killed at the end. Jordan is said to have changed the
ending because he did not want to destroy the romantic message of the
film. Instead, the film's ending is now fascinatingly ambiguous; it
is another psychological masterstroke.
If one of them had been killed off it would have been clear that although
falling in love can conquer differences, the miracle cannot last. The
Kiss of the Spider Woman, which had a similar message, ended with both
men dying. Although Jordan's ending does allow the lovers to survive,
it by no means insists that their romantic love survives. After all,
he could have shown us Fergus and Dil enjoying a conjugal visit in the
prison where Fergus is confined. At least he could have shown them embracing
warmly. This would have forced his audience to contemplate a continuing
homosexual union; not a platonic resolution, but a continuing sexual
passion. Instead, Fergus remains seated in a chair, a guard is present,
and Dil behaves as if she is impersonating some prisoner's "old
lady." The scene perhaps recenters the categories that stabilize
difference; Fergus and Dil have both fallen back into their old identities.
Maybe Fergus never fully accepted Dil.
Perhaps, on the other hand, the ending is telling us something about
the difficulties of maintaining the intimacy of transforming love that
have always been the despair of the romantic imagination. Jordan's ambiguous
concluding scene is not, however, an unhappy ending. The upbeat finish
allows us to leave the theater believing in the triumph of love and
reflecting on the ways we categorize and thus experience the world.
Few successful films provide audiences as much food for thought; fewer
still teach us about our thoughts. Such teaching is necessary if we
are to learn tolerance, and one should never underestimate the American
appetite for the kind of lesson in tolerance that The Crying Game provides.
To be sure, no psychological interpretation of The Crying Game can provide
the whole story about the film's box office success. America is a land
of crazes and what makes any craze work is the fear of being left out
of it -- whatever "it" is. Crying Game's secret helped make
the film an American craze because people had to see the movie so they
would not feel left out of all the conversations about "it."
The advertisements for the film were calculated to this end: "The
movie everyone is talking about. But no one is giving away its secrets."
The film's theatrical plot has many twists and turns but its only "secret"
-- the black penis -- made it an American craze.
Jordan has been quoted as saying that his film's Oscar nominations and
commercial success prove there is a market for good films. Don't bet
the house on it. If the account given here is correct, it would be a
mistake to expect his next good film to find the same market. Good films
do fail at the box office. And it is difficult for serendipity to strike
twice in succession.