Wonders Never Cease

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I am currently working my way through Neil Jordan’s filmography, as I often like to do with directors in order to get a sense of the bigger picture, studying the arcs that their careers travel. Two weeks ago I watched one of Jordan’s most famous films, The Crying Game (1992), for the first time.

(Warning: spoilers ahead. Proceed at your own risk if you have not seen the film.)

The Crying Game is a film that challenges our perceptions of masculinity and femininity, how first impressions and assumptions based on conventional thinking can shift and adapt in unexpected ways. Jordan implores us to look beyond the surfaces of characters and reach deeper understandings about human nature, the possibilities of emotional maturity and our capacity to express love despite obstacles both tangible and intangible. I am going to take a closer look at a few scenes from the film – not everything, of course, but just some sequences that inspire me.

I love the film’s opening credits. Line by line, the lyrics of Percy Sledge’s “When a Man Loves a Woman” fit the narrative perfectly. The opening scenes also establish the cross-section of major themes in the film: politics/national identity, race relations and sexuality. The kidnapping of British soldier Jody (Forest Whitaker) by an IRA faction headed by Fergus (Stephen Rea) and Jude (Miranda Richardson) sets up a series of parallels for the main characters (and us, the viewers) to question – Northern Irish vs. English, white vs. black, and eventually, when sexual identity becomes a focal point, straight/cisgender vs. not-straight/transgender (and other variations on the LGBT spectrum) – and how the complexities of these relationships transform the characters. Above all, The Crying Game is about how the two main characters achieve harmony within their individual minds and bodies, then how the passion they feel for one another blossoms into a lasting attachment.

One of the key moments at the beginning of The Crying Game, after Jody has been abducted and he is held for ransom, is when he befriends Fergus, the kindest of the captors. This scene, in which Fergus shows Jody the small kindness of allowing him to eat, is one of the first moments when the viewer realizes that the film is more than a thriller; on that genre level of the narrative, the fact that Jody has seen Fergus’s face represents a threat to the IRA group’s activities, but the idea that Jody remembers Fergus as “the handsome one,” having catalogued the details of his “killer smile” and other physical attributes, is an indication (not the first, but a strong one) that these characters are not who they initially seem to be. Every phrase – including “my pleasure” – is charged with meaning.

When Fergus removes Jody’s hood, it is as important a reveal as the famous “twist” that happens midway through the film. (More on that soon.) Neil Jordan prolongs the moment in a shot of Fergus that is filmed almost in slow motion, giving a simple action the appearance of something more, even though we don’t know exactly what yet.

Continuing in that same scene, Jody shows Fergus a photograph of his girlfriend Dil (Jaye Davidson), which prompts Fergus to make the comment that Dil would be “anybody’s type.” (When Fergus leans down to Jody, the camera tilts slightly to create a canted angle, an oft-used technique in the film to suggest that the bonds between men and women, as well as among men, are off-kilter.) The universality of Fergus’s claim will later test his preconceived notions about his relationship to sexuality, romance and love when, after Jody is killed by in a government raid on the hideout, Fergus escapes to London and tracks Dil down, bound to a promise he made to Jody that Dil would be looked after.

The first scene with Dil, when Fergus visits the hair salon where she works, establishes instant chemistry between the two characters. You know from Fergus’s first glance at Dil in real life that he is hooked, completely infatuated. This scene contains possibly my favorite image in the film: identity, sensuality and, considering the scissors, a violent act that destroys and then transforms a person into someone else – all in one shot of Jaye Davidson cutting Stephen Rea’s hair.

The shining, sparkling highlight of the film is when Dil – wearing a gold dress designed by Sandy Powell – lipsyncs to a cover of “The Crying Game,” the song that inspired the film’s title. The lyrics’ story is told by a narrator who is tired of relationships that initially seem like wonderful romances but are eventually revealed to be built on lies; in The Crying Game, the main characters’ secrets and lies are a constant source of conflict.

I especially love the way Neil Jordan wrote Dil’s singing scene in the screenplay: “Fergus looks up. Close-up of Dil’s hand, as music begins, making movements to the music. We see Dil, standing on a stage, swaying slightly. She seems a little drunk. She mimes to the song. She mouths the words so perfectly and the voice on the song is so feminine that there is no way of knowing who is doing the singing. She does all sorts of strange movements, as if she is drawing moonbeams with her hands.”

If The Crying Game is a film about people who continually push their (and others’) limits, then a perfect example is the scene in which Fergus and Dil share their first kiss. As the poster at the top of this page says, “desire is a danger zone”; when Fergus and Dil kiss, there is a kind of suspense as you wait to see what will happen next.

Soon afterwards, Fergus discovers a truth about Dil which is often described as “the twist” or “the secret” of the film: she has a penis. Back in 1992, many viewers were surprised by this revelation, so convincing was Jaye Davidson in the role. Dil is often mistakenly referred to as a transvestite, but if you have seen the film, you would agree that she is a transgender woman; she wears clothing not for preference but for necessity. She lives her life as a woman and dresses according to her gender, not her biological sex. That Fergus initially reacts with horror and revulsion when viewing Dil’s genitalia makes sense when one considers his background; for a man from in Northern Ireland, long before the comparatively modern climate of the early 90s, his belief in heteronormativity must have been ingrained in his upbringing. In this crucial encounter between Fergus and Dil, the presence of a penis seems to negate her status as a woman because that is the only way he can process the information in the moment. (My assumption was that Dil had not had sex reassignment surgery because she didn’t have much money, and that if she could afford it, she would do it – the film puts emphasis on her wish to embody womanliness physically as well as in spirit.) What matters even more in the film is that Fergus does not ultimately stop loving Dil; as the plot progresses, he kisses her again, he touches her body again. The connection between the two transcends everything he thought he knew about himself and about human sexuality.

(Incidentally: it should be noted that the “twist” was ruined for some people by the fact that Jaye Davidson was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar at the 1993 ceremony.)

Fergus’s former associate, Jude, follows him to London and blackmails him into helping her with another act of political violence. Again there is a canted angle and there is a twist on male-female interaction: Jude is the aggressor and Fergus is the unwilling object of affection. Like Fergus, Jude has also altered her hairstyle, but instead of shedding layers, she has switched to a ‘do that makes her look like a femme fatale from a film noir.

The last scene that I want to discuss is the moment when Fergus, in a role reversal, cuts Dil’s hair. As Neil Jordan asks throughout the film: what does it mean to lead a double life? In Fergus’s case, he has his recent past as Fergus, the terrorist accomplice, and his current life as “Jimmy,” the construction worker with no political ties; Dil is psychologically female and she dresses as a woman but she has male genitalia; Jody revealed himself to be smarter, funnier and more complicated than the man we thought we knew in the film’s first scenes. In this specific scene, Fergus cuts Dil’s hair because he plans on disguising her as a man in order to more effectively hide her from Jude; Dil does not know why Fergus is changing her appearance, however, nor does she know that Fergus was responsible for Jody’s death. The relationship is still weighed down by lies and omitted truths.

Another fascinating part of Fergus’s certainty that Dil’s survival depends on her presenting herself in public as a man is linked to his memories of Jody. In a way, Fergus is just as obsessed with Jody as he is with Dil. Throughout the film, we see Fergus visualize Jody wearing his cricket-playing outfit in happier times; you could say that The Crying Game is a story about a love triangle, even though one leg of the triangle is a ghost. Fergus redesigns Dil’s looks based on Jody’s appearance, so much so that the final touch is Dil wearing Jody’s old cricket uniform. Where does Fergus’s guilt end and his genuine feelings for Dil begin? As the film hurtles towards its conclusion, you see the ramifications of Fergus’s, Dil’s and Jude’s dangerous decisions. And in the end, you see that the real “twist” in The Crying Game isn’t the “shocking” nudity shown in the middle of the film: it’s that this couple’s tale actually has a happy ending, albeit an unusual one.

Two other films that I have seen in the past week also fit the theme of this post. Guinevere (1999, dir. Audrey Wells) puts Stephen Rea in the positions of observer and sort-of-predator once again, catching the eye of a beautiful woman (Sarah Polley) and convincing her of her own value; the difference here is that Rea is the seducer rather than the seduced. Kenneth Turan summed up the introduction to Rea’s character neatly in the Los Angeles Times review of Guinevere: “Though he’s working today as the wedding photographer, Connie, as everyone calls him, proves to be exactly what his appearance advertises: the grand artiste with the looks and the loft to complete the package. Unshaven, with unruly hair and a white scarf knotted casually around his neck, he is Mr. Irish Bedroom Eyes, and when we find out that he drinks whiskey straight and listens to cool jazz far into the night, it merely completes the picture.” None of this is to say that Guinevere compares favorably to The Crying Game, but I do wonder if Stephen Rea ever would have had a career as a romantic leading man if not for Neil Jordan’s massively successful film.

(By the way, I’ve noticed that the white scarf is a recurring motif for Rea: he wore a similar one in the 1994 film Angie and also when he received an award from the Irish Film & Television Academy for the mini-series “The Honourable Woman” in 2015.)

The second film that deserves mention is Stargate (1994), but before I write about it, I have to put the film in context with this interview of Jaye Davidson from 1993. He rejected the allure of fame and the notoriety that went with it. He acted in only one other feature film, the sci-fi adventure Stargate, reportedly because he asked for a million-dollar paycheck to play the villain, Ra. Nowadays, when so many young stars take advantage of social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook,  Tumblr and Snapchat to connect with family, friends, fans and the press, it would probably be considered unthinkable for an overnight sensation to avoid the limelight. Times certainly have changed in 25 years.

So, then, we get to Stargate. Is it fair to compare Jaye Davidson’s performance as a one-dimensional alien antagonist with his work as Dil in The Crying Game? Without delving too deep into Stargate’s plot: a bunch of humans travel to another galaxy and they have to save an extraterrestrial civilization from its evil overlord, Ra (Davidson), who introduces himself to the group of earthlings only after shedding a gigantic mask, perhaps in a sort of homage to his role in The Crying Game. The New York Times film critic Caryn James wrote that Davidson makes “a suitably divine entrance. Mr. Davidson’s hair is in a long braid, and his costumes include a golden breastplate and flowing robes. His voice is electronically enhanced to give it a godlike rumble and on occasion the whites of his eyes are enhanced, too. There isn’t much acting involved. Mr. Davidson may not have wide-ranging career possibilities, but he makes the perfect Ra mannequin.” James’s review made me think twice about Davidson’s abilities as an actor, but only for about a second. Yes, physical appearance and appeal account for something, but they’re not everything. I don’t believe that anyone would care about his performance in The Crying Game if he hadn’t been more than a pretty face; it’s because he did a fantastic job as an actor that his work in that film still matters and why Stargate can’t be discredited either.

Ra’s series of threats against the film’s hero, Egyptologist/linguist Daniel (James Spader), provide us with my other favorite scene with Davidson in Stargate. Again, you could argue that the bulk of his acting in this film stems from sneering, but it’s enjoyable all the same.

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Right after I watched Stargate, I found Digital Spy article about Jaye Davidson that was written mere hours earlier. Proving that every story can have a twist when you least expect it, Davidson has apparently joined Twitter as of early January (I wonder if it was a New Year’s resolution?). Obviously social media has developed in ways that no one could have imagined a quarter-century ago, and you figure that the Jaye Davidson of 1992-1994 would have laughed hysterically at the concept of Twitter, but it’s interesting that after making the choice to abandon a life of celebrity and subsequently experience total anonymity for decades, Jaye Davidson has evidently come to terms with his brief but incredible history as an actor and he has joined the world of selfie-sharing to which so many of us now belong. Wonders never cease, do they?

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