Stand by Your Man
Chris Wisniewski on The Crying Game

Though it catapulted Miramax to previously unimagined heights of indie stardom, and ushered in an era that would transform the very definition of independent film, in spite of all its commercial and critical success, as well as its undeniable artistic significance, still, over a decade after its release, it is impossible to talk about The Crying Game without beginning with Jaye Davidson’s penis. That penis rested at the center of one of the shrewdest and most effective marketing campaigns in movie history; it even came to overwhelm the film, to curtail the possibility of ever really understanding it on any terms besides the penis itself. It may be the most important penis in the history of the cinema.

But if you sift through the publicity and a decade’s worth of received critical wisdom, if you look at the movie instead of the culture’s idea of it, that penis just becomes one among many red herrings. The Crying Game is too complex and elusive, beguiling and beautiful, tragic and heart-wrenching to be reduced to something so banal as a “gender-bending” twist. Yet that’s exactly what’s happened—the hype and the film have become almost inseparable. It was the “secret” that created the Miramax era, but it came at the expense of one of the finest films of the 1990s.

Female Trouble Or: How I Learned That a Penis Is Not a Knife

Two recent moments crystallized, for me, the surprising persistence of The Crying Game “twist” in the canon of received film criticism. The first was a silly MSN Halloween-themed profile of the 10 best “shocks” in movie history: there, next to Janet Leigh in the shower and Jack Nicholson’s “Here’s Johnny,” was Jaye Davidson’s penis. “That,” we’re told by the article’s author “is not supposed to be there.” A couple of weeks later, I was procrastinating by way of a painfully easy Guardian quiz on surprise endings. Questions covered standard fare like Psycho, The Third Man, and The Sixth Sense. And then the quiz took an odd turn of its own: “The woman’s really a fella. The shock-horror ending to what British film from the Nineties?” Never mind the absurd suggestion that anything in The Crying Game has anything to do with “horror”; when did the Davidson reveal become the “ending” of The Crying Game? It happens midway through the narrative. But it seems that the scene has so come to dominate our idea of what the film is about that (so the logic goes) it might as well be the ending anyway.

Given the cultural valorization of The Crying Game’s surprise, it’s easy to see where the comparisons to Psycho come from. Quite a few critics even mentioned the Hitchcock film when the Jordan film came out: “The most plot-altering movie twist since Janet Leigh sudsed up!” wrote a blurbable Mike Clark in USA Today. The publicity strategies, too, bear more than a superficial similarity. Both films were marketed around the image of a female star (Leigh in Psycho, Miranda Richardson in The Crying Game); in both cases, that marketing was a devilish misdirect—audiences and critics of both films were implored to take an oath of silence on the movie’s secret. Then the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences ruined both twists with richly deserved acting nominations (Leigh’s for supporting actress, betraying her non-lead status; Davidson’s for supporting actor, betraying his non-girl status).

For all these similarities in marketing and reception, though, few films could operate differently on a narrative level than Psycho and The Crying Game. The shower scene in Psycho achieved iconic status precisely because it comes out of nowhere. When Norman Bates knifes Marion Crane, Psycho ceases to make any kind of conventional sense, and the possibility of it ever resuming normalcy is entirely foreclosed. It dissolves everything we thought the narrative was or could be. The twist is the movie, and much as John Gavin or that funny little psychotherapist try to impose some sort of intelligibility on Psycho, we all know that the shower scene is an irreparable rupture, an uncontainable blot, an unimaginable, inconceivable surprise. Shock-twist, indeed.

Jordan stages the whole thing with a wink and a nudge, from the music on the opening credits (“When a Man Loves a Woman”) to the melodramatic excess of Fergus’s (Stephen Rea) response to Dil’s disrobing. Jordan may want to have it both ways: He plays that iconic scene like a twist, but he’s begged his viewers to figure it out ahead of time. “You did know, didn’t you?” Dil asks as Fergus stares at her naked body. Jordan seems to be asking his audience that same question.

For all the buildup, the “twist” doesn’t really change the film much at all. It provides an unexpected bump in the road for the burgeoning love affair between Dil and Fergus, but even that continues, slowly and tentatively. Once Jordan gets the reveal out of the way, the movie ploughs along, spinning its tale of terrorism, romance, deception, and violence. Meanwhile, both Jordan and his central lovers do their best to move past the penis, to contain it, to turn it into a non-issue. Dil’s masquerade dominates the narrative for about seven to ten minutes, after which it becomes just one of a series of threads bound up in a more sophisticated and nuanced meditation on politics, love, and identity than any of the shock-obsessed Crying Game reviewers seem to acknowledge. All comparisons aside, if Psycho works because of its secret, The Crying Game works in spite of it.

Of Scorpions, Frogs, and Irishmen

Without the buzz of publicity, The Crying Game plays less as a gender-bending suspense thriller and more as a politically inflected, ill-fated love-story. Boy meets boy. Boy holds boy hostage. Boy gets boy killed and spends rest of film atoning in ways large and small. Jordan ends the film with Lyle Lovett’s rendition of “Stand By Your Man.” It’s not just an ironic nod to the gender ambiguity in the film; at this point, it’s anthemic. It speaks entirely to Fergus’s failure to save Jody (Forrest Whitaker) from certain death, and it is that failure, not Dil’s biology, that he spends most of the movie reacting to.

Fergus begins the film as an IRA volunteer who has conspired to kidnap Jody, a British soldier who the IRA intends on assassinating. Unfortunately, Fergus falls for him. Jody is completely wrong for Fergus—he’s black, he’s British, and he’s a boy, and so, it seems, nothing can come of this mutual affection. After all, the logic goes, race, national identity, gender—these are innate, fundamental things. These are the things that define a person’s nature, and, well, there’s just no getting around a person’s nature.

Still, their tender relationship develops, tentatively, despite Fergus’s resistance. “You’re the handsome one,” Jody flirtatiously tells Fergus, “the one with the killer smile.” Later, Jody desperately begs his captor to tell him a story, and Fergus begins immediately with Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: “When I was a child, I thought as a child…” He omits most of the passage, though, a passage so familiar it is standard Scripture for any and every Christian wedding you’ll ever attend: “And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. And the greatest of these is love.” Jody asks Fergus what his story, one of the most famous passages on love ever written, relayed without a single mention of the word “love,” means, and Fergus replies, “Nothing.” It’s a revealing response; it betrays Fergus’s inability to make meaning out of love—romantic, platonic, or otherwise—a failure that costs Jody his life.

Since Fergus is an IRA volunteer, we can surmise that he values the bond of national identity, of his Irishness. He hangs on to that attachment despite this genuine human connection he finds with Jody. The dutiful soldier, he takes his black, British boy outside to murder him. Too human to shoot him in the back, too weak and narrow-minded to let him go, Fergus chases Jody right into the front end of a speeding truck. So ends that love story.

Or so we think. In the film’s first major about-face, Fergus disappears and begins a masquerade all his own. He cuts his hair, crosses the water, and sets out on finding Dil, Jody’s widow. Who can say what Fergus’s intentions are in seeking Dil? He is haunted, quite literally, by images of Dil’s dead lover. But he is also attracted. Dil’s femininity, and, it bears mentioning, her ambiguous race, mark her as a less threatening object of affection than Jody. What of the British/Irish problem, though? On that front, Fergus has undertaken his own kind of drag performance: he calls himself Jimmy, and when Dil asks, “American? Scottish?”, he passively confirms the latter and subtly reveals just how fluid identity can be. The romance of Dil and “Jimmy” transcends all of those innate, fundamental problems that stood between Jody and Fergus. Dil occupies a space of neither nor—neither black nor white, neither woman nor man. Jimmy, meanwhile, is neither Irish nor Scottish. Their courtship plays like theater, as Dil feeds Jimmy lines and stage direction. “Ask him to ask me what I’m drinking,” she tells a bartender. “If you kiss me now,” she later whispers to Fergus, “it’d really get his goat.”

Each time Dil and Jimmy grow closer, though, Jimmy flashes to images of Jody. Dil performs oral sex on him, and Jimmy orgasms, looking at a picture of Jody, fantasizing about him, the sounds of his moans playing over the fantasy sequence of the dead soldier. In these moments, The Crying Game reveals itself as a most interesting and unconventional love triangle with Jimmy using Dil to act out the feelings of love and guilt that Fergus couldn’t acknowledge with Jody.

Up until its very last scene, The Crying Game resists any labels about what it is or what it’s doing. Even when it seems as though the film is going to shift modes once again, the would-be climax gets interrupted by the love that refuses to be ignored. And the characters prove as slippery as the film—are they gay or straight, man or woman, black or white, Irish or Scottish—hell, do we call the protagonist Fergus or Jimmy? The Crying Game throws every label you might want to hurl at it into ambiguous confusion. What matters, in this film, isn’t gender or sexuality or nation or any of the other labels we use to describe people, but love, the core of human kindness that defines a person’s true nature. When Jody relates the parable of the scorpion and the frog to his captor, he tells Fergus that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who give and those who take. And really, that’s the crux of it. What of boys and girls, soldiers and lovers, Irishmen and Brits? As Dil puts it: “Details, baby, details.”