10 April 2009

The Crying Game

Directed by Neil Jordan
Script by Neil Jordan
112 minutes 1992
alternate title: The Soldier's Wife.

Jaye Davidson plays Dil
Stephen Rea plays Fergus Hennessy/Jimmy
Forest Whitaker plays Jody
Miranda Richardson plays Jude
Adrian Dunbar plays Maguire
Country of finance: UK/Japan
Nationality of director: Irish
Location of story: Northern Ireland/London
Filming location: London, County Maeth.

A marketing sensation in North America in 1992 - although rather a dud in Britain - an IRA thriller that successfully persuaded the audience to keep secret the big revelation, The Crying Game went on to gain several Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. It won the Oscar for the Best Original Screenplay. The big revelation of course has nothing to do with the IRA parts of the plot, and one of the Oscar nominations is deeply ironic.

The first section of the film parallels Frank O’Connor’s short story "Guests of the Nation". In O’Connor’s story, during the Irish struggle for independence, two IRA men guard two English hostages and develop a close friendship with them, a friendship that is terminated when the hostages are executed in reprisal for British execution of hostages. The Crying Game takes the basic idea of friendship between the prisoner and the guard, but there is only one of each, the names are different, and the film adds a homoerotic component that is not in O’Connor’s story at all.

This homoeroticism is taken to foreshadow Fergus’ coming involvement with Dil, but this is an interpretation fraught with much difficulty for a man's affair with a woman, even a transsexual woman is not homosexuality. A better reading is the concept of homosocial bonding braced by either trading or sharing of women. This concept which was famously proposed by Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in the mid-80s has become a popular interpretative device for both literature and films. Straight men will play with the suggestions of, but never let the situation develop into, homosexuality proper. This is heterosexuality. Important to this bonding is a shared relationship to women.

We can read the early section of The Crying Game as Jody passing Dil onto Fergus, or simply that over time they share the same woman. This is homosociality. This fits in with Jody’s later appearance in Fergus’ dreams. Note that after Fergus finds out Dil’s secret, Jody appears, not bowling as usual, but tossing and catching his ball, and then walks away with a satisfied expression.

The English soldier-hostage, Jody, is black, and therefore cannot be simply associated with the centuries of English colonialism in Ireland. Why? Why would the IRA choose this particular soldier to lure into a trap? Surely there were many other candidates. Why is there nothing in the dialogue where the Irish admit that Jody is black (unlike Dil who is described as black)? It does not seem to be that the part was white until filled by Forest Whitaker, for the screenplay describes Jody as a black man. Whitaker brings with him a bigger problem: he is a known actor. We have seen him before: there is a carry over from his previous films. This is partly why he was cast - he is a ‘name’ actor. But that carry over reminds us that he is an American. Jody says that he is from Antigua via Tottenham, and that he is a keen cricketer (he is later shown bowling a googly). Whitaker tries for a working-class London accent, but it wavers (but then so does the Irish Accent Miranda Richardson as Jude). Oh, and a nagging detail: why do Jody and Jude have almost the same name?
After Jody is killed, his guard, Fergus, slips away over the water and gets a job incognito on a building site in London (here the old stereotypes of Irish-English relationships are embraced in full, although the reality of the 90s was that Irish workers in England were increasingly well-paid white-collar workers). He then keeps his promise to Jody to look up Jody’s girlfriend, Dil.

Several commentators have remarked on Dil’s physical appearance is quite similar to Cathy Tyson as Simone in Neil Jordon’s earlier film, Mona Lisa. And in fact there are several plot parallels between the two films.

The big revelation of course is Fergus’ discovery that Dil is not genetically female. This scene is seriously marred by his very unlikely reaction: that the discovery makes him vomit. The idea that a man would so react is perhaps part of the folk psychology that gets bantered around in pubs, but is not the way that real people behave. And indeed it would, for example, seem quite out of place for the homophobic Begley who starts to seduce a woman with a penis in Trainspotting. He goes out and kicks the wall instead. Of course the entire police squad starts vomiting at the equivalent point in Ace Ventura, but, apart from being a piss-take on The Crying Game, this is an exaggeration that clarifies the silliness of the idea, and of course Ace Ventura is written at the psychological level of pub banter. And let us note quite definitely that Fergus, unlike Begley and unlike the protagonist in Ace Ventura, comes back to woo Dil further.

Confidence that Jordan knows what he is portraying is further undermined by consulting the published script at this point:
The kimono falls to the floor gently, with a whisper. The camera travels with it, and we see, in a close-up, that she is a man.
Note that it does not say that she is a transsexual or a woman with a penis. Moreover, many critics and reviewers have described Dil as a man or as a transvestite, quite possibly because Dil is never described in the film as a ‘transsexual’, although surely the first assumption re a person with a penis who is living as female would be that she is a pre-operative transsexual. Even Judith Jack Halberstam, herself transgendered and the author of Female Masculinity who should know better, describes Dil as a transvestite. She is certainly not, for she never switches to male clothing until compelled to do so by Fergus. When Fergus says to the barman that Dil is “not a girl” this is largely because he is inexperienced with transsexuals. This would seem to be the case with Neil Jordan also.

There is little interest in real gender changing in Jordan’s films, although he has twice tackled what is possibly the favourite children’s transvestite, the wolf in Red Riding Hood, who of course impersonates her granny. However, The Company of Wolves reduces the female impersonation to simply a voice through the wall. In In Dreams, the wolf stand-in escapes from a mental hospital by disguising as a female nurse. Both these are fantasy. His later, 2005, film, Breakfast on Plato, again features a transgendered woman who also has an affair with a character played by Stephen Rea.

Dil’s gender carries structural and symbolic weight, even though there are problems with an attempted realistic reading. The gender-crossing is symbolic of the film’s genre-crossing. The doubt about gender leads to doubts about political loyalties. Fergus’ lack of knowledge about Dil’s body matches Dil’s lack of knowledge about his role in Jody’s death.

The portrayal of Fergus, is as a sexual naif. He is presumably a Northern-Irish Catholic. The one thing that did unite the warring Catholic and Protestant factions in Northern Ireland was their opposition to the extension of the decriminalization of homosexuality to the province, and traditionally Northern Irish gays and transpeople migrated to London - although interestingly, there has been a Transgender Archives at the University of Ulster for many years. Anyway, I think that we are to assume that Fergus has no experience with minority genders or sexualities, but he turns out to be quite accepting of Dil’s nature. Inexperienced rather than homophobic - which makes the vomiting scene all the more out of place. As a creative reading we could take the film to be implicitly narrated by Fergus - it shows very little not in his point-of-view - in which case the vomiting could be regarded as the kind of detail added in repeated narration. In a novel this would be developed as an unreliable narrator, but this artifice is not common in the language of cinema.

Fergus first sees Dil in the The Metro Pub. What kind of pub is this? It appears to be a regular local, not a gay or drag pub: there are no apparent gays, no same-sex couples, and - apart from Dil - no transsexuals, no transvestites and no drag queens. The script says:
It is now crowded with people, black, white, punky and street-chic, a lot of leather. All the women are heavily made up.
This is not how it was filmed. Look especially at the audience when "The White Cliffs of Dover" is being sung. This is not consistent with Dil’s comment after the vomiting: “What were you doing in the bar if you didn’t know?” When Fergus returns to the same pub after Dil’s revelation, the place has changed and now there are both obvious gays and obvious transies. The script says:
He now sees it as he should have seen it the first night - as a transvestite bar. All the woman too- heavily made-up. Some beautifully sleek young things he looks at he realizes are young men.
The actual film is not this explicit. Both the before and the after have been toned down, but the contrast is still there. This is of course the director manipulating our perception, but it also reality as perceived by Fergus.

The song "The Crying Game", which gives its name to the film is sung on the soundtrack three times, once by Kate Robbins, once by Dave Berry and finally by Boy George. Prior to the film, the famous version was Dave Berry’s single that made it into the top five in July 1964. It is this version that Dil lip-sinks to. That is, she simulates a feminine performance by using the voice of a young man.

When his IRA colleagues appear, Fergus gets Dil to disguise as a man by cutting her hair and wearing Jody’s cricket gear. However notice how unconvincing Dil is in this clothing, in fact she looks more feminine with her hair cut. She is an obvious female transvestite. Other male-to-female transsexuals who also look particularly unconvincing trying to pass as men include Elvira in the opening scene of In a Year with 13 Moons and Marie-Pierre in The Sex of the Stars.

This trope is, what Victor Freeburg in his writing on Renaissance theatre calls, a retro-disguise. This dramaturgical device dates back to ancient Sanskrit drama and was quite popular in Italian and English Renaissance drama, e.g. Parabosco's Il Viluppo and Heywood's Wise Woman of Hogsdon. Shakespeare’s major use of it is in As You Like It, where Rosalind disguised as Ganymede plays the role of Rosalind so that Orlando (failing to recognize her) can practice wooing her. The major film of recent years that has used this theme is Victor/Victoria where a woman impersonates a female-impersonator. This is not necessarily a gender trope: it can be done with racial impersonation. Two characters in Mark Twain's Pudd'nhead Wilson, Roxana and Tom Driscoll, are technically black but able to pass as white. The development of the plot leads both of them to put on black-face.

A variant retro-disguise uses the gender of the actor as the first gender-role. This was common in the British theatre until the Civil War when boy-actresses played females who disguised as male, e.g. in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Cymbeline. A fairly recent example is Crocodile Dundee where the trope is used twice: the male transvestite at the beginning and the male drag queen at the end are both played by women. A supposed real life example is Lanah Pelley, an actor who after supposedly completing surgery to become female played the male lead in Eat the Rich (although it later came out that Pelley's sex change was only an illusion).

The role of Dil can be applied to either of these variants. In the first case, Dil is a birth male living as female, who then - albeit badly - tries to pass as a man. In the second case, Jaye Davidson portrays a woman who makes a shot at male impersonation.

As is now well-known, Neil Jordan met Jaye Davidson at a party, and impressed by his androgyny - apparently Jaye is frequently mistaken for a woman - offered him the part. He is not a transvestite, nor a transsexual nor a drag queen, but just a person with a natural androgyny, and conveniently with an androgynous name. He did a very good job in the female lead, and the fact that he was a first-time actor makes it all the more impressive. To get an Oscar nomination for one’s first film is remarkable. However Jaye Davidson has made only one other significant film since. He played the part of Ra in Stargate. Ra is an alien being, thousands of years old, using technology to pass itself off as a god. As the part was played by Davidson, Ra was described as androgynous. How a concept like ‘androgyny’, which is based on Homo Sapiens gender, could be applied to another species which as far as we know does not have genders, is not explored. Of course the ‘androgyny’ was an intertextual carry over based on the casting. This could be compared to Trouble in Mind where Glen Milstead, playing his first male part as the gangster Hilly Blue, is listed in the credits under his nom-de-drag as Divine and likewise the character is perceived as androgynous.

A final word on Jaye Davidson’s Oscar nomination. There is something at least ironic when the actor who plays the female lead is nominated as the Best Supporting Actor. In the make-believe world of Hollywood, the gender of the actor trumps the gender of the character, even though the story told is the supposed product of the industry - although some cynics would suggest that star gossip is more important. Likewise Hillary Swank won the Best Actress Oscar for her role in Boys Don’t Cry. However the character does not have to be a transsexual: Linda Hunt played Billy Kwan, a male role, in The Year of Living Dangerously and she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
  • Rebecca Bell-Metereau. Hollywood Androgyny. Columbia University Press. 1993: 282-7.
  • Victor Oscar Freeburg. Disguise Plots in Elizabethan Drama: A study in Stage Tradition. PhD Thesis Columbia University 1915. New York: Blom 1965.
  • Judith Halberstam. "The Crying Game". In The Ultimate Guide to Lesbian & Gay Film and Video. Edited by Jenni Olson. Serpent’s Tail. 1996.
  • Neil Jordan. "Screenplay of The Crying Game". In A Neil Jordan Reader. Vintage Books. 1993.
  • Frank O’Connor. "Guests of the Nation". 1931. Reprinted in many anthologies.
  • Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. Columbia University Press. 1985.
  • Mark Simpson. "A Crying Shame". In Male Impersonators: Men Performing Masculinity. Routledge. 1994.
  • Alan A. Stone . "The Crying Game". The Boston Review. http://bostonreview.net/BR18.3/stone.html.
  • "The Crying Game" and "Mona Lisa": Who's Got the Penis?. International Psychoanalysis. http://internationalpsychoanalysis.net/2008/04/16/the-crying-game-and-mona-lisa-whos-got-the-penis.
Other films:

  • Ace Ventura 1994 dir: Tom Shadyac, scr: Jack Bernstein, Tom Shadyac and Jim Carrey, with Jim Carrey, Sean Young
  • As You Like It 1936 dir: Paul Czinner, scr: J.M. Barrie and Robert Cullen from the play by William Shakespeare, with Lawrence Olivier and Elisabeth Bergner
  • Boys Don’t Cry 1999 dir: Kimberly Pierce scr: Kimberly Pierce & Andy Bienen, with Hilary Swank.
  • Breakfast on Pluto 2005 dir: Neil Jordan, scr: Patrick McCabe based on his novel, with Cillian Murphy.
  • The Company of Wolves 1984 dir: Neil Jordan, scr: Neil Jordan and Angela Carter, based on the short story by Angela Carter, with Angela Lansbury, David Warner, Stephen Rea, Tusse Silberg, Sarah Patterson, Micha Bergese.
  • Crocodile Dundee 1986 dir: Peter Faiman, scr: Paul Hogan and Ken Shadie, with Paul Hogan, Anne Carlisle and Anne Francine.
  • Eat the Rich 1988 dir: Peter Richardson, scr: Peter Richardson, with Lanah Pellay.
  • In a Year with 13 Moons (reviewed here)1978 dir: Rainer Werner Fassbinder scr: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, with Volker Spengler, Gottfried John, Ingrid Caven, Elisabeth Trissenaar, Eva Mattes and Lilo Pempeit.
  • In Dreams 1999 dir: Neil Jordan, scr: Neil Jordan and Bruce Robinson from the novel by Barri Wood, with Annette Bening, Robert Downey Jr., Aidan Quinn, Stephen Rea.
  • Mona Lisa 1986 dir: Neil Jordan, scr: Neil Jordan, with Bob Hoskins, Cathy Tyson, Michael Caine, Robbie Coltrane.
  • The Sex of the Stars 1993 dir: Paule Baillargeon, scr: Monique Proulx from her novel, with Denis Mercier, Marianne Mercier and Sylvie Drapeau.
  • Stargate 1994 dir: Roland Emmerich, scr: Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, with Kurt Russell, James Spader and Jaye Davidson.
  • Trainspotting 1996 dir: Danny Boyle, scr: John Hodge from the novel by Irvine Welsh, with Ewan McGregor and Robert Carlyle.
  • Trouble in Mind 1985 dir: Alan Rudolph, scr Alan Rudolph, with Kris Kristofferson, Genevieve Bujold, Keith Carradine and Divine.
  • Twelfth Night 1996 dir: Trevor Nunn, scr: Trevor Nunn from the play by William Shakespeare, with Imogen Stubbs, Steven MacKintosh, Nigel Hawthorn and Helena Bonham Carter.
  • Victor/Victoria 1982 dir: Blake Edwards, scr: Blake Edwards, from the film Viktor und Viktoria, 1933, with Robert Preston, Julie Andrews, James Garner and Graham Stark.
  • The Year of Living Dangerously 1982 dir: Peter Weir, scr: David Williamson and Peter Weir from the novel by David Atkins, with Mel Gibson, Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hunt


Unknown said...

oh, I don't agree with this at all.

Miranda Richardson uses a very solid (county) Tyrone accent in this film — and it is actually quite precise.

I cannot think of one scene in this film in which her { Ulster accent really 'wavers'.

Are you from Ireland or the province of Ulster ?

My mother's maternal family is from Connacht.
My partner's paternal family is from this part of west Ulster.

He was very impressed by Miranda Richardson's voice / accent in the film.
As he says, most 'Irish' accents used ( attempted ) in contemporary cinèma 'go all over the place'.
Frequently, they are not credible — indefinite, inaccurate.
Sometimes ridiculously so.

Miranda Richardson's Ulster accent is generally excellent in The Crying Game.

Unknown said...

" After Jody is killed, his guard, Fergus, slips away over the water and gets a job incognito on a building site in London (here the old stereotypes of Irish-English relationships are embraced in full, although the reality of the 90s was that Irish workers in England were increasingly well-paid white-collar workers). "


The assertion (above) is not correct.

Irish people — Irish men — were still very much working in manual labour in London, in the early 1990s. This is the period in when the film is set.

I know from my partner's relatives, who emigrated from rural Ireland to London and southeastern England in the late 1980s and early 1990s, that Irish labour was very much a feature of life in London and southeastern England, in this period.

Also, i lived and studied in south London, central London, west London and north London in the early to mid 1990s. I met many Irish people, recent migrants, that were working in manual and semi-skilled labour, i.e. workers in a laundrette.

The phenomenon (and reality) of Irish people working in 'white collar' employment — e.g. in engineering, financial services, computing — was (to a far greater extent) a characteristic feature of London in the *late 1990s* and beyond.

The effects of Ireland's economic 'growth' were not realised until the mid to late 1990s.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s large numbers of Irish people, specifically Irish men, were still emigrating to the United Kingdom, especially to London and parts of southeast England. The Irish immigrants of this era were working primarily in manual labour and semi-skilled labour positions.

In no way is this a 'stereotype' of Irish people living and working in London, in 1992. The depiction is (in fact) quite representative of the reality in this period.

Also, the character of Fergus (played by Stephen Rea) is a soldier in the provisional IRA.

Overwhelmingly, the soldiers {subordinate soldiers} serving for the provisional IRA are educed from working class backgrounds. In the {early 1990s} period that is depicted in the film, the working class men (— and sometimes women) serving as soldiers in the IRA were working primarily in semi-skilled and manual labour positions.

Again, this is both congruous and representative of reality.