The Crying Game: Play At Your Own Risk
It’s hard to imagine a film in which the attitudes of today have changed how it plays, compared to the time when it came out, as 1992’s The Crying Game.
Neil Jordan’s film also turns into a very different movie from its first act, which makes it appear like an earnest thriller about The Troubles in Northern Ireland.
That’s where it begins, with IRA man Fergus (Stephen Rea) guarding prisoner Jody (Forrest Whitaker) in a wooded area. The two, over a few days, begin to bond, and at one point Jody mentions that, if Jody dies, Fergus should head to London and look up Jody’s girlfriend, Dil.
That’s exactly what happens, as the second act of the film has Fergus meeting and ultimately dating Dil (Jaye Davison), a mysterious and ethereal beauty who works in a salon. Then, when the couple prepares to have sex for the first time, there’s a sudden reveal that Dil is…
And that’s the main thing about the movie, what Dil is. Anyone watching the film with 21st-century eyes would see that Dil is a transgender woman, and most might have even guessed that based on the first time they see the character. Fergus, a relatively unsophisticated IRA soldier, might not have realized it, but it’s a fair bet that Jody did.
But the film discourse of 1992 was very, very different. When The Crying Game came out in the U.S. in November of 1992 — 30 years ago this week —, the buzz was soon that there was something called “The Crying Game Secret.” Once the media got more specific, most commentaries positioned it that the secret was that Dil was a man. One critic even turned his review into a word puzzle, with the first letter of each paragraph spelling out the phrase “He is a She.” The prospect that Dil lived a transgender identity (or transsexual, as terminology of the time would likely have called her) was barely mentioned at all at the time.
There was even a separate controversy over Oscar categorization, as some believed that if Jaye Davidson were nominated for Best Supporting Actor, which he ultimately was, it might give away that Dil was played by a man and not a woman. (Davidson, a gay male actor who left the business not long after The Crying Game, is not transgender.)
There are transgender people who appreciate The Crying Game, those who hate it, and others with mixed feelings. And a lot of that has to do with what happens in that pivotal scene and after it. Peter Piatkowski wrote the definitive essay on that back in 2017.
After Fergus finds out the truth, he strikes Dil and is so disgusted that he vomits. This is, of course, quite ugly, and a problematic scene, especially, for trans people to watch. But what happens after that somewhat mitigates that: Fergus apologizes, and the two end up coming through for each other, once the first act’s IRA intrigue re-emerges. In the end, Fergus sacrifices himself to keep Dil out of prison.
The Crying Game would receive a homage two years later in the Jim Carrey hit Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, but done in a way that was much less nuanced and much more mean-spirited and hateful. In that film, like The Crying Game, the protagonist learns that he had a relationship with a transgender woman, except in Ace Ventura, there’s no redemption arc, the trans woman is in fact a murderous villain, one who’s outed in front of a roomful of people, all of whom vomit in unison.
Ace Ventura, also, was likely seen by several times more people than The Crying Game ever was.
The filmmakers of The Crying Game may not have created something perfectly right based on today’s standards, but it’s pretty clear that they didn’t approach the material with bad intentions, which is more than I can say for the makers of Ace Ventura. Dil is certainly a character who’s presented as deserving of dignity, and not a punchline.
When I interviewed Neil Jordan in 2019, when he was promoting his film Greta, I asked him how he might have approached The Crying Game if he were making it at a time when attitudes towards trans people were more like that of today.
“If I were making the film today, the character would have either identified as transgender or not,” he said. “And actually, Jaye Davidson was a gay man, he wasn’t transgender… he wasn’t heading towards an operation or anything like that. And I present him as a transvestite, really.
“There would have been more awareness about what the character is, obviously on the part of [Stephen] Rea’s character there would have been far more obvious awareness if he’s meeting [her]. It’s interesting that the whole nomenclature and the whole way of speaking about those issues have changed since I made that movie, which is a good thing, really. I mean, it’s of its time really, that issue in particular.”
The Crying Game is streaming in lots of places, including HBO Max and Tubi.