NEIL JORDAN FOR THE CRYING GAME (1992)
The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)
Clint Eastwood for Unforgiven
Robert Altman for The Player
Martin Brest for Scent of a Woman
James Ivory for Howards End
NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.
I came into Neil Jordan’s film with two things on my mind. The first was the tremendous story of the film’s awards campaign. Surely among the bigger flukes in Oscar history, the film at began as little more than the unlucky victim of bad timing as a spate of Ira-backed bombings dampened its reception in the UK. It took the magic of the Weinsteins, transitioning from maestros of the Foreign Language category to kings of the Oscar season (apparently by way of Irish cinema—see: My Left Foot) to pull off a miraculous second act. Their savvy marketing made the film a sleeper hit at the U.S. box office and the second breakout Oscar contender in Miramax history. The second thing on my mind was, of course, the legendary reveal of Dil’s secret, inaugurating a decade of plot twists (The Usual Suspects, Se7en, Fight Club, The Sixth Sense) celebrated enough to enter the vernacular. The novelty of the twist fueled the film’s box office in America and probably some of its awards success as well, and now it poses a particular challenge for me. How to evaluate a film so defined by its plot twist, one that has joined Rosebud and Soylent Green as shorthand for movie spoilers?
To be honest, the twist itself didn’t detract from the film, but its significance to the story, effectively converting a sensitive and intricate psychological study into a hysterical sexual melodrama, was something of a letdown. One advantage of such an oft-discussed scene was that it so overshadowed the rest of the film I had little idea of what to expect, and I was thus very compelled by the nuanced political thriller that unfolded from the start. After the frighteningly matter-of-fact IRA abduction (abetted by the cruelly duplicitous Miranda Richardson) that kicks off the story, the bond that subtly forms between hostage Jody (a cruelly un-nominated Forest Whitaker) and Fergus, one of his captors (Stephen Rea), caught me quite off guard. As their feelings developed, I admired how Jordan almost imperceptibly infused their exchanges, initially stiff and distant, with movement and intimacy. The culmination of this, a lush, foreboding long take tracking them through the autumn woods, was for me the high point of the film. The ironic right-turn at the end of this excruciating scene (which would have served as the big twist in any other film) felt a bit too contrived for my taste. Still, I appreciated the narrative structure that emerges from Jordan’s Oscar-winning screenplay, with Fergus’ shy courtship of Dil (Jaye Davidson) recuperating his unacknowledged feelings for Jody. I also relished the pair of supporting performances in Jim Broadbent’s gnomic bartender and especially Dave Brown as Dil’s rage-filled erstwhile boyfriend, and the smoky, jewel-colored aesthetic I love most about Jordan’s work (see his latest film, the shockingly intelligent vampire drama Byzantium, for a healthy dose of the same).
I’ve talked to those who claim to have known Dil’s secret from the moment they set eyes on her. For those not oversensitive to the markers of gender, though, I can see and admire Jordan’s careful construction of a double message that shows us what we expect to see. Through Fergus’ eyes as well as the audience’s, Jody’s cues regarding Dil (like his feelings toward Jody) are ambiguous enough that we expect a woman. Davidson’s delicate androgyny is more than convincing enough to fill the female shape created in viewer’s mind, and her lifestyle is revealed with such refreshing nonchalance that Fergus and the audience can continue without waking. If this treatment is at first refreshingly low-key, however, Jordan’s handling of the inevitable big moment, though, grinding both the romantic score and the sensuous pan down Dil’s body to a halt, signals the blunt and sensational treatment of gender and sexuality that characterizes the rest of the film. To be sure, it was difficult to grapple with such marginalized topics in the early 1990s, and I don’t wish to pass judgment too harshly on a film that daringly plunged into a sensitive and widely avoided issue. Still, the tone of melodramatic crisis feels like a contradiction to the preceding story, even if it was key to the film’s impact upon its first release. Ultimately, I respect Jordan’s vision, though as a fundamentally compromised one.
As I mentioned, Neil Jordan’s is among the unlikeliest Oscar success stories, though even he can’t compare with fellow nominee Martin Brest, who rode Al Pacino’s coattails in an unanticipated surge of voter affection that delivered for Scent of a Woman across the board. Neither gentleman is in contention for my top prize, though, which for my money is one of the toughest three-way races in the category. As one might have gleaned from my previous post, Robert Altman is a serious contender for the win in all four years for which I’ve seen his nominated work, and his vigorous return to form with The Player, earning him a third nod after a 17-year dry spell, is particularly competitive. Clint Eastwood, on his first nomination despite an already accomplished directorial career (a rarity among movie star crossovers) also tempts me for his elegiac Anti-Western Unforgiven, but in the end I must go with James Ivory for the crowning achievement of the Merchant-Ivory brand, the sagely assured Howards End (featuring perhaps my favorite Supporting Actress performance of them all). It couldn’t be a more diverse crop of nominees, and I’m glad to finally finish off the list!