Queuing For The Crying Game

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SECRETS AREN'T WORTH MUCH IN this era of tabloid papers and tell-all television. They certainly aren't worth keeping. But a million or so American moviegoers have a secret they want to hoard every bit as much as they want to share it. Millions more, tantalized by friends' cryptic hints, are eager to get in on it. The source is a British film called The Crying Game, about an IRA man who becomes beguiled by the black sweetheart of a soldier he had held hostage. And the secret? Only the meanest critic would give that away, at least initially.

Hollywood helped by releasing a lot of December movies that few adults wanted to see, let alone talk about. Conversation abhors a vacuum, and The Crying Game has filled it. The picture, shot for a skimpy $5 million, won a Golden Globe nomination for best drama and is a smart-money long shot at Oscar time. But Irish writer-director Neil Jordan, 42, didn't set out to make a bundle, or even a buzz. "I just decided to do what pleases me," he says. "When a film deals with issues of race, terrorism and sex, it would be mangled if backed by a U.S. studio. Maybe no one was going to finance this movie, but that was the reason to do it. It's just the kind of thing I would like to see in the cinema."

Endless movie queues in 50 U.S. cities prove Jordan's taste is shared. For in The Crying Game he offered more than a plot twist, a whodunit or whoizit; he produced a parable about love, loyalty, identity, courage. And he created people who are more interesting when we know what they're hiding. He has filmgoers comparing impressions, debating motivations, arguing about fictional characters as if these were real folks worth caring for -- all those thoughtful, soulful responses that movies are supposed to provoke but rarely do.

In the woods outside Belfast, a black British soldier (Forest Whitaker) wheedles a friendship out of Fergus (Stephen Rea), his reluctant IRA captor. Can Fergus kill a man he has grown fond of? And later, in London, can he live a mortal lie even as he falls in love with the soldier's darling Dil (Jaye Davidson)? Dil has a flirtatious manner, a capacious heart, an enigmatic smile and a lode of helpful truisms: "A girl has to have a bit of glamour," "A girl has to draw the line somewhere." These are emblems of traditional femininity, yet Dil is anything but traditional. The Crying Game asks: Do we ever know the one we love? Do we even know ourselves? Not Fergus; not yet. He has to decide what he is -- terrorist or redeemer -- before he can figure out, at gunpoint, what Dil is and means to him.

Stephen Rea, a veteran of Jordan's Angel (about the IRA) and The Company of Wolves (in which he played a seductive wolf-man) who is now starring on Broadway as a Middle East hostage in Someone Who'll Watch Over Me, has long tangled with questions of personal and national identity. He is an Irish Protestant; his Irish Catholic wife, Delours Price, was an IRA hunger striker convicted of car bombings 20 years ago. "The whole nature of my country has been in question," he says. "If you use an army to solve a problem -- the British army, for example -- violence is inevitable. That is what people like Fergus fear, and that is when they start to become people that they don't want to be." The Crying Game, for which Rea was named best actor by the National Society of Film Critics, gives Fergus the chance to be something better: "I see the movie as redemption through suffering."

And Jaye Davidson, 25, now must suffer the intrusion of instant celebrity. Davidson worked in fashion (including a stint for Princess Di's couturiers) and had never considered acting before Jordan's casting director saw star quality in Jaye's careless beauty and recommended a screen test. "I hope it doesn't sound arrogant," the new screen sensation says, "but I wasn't scared. When I was told I had got the part, I just put the phone down and laughed my head off. But when I saw the whole script, I thought, dear God, how am I going to do this? It's so emotional, all these amazing ups and downs. So I decided: I've got to learn it as best I can -- but not so much it's stale -- and pick up on Neil's direction. It's walking into situations blind, but that happens in life, doesn't it?"

Happily, yes. Jordan forced himself to fly blind into The Crying Game after hitting a Hollywood dead end with two flops (High Spirits and We're No Angels). In doing so he resolved the theme of feminine mystique that preoccupied him in Mona Lisa and The Miracle, two movies about men who create their own myopic visions of the women they love. Then blind luck spotted Davidson, who gave The Crying Game its eerie emotional resonance. Some people have a magnetic lure, the movie says and Davidson shows. "At first Jaye was shaking," says Jordan of the filming. "But an extraordinary quality came through: an elegance, a sense of inner dignity, an emotional purity. And a beautiful woman."

Every so often, a "little" film hits the collective heart. The Crying Game is one of these, because it shows that a man is never so naked as when he reveals his secret self.