Cover Story

The Little Movie That Could

Neil Jordan's suprise hit -- With a stunning plot twist and unparalleled word of mouth, ''The Crying Game'' is Hollywood's darling

Silence. Go to any movie house where The Crying Game is playing, and halfway through the film, at the moment of its most incendiary revelation, you hear nothing. An isolated murmur or whisper may rise into the darkness, but don't expect any mass gasp attacks or epidemic giggles. Instead, the theater fills with the sound of breath being held, of assumptions being upended, of everything you think you've seen until then going cockeyed. ''The only thing you hear,'' says producer Stephen Woolley, ''is the whir of people's brains, taking it all in.'' What they're taking in is the straight-outta-nowhere hit of the season, a critical and popular success fueled by a fine cast, Neil Jordan's delicately wrought script and direction, and one pick-your-jaw-up-off-the-floor stunner of a plot twist. With the help of a shrewd publicity campaign by the film's distributor, Miramax, the secret at the center of The Crying Game has become the year's most talked-around moment in the year's most talked-about movie. Millions of filmgoers — even the 10 percent who, according to Woolley, correctly guess the surprise in advance — have kept their mouths shut about Game's carnival-ride story while trumpeting its virtues to everyone they know.

As a result, though The Crying Game is still only on 190 screens, it has already grossed $12.3 million, a spectacular sum for a low-budget, Irish/British-made art film with no big stars, an IRA terrorist for its hero, and a central romance that's way off the track beaten by scores of Hollywood formula films. With half a dozen major critics' prizes to its credit and Jordan's recent Best Director nomination from the Directors Guild of America, a Best Picture Oscar nod is now a strong possibility when the nominations are announced Feb. 17.

In the wake of the movie's unparalleled word of mouth, Miramax may expand its run to 800 screens this spring, hoping to crack $25 million — a glass ceiling for art-house movies that has not been reached even by such recent hits as The Player and Howards End. The Crying Game has also become the darling of Hollywood, with fans ranging from Madonna (''It was my favorite movie of last year,'' she says. ''It was great writing''), to CAA head Michael Ovitz, who held a screening in Aspen over Christmas that drew Kurt Russell, Goldie Hawn, and Barry Levinson. In L.A., the guest list for screenings has included Julia Roberts, Nicolas Cage, and Sean Penn, but it's even more A list to own a promotional video of the movie — a talisman that's as much a certification of cool as your own cameo in The Player.

Considering that not one American (or British) studio was willing to give 2 cents (or tuppence) to finance The Crying Game in advance, the irony of this fairy-tale ending is not lost on the film's 42-year-old writer-director. An intense, saturnine Dubliner, Jordan says he likes to make movies in which ''everything you assume about the world turns out not to be true.''

Those aren't the kind of stories Hollywood embraces. ''Think of all the things that would have been done wrong in the film if Hollywood had its way,'' says Jordan, his deep-set eyes darkening into a scowl. ''They would have tried to explain away the political background. They would have tried to soften the racial tension. And they would have demanded that the part of Dil (the film's mystery woman) be changed in any number of ways. And those different, difficult elements are what make people go see the movie.''

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