The Wild Story of Jaye Davidson, the First Out Black Oscar Nominee

In 1992, an unknown actor played a trans woman in "The Crying Game," a hit thriller with a shocking but flawed twist—then all but disappeared.

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The Crying Game could never be made today—for a number of reasons. When it came out in 1992, there was a shroud of mystery around it and a concerted effort on the part of the media and audiences not to spoil its big reveal—one that hadn’t been seen since 1960’s Psycho. With the advent of the internet and the cultivation of spoiler culture, not to mention the progress we’ve witnessed in trans representation, it’s highly unlikely the film would work in 2020.

Still, rewatching it I was surprised how ahead of its time it still feels, and intrigued by the star of the film, who made only one other movie before rejecting fame and acting altogether. But not before he became the first openly gay black performer to nab an Oscar nomination.
 

It’s been 28 years, so we’re long past the statute of limitations for spoilers. Janet Leigh dies in the first 45 minutes of Psycho, and the killer is Anthony Perkins, noted homosexual, done up in mom drag. As for The Crying Game, well, that had a very queer twist as well, and its biggest star, Forest Whitaker, also dies in the first act.

The twist—novel at the time, problematic now—is that the femme fatale Dil, played by newcomer Jaye Davidson (né Alfred Amey), is actually a man. More accurately, Dil is a trans woman, but this revelation is met with revulsion by the protagonist Fergus/Jimmy (Stephen Rea).

Part neo-noir, with a heavy debt to Hitchcock (besides its similarities to Psycho, the film borrows from Vertigo), The Crying Game married disparate themes and subjects—racism, gender, sexuality, the Irish Republican Army, the sisterhood of the traveling China bob

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—into a taut, frequently funny, and deeply engaging thriller. Its twist feels a bit hokey by today’s standards, but it’s actually quite shocking that Dil even made it to the final frame back in 1992. The early ’90s had a serious hard-on for demonizing and/or killing off queer characters (see: Basic Instinct, The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia), but Dil winds up being the most sympathetic character in the movie. And her relationship with Fergus/Jimmy is complicated but ultimately loving, if not necessarily romantic.

That being said, Hollywood has a long history of casting cis actors as trans characters and getting heaps of praise and awards recognition for it, and The Crying Game is no exception. The movie was a huge critical and commercial success. Out of six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, writer-director Neil Jordan won for his original screenplay. Davidson, however, was the true breakout, as evidenced by this December 1992 New York Times profile heralding the arrival of a “sultry new star.”

The story is fascinating if only because it bends over backwards not to identify Davidson by gender, decades before the media made considerations for gender nonbinary and nonconforming people. But the motive behind the piece is in service to the film’s big reveal, which had folks gagging so much that the profile argues that “Jaye Davidson’s secret deserves to be kept for that reason.”

In a story that is so quintessentially Hollywood, Davidson, the biracial son of a Ghanaian father and English mother, had never acted before. He was discovered at a wrap party for the late Derek Jarman’s gay classic Edward II. A casting director saw Davidson there and asked him if he was an actor, to which he drunkenly replied that he wasn’t and stumbled off. However, his friend slipped the casting director Davidson’s number and the rest is cinematic history.

Until meeting Davidson, the casting director had been struggling to find someone to play Dil:

The pivotal role of Dil, a London singer and hairdresser with an air of mystery, was all but uncastable. Dil had to be, among other things, poised, photogenic, black, extremely changeable, and able to carry off the sleight-of-hand on which one of the film’s secrets depends.

Dil, essentially, had to be a black man who could successfully pass as a black woman. Davidson, a fashion assistant with no celebrity aspirations or acting ambition, had done drag only once—he found it “too much hard work”—but had often been mistaken for a woman on the street, so he figured he could probably pull off the role.

Another profile, from The Seattle Times, ahead of the 1993 Oscars for which Davidson was up for, tellingly, Best Supporting Actor, made fewer bones about his identity. Davidson, for one, talked openly about being gay and the problems of presenting as “femme” in a masc-for-masc world. (Some things never change.)

By the time the Seattle Times article hit stands, Davidson’s and Dil’s secret was more or less out, with the Oscars clearing things up in an awards race that had seen the Chicago Film Critics Association nominating Davidson for both Most Promising Actor and Actress.

Hollywood also loves an “introducing” title credit—the idea of an unknown star delivering a performance deserving of a formal introduction to audiences. One of the last times that happened was when Dreamgirls “introduced” Jennifer Hudson, who was only known for coming in seventh place on American Idol. Hudson went on to win Best Supporting Actress on the strength of her balls-to-the-wall rendition of “And I Am Telling You (I’m Not Going),” and the fairy-tale, overnight sensation mythos surrounding her performance (which, if we’re being honest, wasn’t that great aside from that one song).

Davidson rode the same mythos and that big plot twist to his Oscar nomination, becoming the first openly gay black performer nominated for an acting trophy. But in The Crying Game, he’s also genuinely good, start to finish. For a neophyte, he has a natural screen presence and an ability that astounded Jordan.

“I knew Jaye could sail through it if he was just to be beautiful and aloof,” Jordan told The Seattle Times, “but I worried about whether he could allow himself to move you as an audience. Then we did the scene where he gets his hair cut for the first time, and he suddenly began to act with this pain in his voice. It was extraordinary. Acting is a mysterious thing—you don’t know where it comes from.”

Davidson ultimately lost the Oscar to Gene Hackman for his performance in Unforgiven, though he likely didn’t care. Davidson hated the attention he received for The Crying Game and was reluctant to do another movie. When offered the role of the sun god Ra in Stargate, he asked for what he thought would be an unacceptable amount of money—$1 million—and, to his surprise, he got it.

And that was his final film. Davidson retired from acting and went back to working in fashion.

“I don’t want to make an impression on the world,” he told The Seattle Times three decades ago. “I don’t want to make an impression on society. That’s not important to me at all.”

But for better or for worse (though I’d posit mostly for better), Davidson and The Crying Game left quite the impression.

Lester Fabian Brathwaite is an LA-based writer, editor, bon vivant, and all-around sassbag. He's formerly Senior Editor of Out Magazine and is currently hungry. Insta: @lefabrat