“I fear that in the speech which I am about to make, instead of others laughing with me, which is to the manner born of our muse and would be all the better, I shall only be laughed at by them… the original human nature was not like the present, but different. The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman, and the union of the two, having a name corresponding to this double nature, which had once a real existence, but is now lost, and the word ‘Androgynous’ is only preserved as a term of reproach.”–Aristophanes in Plato’s “Symposium”
DIRECTED BY: John Cameron Mitchell
FEATURING: John Cameron Mitchell, Michael Pitt, Miriam Shor, Andrea Martin
PLOT: We first meet Hedwig as she and her band the Angry Inch are performing at a seafood buffet in Kansas City. In flashback, and in music videos, we learn that she was born a boy named Hans in East Berlin, and underwent a (botched) sex change operation so she could marry an American G.I. and leave for the West. Now, she and her band are shadowing the cross-country tour of Tommy Gnosis, Hedwig’s ex-boyfriend turned arena rock star, whom she accuses of having stolen her songs.
- John Cameron Mitchell, then a professional stage actor, debuted the character of Hedwig in 1994 at a drag show at a punk nightclub in New York City. With the help of songwriter Stephen Trask, he built an off-Broadway play—originally staged in the ballroom of a fleabag hotel in Manhattan’s meat packing district—around the androgynous chanteuse.
- In the early drafts of the play Tommy was the main character and Hedwig a supporting player.
- Mitchell’s father was U.S. Army Major General John Mitchell, and the younger Mitchell spent much of his childhood in Berlin where his father was stationed during the later part of the Cold War.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Is it Hedwig’s androgynous Aryan visage, half-hidden under a pound of glittery makeup and a sculpted blond wig big enough to double the diameter of her head? Or is it the animated retelling of Aristophanes fable in “The Origin of Love,” with a squiggly line drawing of Zeus cutting the legs off whales? Fortunately, thanks to split-screen technology, we don’t have to choose; we can get Hedwig’s glacial glam mug on the left and a severed half-moon face yearning to swallow her up on the right together in one still.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Well, it does feature a rock star who’s the victim of a botched sex
Original trailer for Hedwig and the Angry Inch
change searching for love and vengeance and telling her life story through song while playing on a tour of discount seafood restaurants with her band of Eastern European refugee musicians, which is a plot you don’t see everyday. If that’s not enough to satisfy your weird desires, however, stick with it until the end, when it drifts into a dreamlike series of music videos that see characters swapping sexes and changing into other characters.
COMMENTS: He may not be widely acknowledged as the West’s weirdest philosopher, but Plato has inspired two of the most bizarre movies ever made. His “Allegory of the Cave” was the obvious inspiration for the cavelike reality of the children imprisoned by walls of words in Dogtooth. John Cameron Mitchell pays even more straightforward tribute to another famous Platonic metaphor in Hedwig and the Angry Inch. When Hedwig says, “It is clear that I must find my other half, but is it a he, or a she?” it’s an explicit reference to the myth of love proposed by Aristophanes in Plato’s “Symposium.” In Plato’s account of the contest by Athens’ best and brightest to deliver a speech about love, the hungover, hiccup-suffering Aristophanes, a famous satirist, explains the impact of Eros by suggesting that humans were originally creatures with two heads and eight limbs, two hemispheres fused together back-to-back, and that the angry gods split in half them as punishment for hubris. Each individual then spends the rest of his or her life looking for his or her severed other half, and only feels complete when they finally find them. Aristophanes’ story is partially an attempt to account for the existence of homosexuality, and he therefore awkwardly introduces the idea that there were originally three joined sexes—a man-man, a woman-woman, and a man-woman—in order to explain same-sex attraction. Of course, he also discloses that these creatures used to roll around the ground “like tumblers going over and over with their legs in the air” when they wanted to cover a lot of ground, so maybe we shouldn’t take his account too seriously. (Socrates’ entry in the contest, by the way, propounds that the love of wisdom is more divine than simple erotic love—a footnote that Hedwig‘s script may not be entirely ignorant of).
You don’t have to take my word on the Platonic citation—Hedwig‘s score is explicit on that score. Hedwig herself sings the story to the lobster-bibbed patrons of Bilgewater’s restaurant (Chicago franchise—the Angry Inch has an exclusive contract to play at the budget seafood chain), illustrating the tale of Zeus’ thunderbolts splitting bulbous hermaphrodites in half with storybook slides projected onto a bedsheet hung in front of the salad bar.
You might call “The Origin of Love,” performed as a wistful power ballad, one of Hedwig‘s knockout numbers—except that they’re pretty much all knockout numbers. Stephen Trask’s score is full of earworms and flat-out tear-jerking, butt-shaking, fist-pumping tunes performed with punk panache in an eclectic array of styles. Hedwig might have remained a special interest curiosity, closeted in the gay community, if not for the power of its music to push a universal message about a dispossessed outsider desperate for love. Each high-energy number is tightly tied to the narrative, either coming out of Hedwig’s personal experience or (like “The Origin of Love”) illustrating a central theme. Although we dub the music “punk” because of its insurgent spirit, the score is eclectic; there’s something for everyone, and enough texture and change-ups to keep you interested no matter your musical proclivities. “Tear Me Down” is solid introductory rocker that showcases Hedwig the rebel and, by highlighting her Cold War Berliner origins, establishes her as a divided personality. An American G.I. seduces a pre-op Hedwig (then a “slip of a girly boy” named Hansel) with a trail of candy (including the boy’s favorite, “goomy bears”), a scene which segues into a performance of the country-tinged “Sugar Daddy.” The title song is the punkest number, explaining Hedwig’s dilemma with a literalism that puts the Bilgewater diners off their bread sticks: “My sex change operation got botched/My guardian angel fell asleep on the watch/Now all I got is a Barbie doll crotch/I got an angry inch…” (The performance erupts into a homophobic riot, but the band magically manages to keep playing their instruments even while their fists are flying). As good as all the songs are, it’s hard to point to one song as a show stopper, but if forced to choose many would pick “Wig in a Box.” It’s the production that celebrates Hedwig’s invention of herself as a drag rock goddess: it starts off as a piano ballad and mutates into a poppy doo-wop bubblegum number with a Bowie-esque melody. Hedwig’s trailer wall descends and turns into a stage, and a bouncing wig encourages us to sing along with the lyrics. The musical climaxes with an impressionistic, surrealistic 15-minute medley consisting of the melancholy “Hedwig’s Lament,” the punk-freakout “Exquisite Corpse,” an arena-rock reprise of the earlier “Wicked Little Town” with new lyrics, another intense glam-rocker in the triumphant “Midnight Radio,” and ending with a reprise of “Origin of Love” for the last shot fadeout. It’s one hell of a ride, and the highest compliment you can give the score is to point out that it works as a stand-alone release even without the framing narrative: it almost sounds like a lost concept album collaboration between David Bowie and the Stooges, with Bob Mould on guitar (Bob Mould really is on guitar).
If the rocking tunes are the most obvious factor that pulls Hedwig out of the pure gay-interest genre, we shouldn’t undersell the fact that Hedwig is a damn funny movie. The script is smart and isn’t afraid to lovingly mock its rock influences; the movie’s comic mix of philosophical and pop-culture obsessions is perfectly exemplified by the title of Hedwig’s rejected lecture on “the aggressive influence of German philosophy on rock and roll”: “You, Kant, Always Get What You Want.” Hedwig is full of quotable lines delivered by its laconic, passive-aggresive heroine in her studied Nordic drone: “Tommy, can you hear me? From this milkless teat you have sucked the very business we call show!” Hedwig provokes chuckles when she strings together pop music lyrics or geographical band names into free-associative monologues, or lists the influential Yank singers who touched a young East German girly boy listening to Radio America (including Anne Murray, “who was actually a Canadian working in the American idiom”) alongside the equally intriguing “crypto-homo” artists (including David Bowie, “who was actually an idiom working in America and Canada”). Her comic adventures have her honing her musical skills headlining a band of Korean army wives, before eventually growing big enough to play the folksy “Menses Fair.” With the Angry Inch, she develops a corny (not to say fruity) stand-up routine (complete with rim-shots) to warm up the plump audiences after they’ve loaded their buffet trays before she launches into another ear-blistering gay punk number. She’s smart, droll, and quick with a catty comeback, the kind of person you’d think twice about putting down for fear of a devastating verbal reprisal; her saving grace is that she usually turns her biting wit on herself.
Self-conscious, campy humor—the ability to deal with anticipated rejection through a preemptive quip—is an essential part of the drag queen archetype. Although Mitchell has created a living, breathing character with peculiarities and a nutty backstory all her own, he’s done so within the confines of a positive gay stereotype: the mildly grotesque, mildly bitchy femme who triumphs over society’s ostracism by being too damn interesting to ignore. Hedwig’s story is more than the typical tragically gay tale, though; it’s a positively monstrous one. The surgeon’s scalpel has left her sexless—worse than that, has left her with a inch long lump reminding her that she’s neither man nor woman, not even a hermaphrodite. She has no sexual identity. Her scarred and useless crotch serves as an exaggerated symbol of the stigma and shame many homosexuals feel. It’s no wonder that Hedwig’s response to her circumstance is to don a wig, a mask of makeup, and a larger than life persona that hides her core of loneliness from prying eyes. (The song “Wig in a Box” features Hedwig trying on various personae via hairpieces—the beehive, the Farrah Fawcett, the Dorothy Hammil—until she stumbles upon the rug representing the “punk rock star of stage and screen” and concludes “I’m never turning back”). Mitchell’s performance, honed through years of playing the same character, masterfully captures the full pathos and humor of Hedwig’s dual existence, the facade of gay glitter and the bitter soul underneath.
Hedwig’s story, which begins as a quest for her other half, by the end morphs via music video magic into a Jungian journey of self-realization. For most of the film, Hedwig pursues protégé Tommy Gnosis, her presumptive soul mate, across America on a tour that’s half revenge, half torch-carrying. But the film’s finale jettisons both the rock-and-roll rise-and-fall and the romantic comedy tropes in favor of expressionistic tableaux and psychodrama played out on a glam stage. The conclusion is vague to the point of being mystical, and deliberately invites interpretation (warning: don’t read on if you want to avoid spoilers). After an unlikely series of events Hedwig gets her comeuppance on the plagiarist Gnosis, and finds her talent recognized. What little reality the movie had to cling to is then discarded as Hedwig begins a major concert at “Bilgewater, Times Square.” At the end of the frenetic and fractured experimental punk number where she sings about being “all sewn up,” she rips off her wig and tears off her top to reveal that the two breastlike bumps under her bra were supplied by tomatoes (which she smashes against her flat-chested male torso). Suddenly, the crowd and the band are gone and Tommy Gnosis is singing a song of apology on an empty stage, as the unwigged Hedwig approaches him from afar. Gnosis sings to him/her, “there’s no mystical design/no cosmic lover preassigned…” Gnosis disappears, but the trademark silver cross on his forehead—the mark Hedwig originally gave him along with the stage name that means “knowledge”—now appears on the stripped singer, who materializes on a new stage reunited with the Angry Inch. Hedwig—or Hans?—then gives his wig to his backup singer and reluctant lover, Yitzhak, who puts it on and is transformed into a woman (the masulizing makeup job on Miriam Shor was impeccably done). Hedwig, now unmasked and (at least psychically) merged with Gnosis, ends the film stripped of her clothes and her glamor in a dark alley, marching forward naked into the glare of the streetlights and who knows what new reality.
Naked Hedwig in the alley is like the star child from 2001. She’s transformed through some process of evolution and transformation too profound to be stated in words. There’s almost too much symbolic meat to chew on here, but it seems that Hedwig has cast aside both her need for a mask to hide herself from the world, and her yen for another being to complete her. Aristophanes was wrong—or maybe the comic playwright was only half serious all along. Hedwig has become whole by discovering the wisdom that the him or her half she needed to complete him or herself lay buried deep inside him or herself all the time. That’s a heavy message for a rock and roll musical about a botched sex change operation to carry, but Hedwig finds itself strong and confident enough to bear the load.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Filmed with ferocious energy and with enough sexual variety to match late Fellini, it may be passing through standard bookings on its way to a long run as the midnight successor to ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show.'”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)
“One way of looking at this clever, funny, wildly innovative film tricked out with surreal pop embellishments and Day-Glo colors is to see it as the kind of movie David Bowie might have made had he pushed his early-70’s gender-bending persona to its logical limit.”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“The film’s not only funny and weird, it’s oddly poignant.”–Desson Thomas, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)
OFFICIAL SITE: New Line Cinema: Hedwig and the Angry Inch – There’s not much here anymore on this one-page site, just the synopsis and six hi-res stills. Even the trailer appears to be missing.
IMDB LINK: Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Hedwig and the Angry Inch | Film | The New Cult Canon – Scott Tobias’ entry on Hedwig for The Onion A.V. Club’s “New Cult Canon” series
Hedwig in a Box [Archived] – An archived version of the large but inactive-since-2007 fan site, with a FAQ and an archived forum with a scary amount of discussion about the play and film. The archived home page even contains a link to an earlier archived version of the site.
DVD INFO: The New Line “Platinum Series” DVD (buy) is out-of-print but still widely available. Extras include a commentary track with writer/director/star John Cameron Mitchell and cinematographer Frank DeMarco, two deleted scenes, the trailer, cast and crew bios, and a long (85 minute) documentary showing the evolution of Hedwig from nightclub character to off-Broadway play to feature film. Thanks to its dedicated cult we would not expect this to stay out of print for very long; a re-release and Blu-ray edition is to be expected.
Hedwig is also available for rental viewing or download on Video-on-Demand (rent/buy).
UPDATE 6/28/2019: The Criterion Collection acquired Hedwig in 2019 and released the film on Blu-ray (buy) or a 2 DVD set (buy). It’s newly restored. The offering includes the 2001 commentary from Mitchell and DeMarco and other features from New Line’s release along with new interviews with the cast and crew, and the usual booklet. The Blu-ray release also includes photographs of Hedwig by Mick Rock, illustrations by Emily Hubley, and excerpts from Plato’s “Symposium” and “The Gospel of Thomas.”
(This movie was nominated for review by “Funkadelic.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)