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For all that it contains resonances of queer musical elders – The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975), the Sandra Bernhard vehicle Without You I’m Nothing (John Boskovich, 1990) and, perhaps most of all, Rosa von Praunheim‘s riotous, trans-tastic, Berlin-shot and -set Stadt Der Verlorenen Seelen (City of Lost Souls, 1983), John Cameron Mitchell’s binary-demolishing, genre-nonconforming Hedwig and the Angry Inch remains an astonishingly original creation. Yet a text integral to its genesis is nearly 2,400 years old.

The character and story of Hedwig were first developed on stage in 1994 in a drag rock ‘n’ roll bar in SoHo, NYC called Squeezebox. Stephen Trask was the venue’s musical director and Mitchell’s key collaborator from the get-go. Mitchell’s first Squeezebox performance as Hedwig featured “The Origin of Love”, a song that emerged after Mitchell asked Trask to adapt Aristophanes’ human origin story in Plato’s Symposium (ca 385–370 BC), as he had envisioned Hedwig as “a walking metaphor for this myth”.1

In The Symposium, Aristophanes begins this story thus:

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.2

Moreover,

the original human beings […] had four hands and four feet, one head with two faces, looking opposite ways […], and also four ears, two sets of sexual organs, and the remainder as you would imagine.3

Aristophanes then asserts that Zeus cut these humans in two to humble them. And after a little fine-tuning by Apollo, and some finishing touches from Zeus, humanity was fully fledged – and ever desirous of finding another to be its other half.

Trask’s approach to “The Origin of Love”, central to the film and reprised within it in fits and starts, was to write each couplet “as if it was one page in an animated children’s book”4 – aptly, in the film, much of the song (and other sequences besides) is illustrated by tone-perfect, hand-drawn animations by Emily Hubley, daughter of famed animators Faith and John Hubley.

Hedwig is a lovelorn, gender-fluid, East German would-be glam-punk rock star who – with echoes of Elvira (Volker Spengler) in Fassbinder’s In einem Jahr mit 13 Monden (In a Year of 13 Moons, 1978) – had undergone a vaginoplasty not to affirm her gender identity, but rather at the behest of a lover. In Hedwig, the lover’s an American GI sugar daddy (Maurice Dean Wint) who wished to whisk a “slip of a girly-boy” named Hansel, whom he’d espied sunning himself “in an old bomb crater” near the Berlin Wall, away from East Berlin to America, necessitating a marriage first… The marriage went ahead, but the surgery was botched – hence the titular “angry inch”.

And oh! the poetic injustice: for all the Western freedoms Hansel-become-Hedwig gained, the Berlin Wall was breached a year later anyway. Worse, the GI would leave her for another pretty young thing, abandoning Hedwig in a trailer park in lonesome Junction City, Kansas.

Per the raucous, scene-setting opening number “Tear Me Down”, Hedwig is also a metaphor for the collapse of the Wall, existing “between East and West, slavery and freedom” as well as between “man and woman, top and bottom”. Inspiration for this aspect of Hedwig’s embodied story came from Mitchell’s lived experience.

His father was a U.S. Army major general whose work took him and his family to military bases in many places, including West Berlin between 1984 and ‘89. Mitchell, then in his twenties, spent time on both sides of the Wall – a privilege afforded those who could don a military uniform. He also met gay people who had escaped the East.

His main inspiration for Hedwig’s persona came from his early teens in Junction City, from a sophisticated, divorced German army wife, Helga, the family babysitter with a sex work side-hustle. It was Mitchell’s regaling Trask with stories about Helga that originally led Trask to suggest they shift the focus of their nascent collaboration from the figure of a rock star, Tommy Gnosis, seeking his other half while traveling the world with his military father (à la Mitchell), to a character inspired by Helga and her alluring and comedically rich Weltschmerz.

This wasn’t to jettison the figure of Tommy; rather, he would become her protégé (a cherubic Michael Pitt), who would not only spurn her affections, because of the unorthodox nature of “what [she has] to work with” sexually, but would reap all the rewards from the music they would lovingly write together.

Trask was thus able to tap his own biography too, capturing in the achingly beautiful ballad “Wicked Little Town” the disappointment he’d known as his ‘90s queer punk band, Cheater, failed to get signed, while contemporaries enjoyed fame and fortune.

After the stage show’s gangbusting 1998 off-Broadway season, New Line Cinema were interested in a film adaptation, and for Mitchell to direct it, notwithstanding that Squeezebox regular Tim Burton had been interested. So had Forest Whitaker, who told Mitchell it “would be a terrible mistake”5 for him to direct himself. Nonetheless, Mitchell, a veteran performer before the camera but new to directing, signed up for the 1999 Sundance Institute’s Directors Lab and discovered himself capable and enthused. (In due course, Hedwig would win the Audience Award at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival and Mitchell, Best Director.)

With New Queer Cinema mainstays Killer Films producing, Hedwig and the Angry Inch was shot in Toronto in a mere 20 days, retaining the stage show’s synthesis of stand-up comedy, cabaret and dynamic rock concert, its play with narrative space and time, its deft shifts across musical genres and tonal registers and, just as importantly, its surprising, raw emotion.

In its first draft, Hedwig was to criss-cross America, performing at an array of inglorious locations. Budgetary limitations demanded the producers have her tour a single chain of family seafood restaurants instead. This allowed for a single set to be used and ingeniously reconstituted for each successive “Bilgewater’s”.

Their décor often includes imagery of a sinking ship: a nod to the stage show’s 1998 home in the Riverview Hotel, a West Village flophouse whose derelict ballroom the producers turned into the enduring Jane Street Theatre – it was the very hotel where survivors of the Titanic disaster had stayed. One might surmise the location of each Bilgewater’s carries extratextual significance, too. The first is “Bilgewater’s Kansas City”; Max’s Kansas City was a NYC nightclub and restaurant famous for attracting gender-bending Warhol Superstars and Hedwig’s idols, “the crypto-homo rockers Lou Reed, Iggy Pop [and] David Bowie”. It was also one of the birthplaces of punk rock.

And it’s surely no accident that Hedwig performs the frantic punk track detailing her surgical mishap, “The Angry Inch”, with her band of that same name, in the Baltimore Bilgewater’s – Baltimore being the home of Johns Hopkins Hospital, the medical institution that famously performed the first gender affirmation surgery in the U.S.

The actors playing the musicians in Hedwig’s bands – “those ambassadors of Eastern Bloc rock, The Angry Inch” and, in one flashback, a backing band comprised of “Korean sergeants’ wives” – mostly weren’t musos themselves. (Stephen Trask as Skszp, on guitar, keys and keytar, was a notable exception.) Nonetheless, they learnt and played their parts before the camera, while vocals were recorded live, lending power and a palpable authenticity to the songs’ performances on screen. For further gender-bending fun, Yitzhak, The Angry Inch’s powerhouse upper-range backing vocalist, and Hedwig’s tormented “man Friday… through Thursday”, is brilliantly inhabited by Miriam Shor, who’d played him on stage previously.

The joyous ”Wig in the Box” sequence in Hedwig’s Junction City trailer home was the final sequence shot and adds ingenious cinematic dimensions to the breaching of the fourth wall frequent in its stage show progenitor. Not only is there a karaoke section for audience singalong participation, the sequence culminates in the whole front-facing wall of the trailer falling forwards to become an illuminated stage for the frenetic remainder of the song, a masterstroke from production designer Thérèse DePrez.

The film boasts an extraordinary denouement. After Hedwig’s band and manager (Andrea Martin) abandon her and her cross-country quest to prove herself the co-writer of the songs stadium rock star Tommy Gnosis has made his own, Hedwig, turning tricks, has a chance encounter with Tommy, joining him, to their mutual surprise, in his limo.

As the two are reconciled, the limousine crashes into a TV news truck, the outcome reminiscent of the sensationalised treatment of Eddie Murphy’s arrest for picking up transgender sex worker Shalimar Seiuli in 1997, with Tommy ostensibly betraying Hedwig once again: “I never knew that woman before that night, and I never knew she wasn’t a woman.”

During the final thirteen minutes void of dialogue but rich in song before the credits roll, the diegesis slips into a metaphysical realm. Hedwig joins the reformed Angry Inch in Bilgewater’s Times Square, but soon leaves them to meet Tommy, who acknowledges his betrayal in a tweaked reprise of “Wicked Little Town”, whereupon they don’t so much re-establish themselves as one another’s other half, as become one, per another ancient, binary-collapsing text that informed Hedwig: the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas:

Jesus said [..] “When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female; […] then will you enter the kingdom.”6

Hedwig, now bearing the silver cross on her forehead that she had daubed on Tommy’s brow back in their Junction City days, and which he had made his patented look, re-joins The Angry Inch in a celestially white Bilgewater’s, rips off her drag and passes on her wig – and with it, its transformative powers – to Yitzhak, who had coveted it all along. The closing song “Midnight Radio” carries echoes of “Rock ’n’ Roll Suicide”, the song David Bowie retired his Ziggy Stardust persona with in 1974. After numerous climactic exhortations to “lift up your hands”, Hedwig leaves the stage, and soon the screen, now fully naked, transcendent… fully at peace with themselves.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001, USA & Canada, 95 min) 

Prod Co: Killer Films, New Line Cinema Prod: Christine Vachon, Pamela Koffler, Katie Roumel Dir: John Cameron Mitchell Scr: John Cameron Mitchell, based on a work for the stage by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask Phot: Frank G. DeMarco Mus: Stephen Trask Lyrics: Stephen Trask Anim: Emily Hubley Ed: Andrew Marcus Prod Des: Thérèse DePrez Cos: Arianne Phillips

Cast: John Cameron Mitchell, Michael Pitt, Andrea Martin, Miriam Shor, Alberta Watson, Maurice Dean Wint, Stephen Trask, Sook-Yin Lee

Endnotes

  1. Mitchell in Whether You Like It or Not: The Story of Hedwig (Laura Nix, 2003).
  2. Plato, The Symposium, in Sources for the History of Western Civilization, Volume I: From Antiquity to the Mid-Eighteenth Century, Michael Burger, ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015), p. 107.
  3. Ibid
  4. Trask, quoted in the A “Hedwig” Reunion supplement (director unattributed, 2019) on the Criterion Collection Blu-ray release of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
  5. Mitchell, ibid.
  6. The Gospel of Thomas, Thomas O. Lambdin, trans., The Gnostic Society Library website, accessed 22 November, 2022.

About The Author

Cerise Howard is a New Zealand-born co-curator of the Melbourne Cinémathèque who co-founded the Czech and Slovak Film Festival of Australia and was its Artistic Director from 2013 to 2018. A Studio Leader at RMIT University specialising in incubating film festivals and interrogating the canon, she is an oft called-upon commentator on intersections of screen media, gender, sexuality and other matters; a regular broadcaster on Melbourne radio station 3RRR, and has been a member of the International Jury Board of the East-West: Golden Arch Awards, celebrating Eurasian cinema, for its three editions to date. Away from film she plays bass with Queen Kong and The HOMOsapiens.

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