Hedwig And The Angry Inch

“I gave a piece to my mother
I gave a piece to my man
I gave a piece to the rock star
He took the good stuff and ran.” —“Hedwig’s Lament,” Hedwig And The Angry Inch

This is San Francisco? But it’s so clean!” Every time I think about Rent—or really any enterprise that repackages unruly culture for mass consumption—the Mr. Show sketch “San Francisco: The Theme Park” inevitably springs to mind. Thanks to the omnipresent, all-powerful GloboChem corporation, a once-scary city known for “hippies, angry lesbians, and Chinese” has been transformed into a happy-faced amusement park for the whole family. The hippies are no longer scary peaceniks who stick of patchouli, but cuddly mascots like “Groovy Gravy,” who’s as harmless and plush as the Philly Phanatic. The gays are confined to a shopping area called “BachelorLand,” and the redone Chinatown literally transforms the place into an alien culture. (“It’s like another land, and it doesn’t stink of fish!,” dad enthuses.) Finally, all Americans can enjoy one of the country’s most distinctive and beautiful cities, even those who might otherwise use its name in a pejorative sense. 

It should be said that the Broadway musical (and film) Rent isn’t some pernicious, GloboChem-like attempt to co-opt underground culture as a means of negating or destroying it. It’s really more the unholy union of fundamentally incompatible partners: rock ’n’ roll, the AIDS epidemic, and the lives of New York bohemian artists—to say nothing of Puccini’s La Bohème—essentially get the Groovy Gravy treatment, their rough edges made palatable (and Pulitzer and Tony-winning) by the Broadway machine. Clearly, many were moved by it and found it innovative, and it’s likely that real-life loft-dwellers recognized pieces of themselves onstage, but the consequence of entertaining on a large scale is that much of what is distinctive and personal about life and artistic passions inevitably gets lost.

In the powerful film version of the Off-Broadway musical hit Hedwig And The Angry Inch, Rent plays something of an offscreen villain, luring the drag-king guitarist of a marginal glam-punk outfit to the comforts of mediocrity. Though he’s in love with Hedwig, the vamping East German performer played by John Cameron Mitchell, he secretly fantasizes about bailing on the tempestuous singer and joining a cruise-ship production touring U.S. Polynesia and Guam. The flyers for Rent are a like a casting call for a Benetton ad: The parts are all the same (each described as a young, “edgy,” aspiring-artist type), but the show needs a blond, a black, and a Puerto Rican drag-queen type, and he’s good enough for the latter. And abandoning Hedwig’s current tour/personal vendetta means no more suffocating hotel rooms, no more humiliating gigs at a chain of seafood-buffet restaurants, and no more living in the shadow of a larger-than-life personality who’s doomed to the fringes.

Featuring music and lyrics by Stephen Trask, who also scripted with Mitchell, Hedwig And The Angry Inch has no greater claim to glam-punk than Rent does to rock ’n’ roll, though its flamboyant theatrics and the pageantry of Hedwig’s Ziggy Stardust poses are a more suitable fit for the stage musical. It still has the responsibility of telling its story through song, and it can’t get away with the oblique suggestion of a mystery man like David Bowie, either. Yet Hedwig’s journey (and Mitchell’s magnificent performance) speaks to outsiders without being guilty of generalization; for a movie about an irreverent, outspoken, celebrity-obsessed would-be star who sucks up all the oxygen in the room, it’s remarkable how intimate and personal it seems. It’s the sort of movie that makes viewers feel like it was made just for them.

There are many obstacles to Hedwig’s fame, but from the very first scene in the film, it’s clear that a lack of stage presence isn’t one of them. Appearing at Bilgewater Restaurant—the wood-paneled seafood chain that hosts her band’s misbegotten tour—Hedwig prowls around the sneeze guard in her signature sculpted blond wig and a winged costume that opens up to reveal more naked skin and armpit hair than the diners can handle. After warming up apathetic crowds with self-deprecating twists of Borscht Belt humor (“I had tried singing once back in Berlin. They threw tomatoes. After the show, I had a nice salad.”), Hedwig proceeds to bare her soul through song, whether they care to listen or not. Here’s “The Origins Of Love,” which Mitchell presents with simple yet effective animated accompaniment: 

Raised in the late ’60s by a single mother who carted him over to the east side of the Berlin Wall in a wheelbarrow—where the communists gave her a job “teaching sculpture to limbless children”—Hedwig retreated to music as an escape from his traumatic upbringing. As “The Origins Of Love” suggests, Hedwig grew into an ambiguous gender identity, starting as a “slip of a girlyboy” named Hansel Schmidt who suffered a botched sex-change operation in an attempted transition to womanhood—hence the “angry inch” of scarred flesh between her legs. Her androgynous life has been a fruitless pursuit for her “other half,” leading to relationships with fickle would-be mates who either can’t work with what she’s got, or abandon her as her father did. On a personal and professional level, the most painful loss for Hedwig concerns Tommy Speck (Michael Pitt), a.k.a. Tommy Gnosis, a brooding young MTV icon who parlayed her teachings (and songcraft) into arena-filling superstardom. In this scene, we see how clueless Tommy was before Hedwig took him under her wing and gave him the apple of her knowledge:

The Bilgewater gigs in Hedwig shadow Tommy wherever he goes, serving as a flimsy shadow tour from which Hedwig can get some restitution from him, if not the fame she richly deserves. It’s also about getting an answer to why he left, widening the crater at the center of her intolerable existence. This might sound like an excruciating dirge of a movie—perhaps one too painful to watch twice—but Hedwig And The Angry Inch is anything but, in part because Hedwig herself is so irrepressible. Hardship has taught her the value of sarcasm and wit as defense mechanisms, and there’s a strange sort of joy in her connection to music, where she can escape into the enveloping drama of her own life. Performing to aggrieved Middle Americans at Bilgewaters may in itself be humbling, but shrouded in her costumes and makeup, Hedwig doesn’t really need an audience to experience transcendence onstage. In that sense, the film recalls the great drag-queen documentary Paris Is Burning, in which the act of becoming someone else at a ball offers a brief, poignant respite from the poverty and rejection that suffuse its subjects’ everyday lives.

Back when Hedwig And The Angry Inch premièred at Sundance in 2001, I complained that Mitchell’s “flat, uninspired” direction didn’t shake the film’s stage roots. And while I still think it could be livelier—aside from touches like the animated sequence to “The Origins Of Love,” it’s imagined more as play than movie—the one major advantage of bringing Hedwig to screen is the showcase it allows for Mitchell the actor. Mitchell the director uses close-ups to great and frequent advantage, and his face conveys much of what needs to be said, especially during those times when Hedwig takes off the wig and makeup, and the defiant glamour of her performances gives way to her underlying exhaustion and loneliness. 

For all her talk about finding “her other half” or getting the acknowledgment she ironically crashes into in the end, what Hedwig wants from Tommy is the chance to be herself around someone, mound of flesh and all. It’s little wonder the show and the film have become cult favorites, given how directly and shrewdly they play to audiences who define themselves as outside the mainstream. Mitchell and Trask aren’t too calculating about it, either; in Hedwig, they’ve created an androgynous hero who aggressively resists the affection we can’t help but feel for her in the end. “I’m the Berlin Wall,” she tells another dreary crowd in Kansas City. “Try and tear me down.”

Next week: In The Company Of Men
November 19: Army Of Darkness
November 26 & December 3: No columns due to Thanksgiving and the Best Of The Decade film bonanza, respectively.

More The New Cult Canon