Some days, our current attitudes toward gender-identity and sexual-orientation politics seem to have stripped us—gay or straight, cisgender or trans, striving to understand the LGBTQIA issues of the day or otherwise—of tenderness. We have long needed more openness in talking about these issues; openness is the only way to advance civil rights. Still, when it comes to the way we want to be perceived and acknowledged by the world, defensiveness, the greatest stumbling block to true understanding, can seem to be the default position, especially on social media.
But 1998—the year John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask debuted their exuberant rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch in a small theater in New York’s West Village—is not yet ancient history. And the film that came to be made from that live show, in 2001, is both relevant to our times and restorative, a work of rapturous energy and humor that points a way forward. What makes a man a man and a woman a woman, and what radiant possibilities might there be in between? Everyone suffers at one time or another; what will you do with that suffering? Will you let it destroy you or fortify you? There are tragedy and betrayal in this story of a chanteuse named Hedwig, born male but forced into a back-alley sex-reassignment operation that is horribly botched, whose bitterness is fueled when the man she loves steals her songs and becomes a raging rock-and-roll success. But there are joy, redemption, and forgiveness, too, as well as an understanding of the pleasures of wearing costumes and masks—and of the relief to be found in letting your guard down and learning to trust.
That’s a lot of stuff for a musical to carry, but Hedwig and the Angry Inch shoulders it with the ease of a catwalk model. Mitchell—also the film’s director—plays Hedwig, who, when we meet her, is a struggling performer touring a chain of Red Lobster–type restaurants across America. (Bilgewater’s is the name.) Hedwig pours her story out in flashbacks: She was born Hansel Schmidt, in East Berlin before the destruction of the wall, and was raised by an emotionally disconnected mother. Hansel’s father, an American serviceman, left the family when Hansel was just a kid. Hansel’s narrative hints at sexual abuse, but his father at least showed him twisted affection; his mother appears to show none at all.
One day, while sunbathing nude “in an old bomb crater,” Hansel meets an American soldier, Luther Robinson (Maurice Dean Wint), who woos him with a large packet of Gummi Bears. Hansel allows himself to be molded by Luther, who urges him to dress like a woman. And when Luther proposes, promising to whisk Hansel away to the States, to the West, where he has always longed to go, there is a condition: this must be a marriage between a woman and a man. Hansel’s mother orchestrates a sex reassignment for her son. But the surgeon’s slicing and sewing go all wrong, and Hansel’s would-be vagina seals shut, leaving just a squiggly something between his legs—the angriest of angry inches, or, as Hedwig will describe it in a song, a “one-inch mound of flesh with a scar running down it like a sideways grimace on an eyeless face.”
Hedwig recounts this story—as she will detail much of her past—during a performance in front of one of those fish-restaurant crowds, some of whom are enthusiastic fans, some of whom just want to be left alone with their fried clams and umbrella drinks. But Mitchell as Hedwig, dressed in a midriff top and shiny zebra hip-huggers—all crowned by a flashy sun-yellow wig that virtually has a life of its own—owns the moment, turning the tacky surroundings into a mini stadium. As Hedwig bounds back and forth along a stage that isn’t even a stage, her remembered pain becomes fuel for the performance. Her conviction and her energy are so great that the crowd is roused out of its half-indifference; the scene devolves into a combination food fight and bar brawl, with Hedwig presiding. The chaos of her mind, body, and heart has jumped the tracks from performer to onlooker, and she’s the messy queen of it all.
“As a performer, there’s lightning in Mitchell’s fingertips; as a director, he delights in both glitter and emotional grandeur.”
Throughout Hedwig, the character swings between the poles of vulnerability and rage. Hedwig’s story is heartbreaking and infuriating. But it’s also funny, the way any exaggerated tragedy can be funny. And that’s key to the whole enterprise: Hedwig’s heart has been broken multiple times, but she always comes back fighting, and she knows how to play the whole thing for maximum effect. And so does Mitchell. As a performer, he has lightning in his fingertips; as a director, he delights in both glitter and emotional grandeur—Hedwig may not be a big-budget film, but there’s nothing stingy or half-hearted about its staging or its style. Hedwig and her band—called (what else?) the Angry Inch, after her remaining nub of manhood—move from one Bilgewater’s to the next, adding more embroidery to our heroine’s story at each stop.
After Luther and Hansel marry, Luther moves his wife, now Hedwig, to a trailer park in Junction City, Kansas; a year later, he leaves her for a man. That’s also the year that the Berlin Wall comes down: Hedwig is a divided person from a divided city that became whole only after she left it. She finds some redemption in inventing a glamorous persona for herself and forming her band. She also falls in love with a teenage fundamentalist-Christian rocker boy, Tommy Speck (Michael Pitt), who leaves her to become—with the help of songs that Hedwig cowrote with him—the rock star Tommy Gnosis. Left behind once again, Hedwig ekes out a living by playing at those fish restaurants with her band, following Tommy from town to town as she nurses this new anger: it’s healing as uneasily and as painfully as the wound between her legs.
That’s a loopy plot if ever there was one, Puccini-like in its extravagant twists, its grand emotions spread out like Japanese fans. It also sits uneasily within contemporary identity discourse. What group deserves ownership of Hedwig? She would be a cisgender gay man in drag, if not for that bungled operation, which she didn’t want anyway. What’s the right pronoun for a reluctant semi-trans woman who’s making the best of it, cheering herself up with a magnificent wardrobe of sequined tops and painted-on pants, false lashes as fringy as Bambi’s, and an elaborate lunar-blond wig that’s half Farrah Fawcett flip, half Dolly Parton hair hootenanny?
“To be man and woman at once only broadens our range of experience, increasing our capacity for heartbreak and pleasure, not to mention our wardrobe options.”
But Parton has said, “I like looking like I came out of a fairy tale.” And Hedwig, too, is a fairy-tale heroine, a miracle of “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off” transformation and, ultimately, an ambassador for the idea of healing oneself by forgiving oneself and others: she’s like Bette Davis in Now, Voyager, only in a spangled miniskirt and high-tops. Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a story about keeping up appearances even in the midst of heartbreak, an homage to the “women’s weeper,” reinvented as a rock musical. This kind of idea is what is at the heart of drag: a man dressed as a woman allows himself to feel as women feel, in big, dramatic loops; he’s no longer required to keep a lid on his emotions, as men have traditionally been taught to do. And so Hedwig takes a page from Douglas Sirk melodramas and Joan Crawford suffer-fests, but it’s all filtered through the androgynous theatricality of T. Rex and David Bowie. To be man and woman at once—even just to play at being man and woman at once—only broadens our range of experience, increasing our capacity for heartbreak and pleasure, not to mention our wardrobe options.
Where did this strange, magnificent idea come from? Mitchell and Trask met on a flight from Los Angeles to New York sometime in 1989 or 1990, finding common ground as they talked about film and music. Mitchell saw, and loved, Trask’s band, Cheater, at CBGB; it would later become the band in the stage show of Hedwig. Mitchell—who by that point had established a solid acting career in theater, television, and film—told Trask stories about his own life, about growing up as the son of a U.S. Army officer in Scotland and Berlin. And he relayed to Trask a story he’d fallen in love with, the myth of Aristophanes, from Plato’s Symposium. According to the myth, there were originally three genders among humans: male, female, and androgynous beings, the last with characteristics of both male and female. Humans were, at the time, creatures of great power, each with two faces, two sets of arms, two sets of legs, and two sets of genitals. The gods were so threatened by these beings that they cut them in two lengthwise. Forever after, one half of each human—whether male, female, or a mingling of the two—would yearn and search for its missing other half. The myth gave Mitchell and Trask the framework for the story of Hedwig. They were “thinking about the origin of love,” Mitchell told Rolling Stone, “thinking about Berlin, where my parents had lived . . . It was just sort of like, yes. This is the metaphor: to walk away, you’ve got to leave something behind.” Trask turned the myth into an incandescent, haunting ballad, “The Origin of Love,” which would become an anchor first of the stage show and later of the film.
So few rock musicals genuinely work. They often try so hard to be hip that they just end up being corny. And some lyricists are guilty of cramming too many expository phrases into too few notes, so that songs don’t feel like songs—they’re more like information-delivery vehicles. (Rent is exhibit A, as Mitchell and Trask suggest in one of the movie’s sly fillips.) But the songs in Hedwig and the Angry Inch emerge organically from the story and then flow right back into it, in a kind of cosmic swirl. The numbers are beautifully staged, and as shot by cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco, they’re gorgeously vivid but never garish. One of the film’s most joyous sequences, “Wig in a Box,” begins with Hedwig lying despondent in her knickknack-filled trailer home, unable to rouse herself from bed in the aftermath of Luther’s desertion. But she finds courage in an eye-shadow palette, a tube of lip gloss, and that roller-coaster ride of a wig, transforming herself into a beauty of exquisite artificiality. As she does so, her bandmates, dressed in an array of Hawaiian shirts and tiny shorts—the one playing that most gloriously ridiculous instrument, the keytar, is Trask himself—invade her tiny trailer, imparting cooing harmonies and general good cheer. The song, and the occasion, is buoyant but also a little wistful, as if to acknowledge that the euphoric moments of our lives fade quickly: we’ve got to find a way to hang on to the perfume trail of their essence.
Mitchell’s face, in Hedwig, is the specter of that perfume, a reflection of the beauty of imperfect happiness—because, after all, there’s no such thing as perfect happiness. And as exhilarating as that first onstage rendering of Hedwig was—I saw it, and it was like a rocket blasting up and away from the last days of the twentieth century—the movie Hedwig, in its extravagant intimacy, is the ultimate Hedwig. Because Mitchell’s face in close-up imparts secrets that can’t be telegraphed from the stage. His rendering of “The Origin of Love” comes early in the movie, clueing us in to Hedwig’s sense of displacement. (The story’s wistfulness is underscored by a series of gorgeously naive animation sequences by Emily Hubley, daughter of experimental animators John and Faith Hubley.) Hedwig sings the song onstage at one of those miserable fish joints, accompanied by her band, which includes her resentful Croatian ex-drag-queen lover, Yitzhak (played by the marvelous Miriam Shor)—the duo’s relationship is as complicated as you might imagine.
Made up for the stage, Hedwig is a magnificent pop-art invention: her lacquered lips are exactly the same glittery color as Judy Garland’s ruby slippers in The Wizard of Oz; her eyelids are painted in iridescent seashell tones, like you’d see on mermaid royalty. But the sounds emerging from deep within her are wholly naked. This song, both melancholic and strangely optimistic, is music of pure yearning. “We wrapped our arms around each other / Tried to shove ourselves back together,” Hedwig sings, and it’s clear she’s thinking not just of a lost love but of the other half of her innermost self—the part of herself that has gone missing or, worse, been stolen.
Hedwig’s quest doesn’t end in tidy fulfillment. Yet her story has the happiest of endings, one that moves her—and us—closer to generosity and peace. Hedwig and the Angry Inch opened in movie theaters in the summer of 2001, just a couple of months before 9/11. It didn’t find a huge audience, if you judge it only by its box-office results. But the people who love Hedwig love it fiercely. The material has since been revived on Broadway (starring, most notably, Neil Patrick Harris) and by various touring companies. And Mitchell has continued to act and direct. His 2006 Shortbus is possibly the friendliest, sweetest film about group sex ever made; in 2017 he brought us How to Talk to Girls at Parties, a funny, pensive extraterrestrial love story adapted from source material by Neil Gaiman.
But Hedwig the movie will always stand apart as a lasting record of the precious alchemy between Trask and Mitchell. Hedwig and the Angry Inch isn’t an anthem of identity but a song of the self—there’s a difference. “There are energies that we might call male and female within all of us,” Mitchell has said. “When you don’t exercise them, they tend to die, like a mouse in a wall, and they smell up the place.” Hedwig urges us to find those energies and exalt in them. Every pronoun we need is right there, within ourselves.