Sex lives

John Cameron Mitchell as Hedwig, having a “drop the razor, Gramps” moment.

John Cameron Mitchell as Hedwig, having a “drop the razor, Gramps” moment.

Rated 4.0

The title of Hedwig and the Angry Inch has two meanings. First, the Angry Inch is the band that backs up Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell) as she tours seedy bars and seafood restaurants in the wake of rock superstar Tommy Gnosis, her ex-lover and nemesis. Second, an “angry inch” is all Hedwig (formerly Hansel) has left after a bungled sex-change operation by an East German surgeon. Hansel, it seems, underwent the operation as his only chance to marry an American G.I. and get out from behind the Berlin Wall. Later, as Hedwig, she sits in a Kansas trailer abandoned by her soldier husband and watching the news on TV—where, with excruciating irony, jubilant East Germans are rapturously ripping the Wall apart. “The Germans are a patient people,” the newscaster exults, “and all things come to those who wait.” It’s just been that kind of life for Hedwig.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is the brainchild of Mitchell, who wrote and directed the film as well as starring in it, based on his own off-Broadway hit play. Never having seen the play, I can’t comment on the adaptation, but the film’s stage origins are all but invisible, except in the scenes where Hedwig and her band are actually performing Stephen Trask’s driving, irresistible glam-rock songs.

For example, Mitchell garnishes the film with animated sequences by Emily Hubley illustrating the film’s premise—the Platonic fable about how humans were once four-armed, four-legged creatures with twin faces, split in two by a jealous Zeus and condemned to wander the earth forever searching for their other half. That’s Hedwig’s fate now, a series of disappointments with soul mates who didn’t match after all: first that G.I. husband, then Tommy Gnosis, who dumped Hedwig in a frenzy of sexual insecurity and went on to superstardom after stealing the songs she wrote. Now Hedwig and the Angry Inch trace a parallel tour with Tommy, playing to handfuls of people in shabby joints next door to the huge sports arenas where Tommy sells out. It’s almost like stalking, as Hedwig preens before the patrons of a restaurant chain called Bilgewater’s, calling herself the “internationally ignored” song stylist.

The atmosphere of the film is fraught with androgyny. Not only is there Hedwig, uncertain whether to be a transsexual female or a gay man in drag, but there is also Yitzhak, Hedwig’s diminutive, effeminate husband—played by Miriam Shor in a pasted-on beard. Add to this Hedwig’s earlier identity as Hansel, a self-described girly-boy, and you have a recipe for sexual ambiguity calculated to discombobulate anyone’s gender-role preconceptions.

The comparison that everyone is going to make for Hedwig is with The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and it’s easy to imagine a midnight cult arising, complete with outlandish Farrah Fawcett wigs and butterfly sleeves reading “Yankee Go Home … With Me.” But the comparison diminishes not only Mitchell’s film, but his own performance. Rocky Horror was, after all, just a campy stunt, albeit sparked by Tim Curry’s strutting fishnet-stockinged Mick Jagger impression. As both Hedwig and Hansel, Mitchell goes much deeper into questions of love and identity. True, at times Mitchell teeters on the brink of bathos, gazing into the mirror with trembling lower lip or bravely flouncing through his tears—but he always reins himself in before things get sticky.

Fortunately, the memory that lingers from Hedwig and the Angry Inch isn’t the lugubrious calf-eyed stare. It’s the chin-high showbiz strut of John Cameron Mitchell and his Teutonic contralto voice—where Tim Curry did Mick Jagger, Mitchell does Marlene Dietrich. And those songs! Stephen Trask’s score—alternately driving, flippant, poignant and infectious, and delivered in Mitchell’s strong pop-rock David Bowie-style voice—is Hedwig and the Angry Inch’s secret weapon. For all its gender-bending and impudent drag-queening, the film is at heart an old-fashioned barrel-of-fun rock-and-roll musical.