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[whitespace] 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch'
Coming Across: Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell) holds nothing back in odes to unrequited lust.

Wigging Out

'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' trumps 'Rocky Horror,' slaps 'Moulin Rouge' in the face

By Richard von Busack

HEDWIG'S EYES look like burnt holes in a blanket. An electric Dietrich, she wearily surveys the crowd at Bilgewater's, a Sizzler-escent surf-and-turf joint in Kansas City. The stage is hankie-sized. The bass player practically sits on the sneeze guard of the salad bar.

The AARP crowd dining there, narcotized by the all-u-can-eat carbohydrates, rather likes Hedwig and her band. They're not even disturbed by Hedwig's Croat bass thumper, instantly spottable to a city dweller as a drag king. To amuse herself, Hedwig tosses off some stage patter: "When I think of all of the people I've come across in show business, I think of those who have come across me."

She is more ornery than usual tonight. Through the open back door of Bilgewater's drift the sounds of rawk-gawd Tommy Gnosis' zillion-watt amplifiers from a nearby stadium. Gnosis is Hedwig's old boyfriend--she calls him "the artist formerly known as my butt boy." Tonight Gnosis is rocking Kansas City with his crypto-Christian version of the music that Hedwig taught him.

Hedwig, punk rock's answer to The Sun Also Rises' Jake Barnes, lost all but an inch of her schvantz for love. She is the heroine of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and if any movie looked as if it could divert a crowd tired of the 100th viewing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, this would be it.

Long an underground favorite as an off-Broadway play, Hedwig was adapted just right: made fast, rugged and cheap in Canada, with such notable supporting players as Andrea Martin from SCTV and Alberta Watson of The Sweet Hereafter and Spanking the Monkey.

The film surpasses Moulin Rouge for energy and wit. It helps that this rock musical has a serious undertone beneath the uproariousness. It's a lament for how money and success leach out the tricky gender-bent strain in rock--a lament for that lost androgynous element that made rock dangerous, from Little Richard's falsetto to Elvis' bruised kisser to Joan Jett's mannishness.

In a hotel room off Market Street in San Francisco on a blazing-hot day during Gay Pride weekend, Hedwig writer, director and star John Cameron Mitchell has doffed the mask of Hedwig; he is conservatively dressed and as mild mannered as Clark Kent.

San Francisco is a significant place for him--he came out of the closet there. "I was staying at my brother's frat at USF," he tells me, "and I went down to Polk Street. I met a mechanic from Thunder Bay who just knocked me for a loop--disappeared for a weekend with him. When I came back my brother said, 'I thought you'd been killed!' And I said, 'Well, you could say a part of me is gone.'"


Trans Mission Trouble: A sex-crazed historian sizes up 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch.'


Evil American Influences

ABANDONED by his GI father, Hedwig (then known as Hansel) is raised by a depressed East Berlin mother. She keeps the young boy's head in the oven to muffle out the noise of the American music on his transistor radio.

Hansel is seduced by one Sgt. Robinson (much Willem Dafoe treacherousness by Maurice Dean Wint), who professes love and wants to marry Hansel. However, to do so, Hansel must become a woman. After a bungled discount sex change that leaves him unmanned except for an inch-long stub, Hedwig marries the sergeant, leaves Berlin and goes to live in an off-base trailer in Junction City, Kan.

The sergeant eventually leaves her, and Hedwig takes up the guitar as a hobby. At one Laundromat gig, she discovers local Tommy (Michael Pitt). The end of that love affair leads to the beginning of the movie: a case of near-as-dammit stalking of Tommy Gnosis, who has stolen her songs and become a rock star.

Determined to out Gnosis as a traitor, Hedwig pursues him, playing in cities where he's playing and badgering the audience about Tommy's treachery. Hedwig has a number of problems, but, like a junkie, she simplifies these worries to one basic need: "It is clear that I must find my other half or die."

Hedwig's creator, Mitchell, the son of a career Army officer, moved around as a kid--including a stretch in Junction City. On his travels, he absorbed different strains of pop music.

"When I was 10," Mitchell says, "I went to a Benedictine boarding school in Scotland. It was big glam-rock time in Scotland and I heard records by the Sweet that weren't allowed in school, big time. We moved every couple of years so that the music would change radically.

"When I came out [of the closet], for some reason everything opened up. That's when I started listening to R.E.M. and the Violent Femmes and Bowie and punk rock."

In a sense, Hedwig and the Angry Inch shares an element with Todd Haynes' ambitious but fatally flawed Velvet Goldmine. Tommy Gnosis betrays Hedwig in favor of a straight audience. The betrayal is similar to the way the Bowie figure in Velvet Goldmine remakes himself as a white-suited heterosexual rocker--just as, in real life, Bowie changed from the androgen Ziggy Stardust to the thin-lipped German aristocratic figure on Station to Station.

Mitchell notes, "Todd and I were friends writing our things at the same time; I think we rubbed off on each other. Bowie's a shape-changer, juxtaposing things that hadn't been put together in a really artful way, as opposed to a surface-y way like Madonna. Ziggy Stardust was just another shape for him. By accident, this shape turned out to be something people feel strongly about. When he played with that as another genre, it felt like a betrayal. And I did feel betrayed a little bit, until I felt like I understood him better."

Mitchell went to Northwestern University, moving variously to New York and L.A. "I always made a living as an actor, but as the '80s wore on I got tired of the industry, tired of hearing, 'Oh, you're the best actor we've seen' with the implication being 'but we're gonna cast the pretty one.' Went to New York, started up with Hedwig and got immediately accepted. Now when I deal with L.A., it's on my own terms.

"Actually, one good thing L.A. did for me was that I saw a stage adaptation of Plato's Symposium. It's a dialogue in the form of a party after someone's won a theater award for their plays, at the Festival of Dionysus. Aristophanes, Socrates and some others all have to give a speech on the love of a man for a man. And Aristophanes tells the myth we use in the movie--a myth which is very inclusive of any kind of sexuality."

'Hedwig and the Angry Inch'
Art Imitates Life: Hedwig is betrayed by a lover who chooses to play to a straight audience, similar to the Bowie figure in Velvet Goldmine.

The Mysterious Other Half

THIS MYTH--made into a cartoon within the film by Emily Hubley--is the spine of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Plato's Symposium is a conversation recalled haphazardly, years after it happened.

A man named Aristodemus tells what he heard; perhaps his memory is unsteady. The auditor may have been suffering from the same wine hangover that the other guests mention. Since a doctor is present, the men are shamed by health's sake out of taking a hair of the dog: "it was agreed that drinking was not to be the order of the day."

Instead, they decide to talk about love. The satirist Aristophanes (author of Lysistrata and other classic comedies) is suffering from the hiccups, so he has to pass his turn. When he finally tells his story, it's hard to take it as anything but typically inspired facetiousness by the Father of Satire. But his idea about the Platonic Other Half is today taken as gospel by the lovelorn. Be careful of what you say when you're hungover.

According to Aristophanes, "The sexes were not two as they are now, but originally three in number; there was man, woman and the union of the two." This double-sexed being was round like a ball and could roll as well as walk: "Terrible was their might and strength, and the thoughts of their hearts were great, and they made an attack upon the gods."

Big mistake. Zeus hit these androgens with a thunderbolt and split them; Apollo completed the surgery, leaving the navels as a memento. Aristophanes concludes that today "each of us when separated, having one side only, like a flat fish, is but the indenture of a [hu]man, and he is always looking for his other half."

Mitchell found the L.A. adaptation of the Symposium so striking that he tried to use it himself in a failed play. Like many a frustrated actor, Mitchell decided to create a stage persona for a one-man show.

On an airplane, he met musician Stephen Trask; the two were both trying to avoid eye contact with the in-flight movie, When Harry Met Sally. "Stephen really wrote the songs in Hedwig. At first we did cover songs by Yoko Ono, Cher or Pere Ubu to do the work of what would later became the original tunes."

Hedwig evolved through years of performance; while the film's a musical, as fluffy as a teased-to-death wig, it's visually complex enough to repay return engagements. There are subplots and jokes that you only see speeding by on the first viewing.

"We had a little of that repeat attendance at the play," Mitchell says. "We had Hed-heads. We only ran in New York for two years, but there was a woman who saw it 450 times. We embroidered her name on a chair for her. In this case, it seems like it would bring together a nice caliber of people, a nice mix. The crowds at Hedwig were never gay or straight or old or young--people were always surprised to see who was next to them. We tried to keep the film dense, just like the play. We developed it just the way it happened to make it denser, because we'd get bored performing it otherwise; we'd always try to put another couple of layers on it."

Giving Good Gnosis

ONE PART of the film that can be cracked is the Gnostic gospels element, signaled by the name of Tommy Gnosis. "I read the Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels," Mitchell explains. "[It was] quite enlightening, for someone brought up very Catholic, to see a nonhierarchical view of religion. It didn't make sense that just because Adam and Eve wanted to know something they were penalized.

"In the Gnostic view, Eve was really connected to an overarching God; like Jesus, she was a knowledge giver. I paraphrased this for the movie: Tommy has this idea of Adam and Eve being one. That's his ideal and he identifies Hedwig with it. And Hedwig's like, 'Whatever. Kiss me.' Still, through knowing Tommy, she starts to view herself differently. Maybe they can't be together, but she definitely needed to know him, to move on. It's because of him that Hedwig is stripped at the end, reborn."

It seems as if Mitchell was drawn to Gnosticism because of his own terrors as a serious Catholic discovering his gayness. "Definitely," Mitchell agrees. "At one time I might have taken a religious life. At the Benedictine school there was a great comfort in the plainsong and the ritual, but the ritual transferred for me into theater, into art. I think being gay might have saved me from a less-examined life--it was something to start questioning the world with.

"Being gay has its own problems. When it's confining, gay culture is just as conformist as straight culture. And I was coming out right in the middle of AIDS, a very intense time. It was a serious decision to be open, to think about the world in an honest way. A lot of actors were told they had to closet themselves for their career and I was really angry that someone would actually dare to tell me how to live my life off the stage or off the screen. So I enjoyed a certain amount of 'Fuck you' by coming out. Hedwig was a little bit of that, but it became something more than that later."

The scene of Hedwig becoming whole at the end is on the sweet, swan-song side, akin to the "I'm Going Home" number in Rocky Horror Picture Show--one rides with it, but it's a little too much like the showbiz glitz the movie's avoided up until then.

Still, when Mitchell came out, it was to an Army officer father--a daunting thought. "For all of its conservative cast, the military is really a socialist state," Mitchell says. "Everyone gets free everything in it. In theory, it's a meritocracy--follow the rules and you'll do well. Plus they'll send you all around the world. If you're halfway intelligent, you'll see a lot of stuff. So my parents are actually very sophisticated. Since I started becoming famous, they've really opened up more. My dad was wearing one of those wigs when Hedwig showed at Sundance Film Festival."

Clearly the wig has some kind of power. Hedwig and the Angry Inch isn't a slur of womenfolk but, instead, a crafty way of filching some of their energy. Hedwig was Mitchell's first time in women's clothes.

"I put a wig on once in a play, but that was it. I never dressed up for Halloween--I was scared of it, scared of the feminine within. Doing Hedwig made me feel more masculine and feminine at the same time. It's interesting what a man wearing drag chooses to be--you could be a vamp or a dowager, someone else might choose to be their own mom. And why would they choose to be their mom, as opposed to a whore? I don't know why I chose to be a trailer-trash whore who acts like Marlene Dietrich. Drag is like primal scream therapy--everyone should try it."

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (R; 95 min.) directed by John Cameron Mitchell, written by Mitchell and Stephen Trask, photographed by Frank DeMarco and starring Mitchell, Michael Pitt and Andrea Martin, opens Friday at the Camera One and the Century 25 in San Jose and the Palo Alto Square in Palo Alto.

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From the August 2-8, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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