Hansel and Hedwig
John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the screen version of his and Stephen Trask’s OBIE Award-winning stage musical of the same name, is a re-telling of the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel, in which the brother and sister are one and the same person. Hansel is Gretel, or rather Hedwig, and vice versa. She tells her story through flashbacks and rock songs, sung during her band’s “world tour” of hotel bars and the dining rooms of a chain of seafood houses named Bilgewater’s. This being a musical, the songs narrate the past events of Hedwig’s life.
These events begin in East Berlin, where Hansel is a little boy (Ben Mayer-Goodman) who spends his days listening to American Forces Radio, gorging himself on Toni Tenille, Debby Boone, and Anne Murray, as well as Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie. Such musical variety is in stark contrast to Hansel’s own bleak and uniform surroundings, and he dreams of escaping to the West. When the boy grows up (now played by Mitchell), he’s enticed by the Evil Witch, in this version an American G.I. stationed at Checkpoint Charlie. While sunning himself in the nude near the Wall one day, Hansel is approached by Luther (Maurice Dean Wint), who initially “mistakes” Hansel for a girl, and tempts him with rainbow-colored, All-American Gummi Bears. Hansel flees from this first encounter, back to the safety of “blander, less complicated confections.” But he can’t stay away for long, and the next day he finds a trail of Tootsie Rolls, Necco Wafers, and other candy goodies leading directly back to Luther. The two fall in love, or so Hansel believes. Luther promises to marry Hansel and take him back to the States. But first, in order to make things legit, Hansel must “leave a little something behind.” At Luther’s and his mother’s (Alberta Watson) urging, Hansel submits to sex reassignment surgery and becomes Hedwig (his mother’s name).
Things go awry, of course. The surgery is botched, leaving Hedwig with an “angry inch” of mutilated flesh where her “penis used to be, and where [her] vagina never was.” Furthermore, shortly after arriving in the US, Luther abandons Hedwig in Junction City, Kansas, for a younger, blonde American boy. Left alone in a trailer park, Hedwig loses her job at the base PX. What’s a girl to do?
Hedwig returns to her love of music, forming a band named, naturally, Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The band’s performances correspond to moments in Hedwig’s remembered life story. So, “Wig in a Box” tells how Hedwig reinvents herself after her divorce from Luther by carefully constructing a drag-goddess, glam-rock persona from bits of U. S. popular culture, and “Hedwig’s Lament” is a bitter cri du coeur of how she has been manipulated and mishandled by all the men in her life. Just so, we learn that Hedwig and the band are shadowing the tour of rock god Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), who, it appears, owes his success and all the eclat he has received as a songwriter to material he has stolen from Hedwig.
Of course, Gnosis denies having ever met the woman whom tabloids have named his “gay transsexual lover.” This scandal rag headline is just one of Hedwig and the Angry Inch‘s many deft commentaries on the insufficiencies of labels and identity categories, as well as on the ignorance behind homophobia and intolerance. What, precisely, would a “gay transsexual lover” be? For Tommy Gnosis, would it be an f2m post-operative transsexual? Even if Hedwig’s operation had been successful, would she and Tommy still be “gay” lovers because Hedwig was once biologically male? During the performance of the song “Angry Inch,” which tells of Hedwig’s surgery/mutilation, one irate country-boy jumps up from his seat, calling Hedwig a “faggot” and starting a brawl. Excuse me? This redneck’s slur only raises more questions. How exactly is Hedwig a “faggot”?
Still more questions are raised by the relationship of Hedwig to her new husband and bandmate, Yitzhak (Miriam Shor), an Eastern European immigrant beholden to Hedwig for the green card he obtains through their marriage. He likes to dress up in Hedwig’s wigs and outfits, and his identity/their relationship is further complicated by the fact that Yitzhak is played by a woman. Shor’s drag-king routine is as amazing, and has as much “realness,” as Mitchell’s androgyne Hedwig. Hedwig and the Angry Inch‘s insight into the fluidity of gender is made all the more powerful by Hedwig’s own attempts to puzzle through these conundrums. The film doesn’t moralize, or try to give set answers. Instead, it encourages us to consider all the possibilities, and to perhaps realize the possibility that there are no fixed truths concerning gender, sexuality, and identity. All we can do is come to our own individual conclusions or identities, and let the rest of the world do what it will with them, just as Hedwig does.
This genderfuck narrative is perfectly appropriate to the genre of rock musicals and in particular to the glam-rock stylings of this incarnation. The film nicely draws connections to some of today’s more popular rock acts. Tommy Gnosis is made to look almost exactly like Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corrigan; actually, the resemblance is kind of scary. The implication is that the over-the-top antics of ‘70s glam-rock or of Hedwig today aren’t all that different from the glam-ish grunge of Scott Wieland (during and after his stint with Stone Temple Pilots), the dark and obsessive mope-rock of Smashing Pumpkins or the testosterone frenzy of Limp Bizkit. It’s all performance, after all.
Mitchell and composer/lyricist Stephen Trask have clearly been greatly influenced by the rock triumvirate of Reed, Pop, and Bowie invoked early in the film. You can hear it in Mitchell’s plaintive Bowie-esque voice, as well as in the punk-infused chords and alternately gritty and ethereal lyrics of Trask’s songs. This should be no surprise, as Mitchell and Trask created Hedwig and the band, honing its performance and style to perfection, at New York’s gay rock-n-roll nightclub Squeezebox. Their music and presentation seem to shout, “Fuck disco! And fuck anti-style, alterna-rock Fred Durst-wannabes.” In Hedwig and the Angry Inch Mitchell and Trask clearly strive to bring back into vogue gay (or at least sexually ambiguous) boys who know how to rock! And how to look fabulous while doing so.