Give Him an Inch

John Cameron Mitchell takes a mile with his all-purpose, silly-fun musical Hedwig

Aug 15, 2001 at 4:00 am
Times certainly have changed. Twenty years ago, a musical about an East German transsexual rock singer would have premiered in one of New York's off-off-Broadway theaters or cabarets, run for a couple of weeks and remained the pleasant memory of a select few. But when John Cameron Mitchell's Hedwig and the Angry Inch opened off-Broadway in 1998, it not only became a hit that crossed over to both the mainstream and a lengthy run, it spawned touring companies (in which performers other than its creator donned the Hedwig wigs and frocks to rock their hearts out), Web sites and a burgeoning fanbase. A movie was the inevitable next step. But Mitchell, being the disarmingly protean talent that he is, hasn't simply filmed his play -- he's completely reconceived Hedwig for the screen. And the result should please both devoted fans and -- to borrow a Rocky Horror Picture Show metaphor -- "virgins" alike. In fact, it could well be a hit with moviegoers who've had no prior interest in either rock & roll or sex-reassignment surgery.

Part of the reason for this is that Hedwig -- like Rocky Horror's Dr. Frank-N-Furter, to whom he's reflexively (and in some ways too glibly) compared -- functions on both stage and screen less as an actual transgender than as an all-purpose metaphor for self-realization. If this tranny-with-a-'tude can make it, the show seems to say, then so can you. Embodying self-realization on a professional level, Mitchell, in bringing Hedwig to life, has performed the sort of multimedia hat trick that few have ever attempted, much less brought off successfully. And making his success all the more striking is that this writer/performer -- who first came to light playing Larry Kramer as a child in the latter's autobio-drama The Destiny of Me -- would be the one to do so. Short and delicate-looking, he'd appear to have a career along the well-trod lines of Anthony Perkins, Richard Thomas or Dennis Christopher -- you know, the "sensitive" (i.e., neurotic) type.

Hedwig explodes all of that. Hansel (as the lead character is initially named) -- the little East German "girly-boy" who grows up listening to rock on Armed Forces Radio and falls in love with a black GI who insists that he get a sex change to come to America -- may sound at first like a victim (or, better still, a retread of Elvira, the similarly unstrung transsexual hero/heroine of Fassbinder's In a Year of 13 Moons), but not as Mitchell works Hedwig out.

To begin with, Hedwig is one tough cookie. Going from an East Berlin apartment to a trailer park in Kansas is culture shock enough. Transgenderism would only appear to complicate the situation. But not for Hedwig. Though the operation was botched (hence the "angry inch" of genitalia), her spirits aren't. Likewise she takes getting dumped by her GI boyfriend in stride -- facing the world with the sort of determination not seen since Joan Crawford in Flamingo Road. Making ends meet through babysitting jobs, Hedwig meets her next l'amour fou, Tommy Gnosis (the marvelously spacey Michael Pitt). This time the betrayal cuts even deeper because Tommy steals not only Hedwig's heart but (worse still) her songs. Not to be trifled with, Hedwig embarks on a career of her own, a kind of "stalking tour" in which she and her band perform adjacent to every one of Tommy's engagements.

Unfortunately, Hedwig's manager, Phyllis Stein (the great Andrea Martin), can only get her booked into T.G.I. Friday's restaurants and salad bars (leading to shots of Hedwig and crew performing for confused-cum-terrified diners that are some of the most hilarious in the entire film). This doesn't faze Hedwig -- who has already faced the indignity of being the only performer playing to an audience of one at the "Menses Fair" music festival. But her bass player and boyfriend, Yitzhak (Miriam Shor, in a transvestite performance of considerable wit and grace), is champing at the bit to chuck the whole thing and join the Guam touring company of Rent.

It works out semisatisfactorily for all concerned in the end. But not before Mitchell and his merry crew (including Emily Hubley, who supplies some delicious cartoon interludes) have had a go at every rock movie from Viva Las Vegas (Ann-Margret has nothing on Hedwig when it comes to stage presence) to This Is Spinal Tap (whose take on rock-tour indignities it manages to top). Most important of all, Hedwig and the Angry Inch offers an enormous amount of pure silly fun for the entire nonnuclear family, no matter what the gender.