The most appropriate pairing for this film was created by bartending blogger, Andrew Bohrer, who created a cocktail called the John Cameron Mitchell. When discussing the name, he said, he was riding home on his bike in the rain one evening… “This is when, Wig in Box*, a song from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, pops on to my iPod, the line, “I look up from my vermouth on the rocks,” has all new meaning to me, Hedwig knows hard times for real and I have become someone who enjoys vermouth on the rocks too. Like Hedwig, I enjoy, a stiff esoteric drink, unlike him or her, I know not of hard times, struggle, or cutting of my penis to escape communist Germany. I know it is a stretch, but when I serve people at work, I do spend a great deal of brain power considering their personal struggles. With this sincerity in mind, I thought John Cameron Mitchell, the film maker behind Hedwig and the Short Bus deserved his own cocktail.”
Find the full story and the ingredients here: https://caskstrength.wordpress.com/2010/02/18/john-cameron-mitchell-my-new-favorite-cocktail-and-the-john-cameron-mitchell-cocktail/
LGTBQ Film Series #14:
“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” (2001) is a poignant, heartbreaking, empowering tale about a young boy named Hansel, who, while raised by an emotionally distant single mom in East Germany, seeks solace in Western rock n’ roll. John Cameron Mitchell (along with composer Stephen Trask) wrote the rock musical in 1998 and starred in it himself when it was performed on the off-Broadway stage. It went on to win an Obie, and a three years later was turned into the screenplay, and Mitchell wrote, directed and starred in the film, for which he won Best Director at Sundance Film Festival in 2001. For his performance as Hedwig, Mitchell received a nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy. It was an immediately beloved rock anthem that has in the 19 years since cultivated a loyal following and is considered a cinematic cult classic. More recently, in 2014, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” made its way to Broadway, starring Neil Patrick Harris and Lena Hall, was directed by Michael Mayar and went on to win four Tony Awards, including Best Actor in a Musical (Harris), Best Featured Actress in a Musical (Hall), and Best Revival of a Musical. John Cameron Mitchell reprised his performance in the role of Hedwig on Broadway for a limited run in early 2015, opposite Lena Hall as Yitzhak. He received a 2015 Special Tony Award for his return to the role. Needless to say, Mitchell’s Hedwig journey was nothing short of incredible – a beautiful creative exploration of queer culture and the liberating power of music as a means of working through his own pain and grief.
Mitchell grew up in a conservative family and at an early age, had already lost two siblings due to random circumstance. He came out as gay to his family and then a few years later, came out to the world with a New York Times profile. The origination of Hedwig began with a German female babysitter/prostitute who had worked for Mitchell’s family when he was a teenager in Junction City, Kansas. She was designed to be a supporting character initially, with the character of Tommy as the lead. Tommy was based on Mitchell himself: gay, son of an army general, deeply Roman Catholic and held a deep fascination for mythology. However, his writing partner, Trask, encouraged Mitchell to showcase some of their early material in 1994 at a New York City drag-punk club called Squeezebox (where Trask headed the house band and Mitchell’s boyfriend, Jack Steeb, played bass). To preserve the rock energy of the music, the two agreed to develop the performances through Hedwig’s gigs at clubs and bars, rather than the typical theatrical structure of a musical. Squeezebox had a roster of drag performers who delivered thrilling renditions of rock covers, and this heavily influenced Mitchell’s stylistic choices for the film. Many of the songs utilized to tell Hedwig’s story are rock covers (with some of the lyrics rewritten), such as Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well,” Television’s “See No Evil,” Cher’s “Half Breed,” David Bowie’s “Boys Keep Swinging,” and Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale.”
The film follows Hedwig, a genderqueer rock musician as she chases after an ex-lover who has found fame after plagiarizing her songs. There is something startlingly insidious about this type of abuse happening to a trans woman, as so much of the pain experienced by the trans community, and any marginalized community, comes from being excavated from society as human beings, while being appropriated for their culture and ideas. As Brian Upton, of TheatreWorks’ Hedwig, put it, “It is an honest-to-God, heartwrenching and liberating exploration into being a lost soul trapped within the human race,”
Then, Hansel, Hedwig ventures out in her 20’s and meets the handsome Luther Robinson, an American soldier (self-proclaimed “Sugar Daddy”) who persuades her to begin dressing in drag, and they opt to get married to help her secure a passport to America, where she can escape the oppressive regime in charge in Germany. However, marriage was only allowed to occur between a man and a woman, so she rushes out to get a sex change. Disastrously, the surgery was botched, leaving her with a mound of scar tissue and a “closed hole,” leaving her “with a scar running down it like a sideways grimace on an eyeless face” a.k.a. an “angry inch” between her legs. Luther leaves Hedwig for a man and the Berlin Wall has fallen and Germany is able to reunite, making her sacrifices a waste.
Refusing to succumb to her tragedies, Hedwig envisions a more glamorous, femme alter-ego of herself and forms a glitzy rock band she calls “The Angry Inch” as a means to take ownership over her pain. Donning a bleached Farrah Fawcett looking blonde wig (which was apparently realized after a Squeezebox Debbie Harry performance), she builds a new life for herself. A Jewish drag queen from Zagreb, Yitzhak, becomes her assistant back-up singer and husband (Miriam Shor), but their co-dependent relationship becomes unhealthy and destructive, as Hedwig develops insecurities surrounding Yitzhak’s budding talent which she fears could overshadow her own. She befriends the older brother of a child she babysits for (calling back to Hedwig’s origination from Mitchell’s life) and they quickly develop a romantic relationship. His name is Tommy Speck (Michael Pitt) is a Christian evangelist who works on songs with Hedwig, and eventually takes the stage name “Tommy Gnosis.” He expresses clear homophobia which only worsens when he discovers that she is not biologically female. His self-destructive behaviors worsen as he wrestles with his own sexual identity, and eventually he flees, going on to become a successful rock star using the songs Hedwig wrote, while her band is struggling to make ends meet.
Much of the musical is focused on Hedwig’s deteriorating mental state leading up to a breakdown, after she works through all her past traumas throughout the story and attempts to understand the sources of her agony and find a way to find validation and amend the injustices brought against her. The film showcases strategic and creative production design by Thérèse DePrez and intricate, vibrate costumes by Arianne Phillips, but much of the allure comes from Mitchell’s direction. The scenes are pieced together with unique filmmaking techniques, like an occasional fish-eye lens or a close-up shot from inside an oven, that resembles what one would have seen, fittingly, in music videos in the late 90’s/early 2000’s.
Mitchell has explained that Hedwig is not a trans woman, but a genderqueer character. “She’s more than a woman or a man,” he has said. “She’s a gender of one and that is accidentally so beautiful.” The story is about a queer person and the story is intensely specific and personal. It crosses over simplified gendered definitions, and allows viewers to reflect on Hedwig as just a person. “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is a deeply affecting film, brought to life with exceptionally entertaining and upbeat music and iconic cinematic moments. Through the emotion, it even manages to feel like a fun watch. It is truly a brilliant and masterful addition to LGTBQ cinema, cult cinema and cinema in general and should not be missed.