My very favorite movie, ever, is John Cameron Mitchell's 2001 masterpiece Hedwig and the Angry Inch. It's a really spectacular film about soul-searching and pain and love and identity. The main character is a slightly-but-justifiably crazy blonde with an overwhelming affinity for glitter and rock 'n roll. You can't get much muchier than that! How could I not love her?
I started thinking about this movie toward the end of Iceapalooza 2011. It's not kid-appropriate, so I had to wait until they weren't around to watch it for the hundred-dozenth time. Last night, in a fit of self-indulgent moroseness, I curled up on the couch to get my glam and drag on.
The first thing I'm always struck by is how gorgeous the film is; it is deliciously beautiful, cinemagraphically, even in its grittiest moments. It's visually clever in its economy of field; sets are often small and cramped, and Mitchell is astonishingly efficient as using the small areas to their fullest effect. (Hedwig's play area in the oven in East Berlin is my favorite.)
The second thing that always blows me away is Mitchell's performance as Hedwig. It's a character he created originally for the stage play of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, then translated it to screen as writer, director, and lead actor. He is remarkably talented as both actor and singer in the film, and his performance garnered a 2001 Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor. (He also won a Best Director award at Sundance, along with numerous other accolades.) I remember watching the Golden Globes that year, which I rarely do, and thinking, "Wow! That's fantastic that such a performance got the nomination, but there's no way in Hell he'll win." I was right, of course.
The third thing that always kicks my ass is the music. The music and lyrics were written by Stephen Trask after he and Mitchell met quite by accident on a plane. Trask received an Obie award for the play, as well as a Grammy nomination for the film. For the production of the film, the musicians prerecorded the music for the songs and synced along during filming. Vocals, however, were done almost entirely live on set, to create a true feel of live performance. I can listen to this soundtrack over and over and still get something new from it every time.
As so commonly happens these days, I'm always on the search for Alice-y things to write about. Watching the movie again, I was struck by how much Hedwig is like Alice. So I started looking for other similarities between the two stories. Turns out, there's a lot.
The story that's told in Hedwig doesn't unfold chronologically. A lot of what the audience sees happens somewhat in flashback, as Hedwig is telling her story during her performances. For the purposes of comparison, I'm breaking it down into a neater timeline. (I still suggest you go watch the movie. Duh!)
[The best way to view Hedwig and the Angry Inch is to watch the movie, about 90 minutes, then watch the documentary "Whether You Like It or Not: the Story of Hedwig", then watch the movie again. It's amazing to see what they did with a $6,000,000 budget and some divine inspiration.]
Hedwig is born Hansel Schmidt in pre-Wall Germany. He's the "slip of a girly boy" son of an American GI and an overbearing German mother, who flees to East Berlin as the Wall goes up, because, she says, it's better to be forever powerless than to be corrupted by your own power. Hansel grows up as flamboyantly as possible in this dark, austere environment.
"Our apartment was so small, that mother made me play in the oven. Late at night I would listen to the voices of the American masters, Tony Tennille, Debby Boone, Anne Murray who was actually a Canadian working in the American idiom. And then there were the crypto-homo rockers: Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, David Bowie who was actually an idiom working in America and Canada. These artists, they left as deep an impression on me as that oven rack did on my face. To be an American in muskrat love, soft as an easy chair not even the chair, I am I said, have I never been mellow? And the colored girls sing... doo do doo do doo do doo... but never with the melody. How could I do it better than Tony or Lou... HEY BOY, TAKE A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE!"
At the ripe age of 26, Hansel is sunbathing nude, surrounded by barbed wire and debris, when Sergeant Luther Robinson, stumbles upon Hansel and tells him that he's so pretty he must be a girl. Sergeant Luther plies Hansel with Gummy Bears, the brightly-colored, sweeter versions of the German Gummi Bears, then with other candy. They fall in love, and Luther wants to marry Hansel. To be able to get him out of East Germany, Hansel will have to prove he's a woman. Luther and Hansel's mom, Hedwig, hatch a plan to get a sex-change operation for Hansel, then to give the new her Hedwig's passport. "To be free," Mom-Hedwig says, "one must give up a part of oneself."
The operation goes horribly wrong. Hedwig's incision closes up, and she's left with the angry inch. Luther takes her to Junction City, Kansas, where he leaves her for another man on their first anniversary. Hedwig takes on odd jobs ("mostly the jobs we call blow") and babysitting to make ends meet.
While babysitting the infant son of a General from the nearby Army base, she meets the General's 17-year-old son, Tommy Speck. Tommy is instantly drawn to Hedwig and goes to see her perform at a local shop with her band, comprised entirely of Korean-born Army wives. Tommy and Hedwig begin a mostly one-sided sexual affair, but they also begin writing songs together for Tommy's burgeoning music career. Hedwig gives Tommy his new identity of Tommy Gnosis. Just as Tommy is finally beginning to accept the reality of what Hedwig is, he panics and leaves her. He goes on to become an internationally famous rock star, performing the songs Hedwig wrote.
Hedwig gets a new band, the Angry Inch, made up of Eastern European immigrants. She keeps all of their passports to keep them from leaving her. At some point she marries Yitzhak, played by Miriam Shore. (The juxtaposition of Shore soprano harmonies with Mitchell's tenor melodies is outstanding.) Yitzhak wants to be a woman, wants to be Hedwig in a lot of ways. He seems to love Hedwig even though he's scared of her, but he becomes more and more bitter about their relationship as the film progresses. He auditions for the part of Angel in a cruise ship performance of Rent, but Hedwig tears up his passport when he confronts her and tries to leave.
Hedwig hires a new manager, Phyllis Stein (Andrea Martin), and goes on a tour that shadows that of Tommy Gnosis. While Tommy plays huge arenas, Hedwig and the Angry Inch play at the neighboring Bilgewater's, a chain of family restaurants whose patrons are mostly offended and disgusted by Hedwig's show. She does develop a small following of loyal fans who surround her, wearing their own giant, yellow foam hair that mimics Hedwig's signature blond wig.
Hedwig has simultaneously filed a lawsuit against Tommy for stealing her songs. She tries to get close to Tommy ("You know how much I don't like that word, stalking"), to try to force him into admitting he stole her work. She becomes more and more irrational and bitter as her journey unfolds. One night, she reverts to working as a prostitute, and she is unexpectedly picked up in a limo by Tommy Gnosis. He eventually relents and apologizes for stealing her songs, which it turns out he never understood anyway. They argue and are in a car accident. The story becomes public, and the tables are turned.
Hedwig does her last real show, at the Times Square Bilgewater's, and goes fucking nuts. All the pressure and the drama and the strife culminate in this intense climactic performance where she violently rips off her drag while the crowd and the band are agape.
There's a sudden cut to an all-white room, everyone dressed in white, where Hedwig sings "Midnight Radio", a song of celebration of "all the misfits and the losers" of the world who are brought together by music through their own darknesses. Hedwig gives Yitzhak her wig, encouraging Yitzhak to go and be his dream. In the final moments, Hedwig is brought face-to-face with Tommy, alone on a dark stage, singing his version of "Wicked Little Town". Hedwig is now more Hansel in smeared make-up, having lost all of the female trappings. Hansel/Hedwig walks naked down a dark alley into the night. FADE OUT.
Okay, so back to this Alice analogy. We're working from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, being the original work from which all other Alices derive. The comparisons of Hedwig to Alice don't follow exactly in chronological order, either, between the movie and the book, so bear with me.
Hansel in East Berlin is a young Alice, playing in a world that bores her. He/she is distracted by the White Rabbit (Sergeant Luther) and follows him down the rabbit hole that is the crazy process of the sex change operation. Hansel is brave and reluctant about being with Luther, i.e. growing and shrinking, as he takes the brightly-colored Gummy Bears and the American candy bars. It's a total EAT ME/DRINK ME moment.
Hansel's mother Hedwig is the Mouse that Alice first encounters after she falls to the bottom of the hole. Alice has already been battling with the beginnings of the identity crisis, shrinking and growing to fit her round peg through the square door hole. She is huge and cries great, giant tears, then shrinks and is trapped in the pool.
"O Mouse, do you know the way out of this pool? I am very tired of swimming about here, O Mouse!" [snip] The Mouse looked at her rather inquisitively, and seemed to her to wink with one of its little eyes, but it said nothing.
The elder Hedwig responds similarly to Hansel. She's never understood her son and why he can't just assimilate into the East German culture and relinquish his power to the forces that are greater than he. She seems to recognize that Hansel is drowning and helps push him to the dry banks, i.e. across the Wall to America.
The bands, both the one comprised of the Korean wives and the Angry Inch, are the birds on the bank and the other random, talking animals in the story. Their actions may have some momentary significance, but they mostly pass through the time as extraneous decoration to Hedwig's journey. She may interact with them, but it's often more to show dimensions of Hedwig than it is to illustrate anything about the musician. Much like the Dodo, the Dormouse, the Eaglet, etc.
Sergeant Luther (the White Rabbit) takes Hedwig (Alice) to Junction City, Kansas, and abandons her a year later in a trailer park. The trailer park is one of my favorite analogies in this whole comparison. I debated whether it was like the tea party (which is really Bilgewater's in all of its incarnations) or maybe the Queen of Hearts' croquet ground. But no! There's a not-so-well remembered scene in Alice where the white rabbit goes looking for the Duchess' gloves. He sees Alice and mistakes her for his maid servant, Mary Ann, and sends her into the house to get the gloves. She goes inside, but she starts to grow and gets so big that she's stuck in the house. A crowd outside the house throws rocks at her, which turn into little cakes that Alice eats and shrinks back to her normal size.
The trailer is the White Rabbit/Luther's house. Luther mistakes Hansel for a woman originally, and then still expects Hedwig to be a woman, even though the operation was botched. Hedwig gets stuck inside, trapped under the weight of her situation and her own identity. One of the best scenes in Hedwig happens here, the "Wig in a Box" performance. She sings about how she gets sad, not fitting in, and puts on different wigs to be different selves. The confident energy becomes so overwhelming that the sides of the trailer burst open to let her muchness out into the night.
Yitzhak is the Hatter. In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the Hatter explains to Alice that he and the March Hare are always stuck in time, having tea, because it's how he escapes decapitation by the Queen of Hearts for singing. Yitzhak often tries to sing his own song, in his own way, and is silenced by Hedwig. He is perpetually stuck in the maddening role of Hedwig's emotional punching bag. He is always seen wearing a bandana or a wig, never a bare head.
Phyllis Stein is the Cheshire Cat. She appears kind of randomly to tease and advise Hedwig. There's actually a deleted scene in which Phyllis has a cell phone switch installed into the roof of her mouth. To make her phone work, she has to click her tongue over and over. It's very reminiscent of the grin.
Hedwig's public crusade and attack against Tommy's plagiarism is very much like the trial in the King's court. The jury/public knows really very little about the actual facts and can only make judgments based on the absurdities they glimpse from time to time. There's a very large public gathering in the final Bilgewater's scene, which erupts into utter chaos, just like the Knave's trial.
Tommy Gnosis is certainly the Knave of Hearts. The Knave is put on trial for stealing the tarts. Tommy is accused of stealing Hedwig's tarts: her songs. Like the Knave, Tommy never really has a good explanation for what happens.
That covers most of the major characters, except my favorite: the Blue Caterpillar. Because I love the name Absolem that Tim Burton later gives the Caterpillar, I'm sticking with that for now. Absolem is a tiny, wiggling thing that obscures Alice's vision with his smoke screen. He taunts her and teases her, then tries to lead her toward the truth of her own identity. He builds and destroys her confidence and challenges her sexuality with his own phallic little body.
Do you get where I'm going with this??
Hedwig is taunted and driven by the Inch, much as Alice is by Absolem. Both the Inch and Absolem control the relationship until the very end, when Hedwig and Alice respectively revolt against the madness surrounding them and wake from the crazy dreams they've been in.
And Hedwig certainly does wake. She becomes Hansel, reverting almost to his original form and state, though newly confident if unsteady.
Honestly, I was surprised by how many comparisons could be made between the two stories. Alice has been altered and changed and derived from so many times, that it's surprising when I see a new version of her. I have no idea if John Cameron Mitchell had any intention of having such parallels to Lewis Carroll. (I have searched online and found no reference to it anywhere.) Perhaps it works because Alice is so archetypical of the battle of the inner self with the outer perceptions.
No matter, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a masterful telling of one girl's struggle to really find herself in the midst of chaos and confusion and misunderstanding, all set to a kick-ass soundtrack. It's something every girl can relate to, as well as a few men I know. The added glittery glam and fanciness just make it that much better.