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Screen test
Hedwig makes it as a movie

BY JEFFREY GANTZ


Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Written and directed by John Cameron Mitchell. With Mitchell, Miriam Shor, Michael Pitt, Maurice Dean Wint, Andrea Martin, Stephen Trask, Theodore Liscinski, Rob Campbell, and Michael Aronov. A Fine Line Features release. At the Harvard Square and the Coolidge Corner and in the suburbs.

You got your rock musicals, and then you got your rock musicals based on Plato and global politics. Hedwig and the Angry Inch falls into the second group. The brainchild of actor John Cameron Mitchell and composer Stephen Trask, this 1997 Off Broadway hit draws on the Symposium and the Berlin Wall for its metaphor of souls that have been divided and are trying to reunite. (Plato posits souls that were originally complete before Zeus split them out of fear that humankind would grow too powerful.) It ran in Boston, at the Stuart Street Theatre, for just a couple months in the fall of 1999. This new cinematic version, which in February won the Teddy Bear for best gay entry at the Berlin Film Festival, opens up the musical; whereas on stage Hedwig merely narrates her story with the help of her back-up group, here the flashbacks are visual, taking us from East Berlin to Kansas and then on tour with the band. The theater production’s cult following will love the movie; how far it goes beyond that will depend on your reaction to John Cameron Mitchell’s screen persona.

The plot is bizarre but not very complicated. Twenty-seven-year-old Hansel Schmidt is living with his mother in drab East Berlin when American GI Luther Robinson spots him sunbathing naked. Undaunted at discovering he’s a boy, Luther wants to marry Hansel, but the necessary operation is botched and he’s left with " an angry inch. " The wedding takes place all the same; Luther and Hansel — now Hedwig — wind up in Kansas, where Luther leaves her. Having grown up on Armed Forces Radio, Hedwig starts her own rock band; 17-year-old fan Tommy Speck — whom she renames Tommy Gnosis — becomes her protégé and bandmate, but when confronted with her anatomy, he bolts and goes on to be a megastar on his own. The film follows Hedwig as she and her band the Angry Inch follow Tommy from Kansas City to St. Louis to Chicago to Miami Beach to Baltimore, he in stadium venues, the Inch in a seafood-restaurant franchise called Bilgewater’s, where they play to a handful of patrons. Hedwig wants Tommy to acknowledge her; she wants his fame, his money, his love. Most of all she wants the other half of herself.

The film version of all this sacrifices the intimacy and spontaneity of the stage show but compensates with its characterizations: Maurice Dean Wint as unctuous loverman/sugar daddy Luther; Michael Pitt as seduced (by the industry, not Hedwig) innocent Tommy; Andrea Martin as an earnest agent who can’t deliver; Miriam Shor as Hedwig’s back-up singer and second husband, Yitzhak, who keeps trying on her wigs. The shots of those Bilgewater gigs make it clear, as the stage show cannot, how pathetic the Angry Inch’s " tour " is. And there are hilarious magazine-cover shots: Tommy as Rolling Stone’s " Artist of the Year " ; Hedwig adorning Time Out New York.

What’s especially poignant here is the way everything underlines Hedwig’s gender and wholeness uncertainty. Luther wants Hansel to be a girl, but he leaves her for a boy. Hedwig is played by a man, Yitzhak by a woman. The film isn’t explicit about the kind of sex (M. Butterfly?) that Hedwig and Tommy have — it doesn’t even get down to whether we should think of Hedwig as a guy or a gal. Hedwig isn’t about being a transsexual or a transvestite; it’s about transcendence, about breaking through the barriers of individual isolation.

But that’s where stage show and film both come up an angry inch short. After facing off with Tommy and accepting his rejection, Hedwig realizes that she created Tommy Gnosis, she can be Tommy Gnosis, she’s a complete human being, not half of one. This epiphany evolves in the course of the four songs that make up the finale, but it’s not dramatized; in " Midnight Radio, " Hedwig simply declares, " From your heart to your brain/Know that you’re whole, " and goes on to declare herself a star. For me, too, Mitchell is more affecting as a Dietrich-like chanteuse looking for love; as a rocker he’s just one more shouter. But his presence carries this film. The look Hedwig gives Tommy when they first meet goes deeper than sex. And if the connection she makes with the rock audience seems forced, the connection Mitchell makes with his audience is real.

Issue Date: August 2-9, 2001