Hedwig and the Angry Inch The people behind the cult queer film

Polaroids on original set by Arianne Phillips.
Polaroids on original set by Arianne Phillips.
WordsDino Bonacic

In the 20 years since its release, the legendary and revolutionary queer movie Hedwig and the Angry Inch has garnered global notoriety and a dedicated fanbase with a passion that could rival that of Trekkies, Warsies and Thronies. Writer Dino Bonačić meets the fans and the creatives behind the film to tell the story of this glorious cinematic triumph.

2001 was a big year for film. The first title in the Harry Potter series had its premiere. So did ShrekOcean’s Eleven and the first Lord of the Rings, all grossing millions of dollars in their respective releases. But it wasn’t all about the blockbusters. One raw, powerful story of identity and self-acceptance made its cinematic debut that same year, opening a new chapter in the legacy of queer narratives on screen. Please welcome to the stage, Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

The film tells the story of Hansel Schmidt, a young gay man growing up in a dysfunctional family in East Germany, struggling with his identity and dreaming of being a rock star. While looking for a way out, Hansel meets and falls in love with American soldier Luther. In order for them to legally marry and move to the USA, Hansel’s mother and fiancé push Hansel to change gender, go through sex-change surgery and become Hedwig. But the botched surgery leaves our protagonist with an “Angry Inch” and on their first wedding anniversary, Hedwig is dumped in Kansas for a younger man. The character then discovers the art of drag as a survival method while figuring out their gender identity. Finally, Hedwig goes through another transformation and accepts themselves as they are.

Famously, the two brains behind Hedwig met on a plane from Los Angeles to New York around 1989-90. At the time, Stephen Trask was the music director of notorious New York City night spot Squeezebox, while John Cameron Mitchell was an accomplished theater and film actor, as well as a patron of said club. The creative connection brewed for years under the neon lights of the rock’n’roll drag club before solidifying into a half-hour club performance which, as John notes, was a prototype of the stage musical that followed.

“I wanted to create a piece that had the energy of real rock’n’roll and real punk in the theater with a true narrative, which I hadn’t quite seen yet,” remembers John, who was responsible for the script as well as embodying the titular role in the original off-Broadway staging in 1998 and the film adaptation. “I’d seen great rock’n’roll or theater with great songs but the narrative didn’t work...We wanted to make a hybrid.” Stephen composed the music and wrote the lyrics, taking inspiration from stars such as David Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop combined with an eclectic selection of genres.

To understand the audacity of turning a musical like Hedwig and the Angry Inch into a film is to understand the state of the film industry in the 1990s. Until that point, there weren’t many mainstream films that put an LGBTQIA+ person in the central narrative. Even fewer took that person seriously, and only the smallest number actually had openly queer actors playing those roles. In 1930s Hollywood, the Hays Code was introduced amid a national fight against immorality. The code was a self-censorship tool which prevented numerous storylines including the depiction of homosexuality. By the 1960s, this rule had loosened up and the film industry slowly started to acknowledge the presence of queerness.

Obviously, there were films that paved the way for HedwigThe Rocky Horror Picture Show of 1975 explored gender expression in the musical context, while 1994’s The Adventures of PriscillaThe Queen of the Desert, 1995’s To Wong Foo Thanks for EverythingJulie Newmar and 1996’s The Birdcage put drag on the map long before the phenomenon of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Filmmaker John Waters broke all the rules through his work with his Dreamlanders troupe (led by legendary performer Divine) even though he mostly worked with a minimal budget. Pedro Almodóvar’s 1987 feature Law of Desire was the director’s first story that revolved around a homosexual relationship. In the late 1980s and early 90s, the AIDS crisis became one of the central topics in the world of film as the illness became synonymous with queer identities. Films like PhiladelphiaAnd the Band Played On and Jeffrey come to mind, all mainly exploring cis-gender gay characters in the context of AIDS.

For most films pre-dating John Cameron Mitchell’s directorial debut, queer lives were either a source of tragedy or ridicule. But with Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the complexities of being queer are expressed through a range of emotions – both positive and negative – which results in multi-dimensional characters and a strong plot. When it was released, Hedwig was as much of a surreal presence in the film industry as its main character was when singing about a botched sex change in a seafood chain restaurant in middle America.

“It’s DIY on a budget,” says the Oscar-nominated Arianne Phillips who was behind the costumes for the 2014 Broadway debut and the film. Roughly basing the aesthetic on John’s childhood babysitter Helga, who was also a sex worker, Arianne created wild and colorful costumes by cutting up thrifted garments and objects from her personal archives, then upcycling them into fantastical creations that expressed the process of Hedwig’s evolution. It’s what Arianne describes as “method costuming”, most notably expressed in one of the final moments of the film where Hedwig rips off a mini corset dress constructed out of clear plastic bags.

In the 20 years since its release, Hedwig and the Angry Inch has garnered global notoriety and a dedicated fanbase with a passion that could rival that of Trekkies, Warsies and Thronies. They are called Hedheads and they profess their love by wearing yellow foam wigs, lip-syncing to Origin of Love and discussing the various plotlines on Tumblr and Reddit. Some of them have even created their own Hedwig podcasts. One of the most well-known Hedheads is Jonfen, who first saw the film when they were 17 on the recommendation of a friend. In their podcast Hedwig: Inch by Angry Inch, Jonfen dedicates 22 episodes to a fine-tooth comb exploration of the film. “It was the first time I’d ever really encountered non-binary identities, although that term is not used in the film,” Jonfen says. “I instantly clicked with this and it made a whole lot about myself make sense.”

One of Jonfen’s guests was Lucia Blayke, the founder of London Trans Pride and the director of the UK’s first LGBTQ+ strip night Harpies. She discovered Hedwig via her grandparents and notes how instrumental its story has been in her personal journey. “I think it definitely gave me a motive or approval to be punk in my transness,” she says. “Even Hedwig’s gender reassignment is inherently unconventional. I’m a trans woman, but in a messy and chaotic way. That’s where I find my brilliance, I think.”

But, as with many groundbreaking characters, Hedwig didn’t come without their problematic features. The film and the numerous global theater productions have recently been under fire for casting cis-gender men in the title role. A 2020 Australian staging was even postponed after an intense backlash, resulting in John and Stephen releasing a statement to defend their choices by explaining that Hedwig isn’t trans, because the character was coerced into surgery, rather than choosing it. If Hedwig lived today, what pronouns would they choose? “I think Hedwig would eschew pronouns,” says John. “You’re yourself, you’re a gender of one. When you’re sitting around with your friends, you don’t think about sexuality or gender. You just get on with it. And ultimately, that’s the goal [in life].”

Some, like musician, author and drag performer Tom/Crystal Rasmussen, argue that it’s the imperfections that give the film its value. “[The film] reminds me still to be bold: formally, politically, sexually, emotionally,” they say. “It serves as a reminder that boldness and failure are key elements in queer work. Assimilation or assimilatory content or work can only produce half of the picture.” They note that queerness in itself is complicated and is born out of breaking away from comfort and normality. “Hedwig is doing that for us on screen. It’s also complex because it’s a cis gay rendering of a trans experience, and in that distance lies a lot of misrepresentation. So the messiness, the punkness of the queer character is something I wish we saw more of.”

In her essay Hedwig and the Angry Inch: Trans Icon or Problematic Disaster?, writer Harmony M. Colangelo explains how some of the film’s core issues come from Hedwig’s extremely flawed character. “Representation certainly isn’t the be-all, end-all but I think the backlash towards Hedwig stems from a desire to see queer people and specifically trans people – or those perceived as trans – as a model minority,” she notes. And this is where a lot of both frustration and pride with Hedwig comes from today. While the film exists in a timeline of its own and features a universal story of accepting yourself as your other half, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is only one queer experience. Yes, it was progressive for its time in the way it dealt with queerness, but it’s important to acknowledge it was singular in its approach to race. The main characters were portrayed by white actors, with the exception of the sugar daddy who broke Hedwig’s heart.

While more inclusive LGBTQIA+ storylines have surfaced in recent media, there is still a long way to go. There were zero transgender characters in the 44 major studio films released in 2020 – for the third year in a row, according to the latest annual report on inclusivity and representation in media from GLAAD, a pro-acceptance US NGO. So though highly imperfect, Hedwig’s path of consistently fighting failure remains one of the truest expressions of queerness on the silver screen. As John notes himself, television has become more progressive thanks to the opportunities of streaming, taking the torch from independent cinema that led the way in the Noughties. “It’s shows like Pose and Veneno, both contemporary series about being trans women that show us in our true reflection, for every crack and flaw,” Lucia says. “A lot of us are angry, warped people because of our trauma and pain.”

But whether you are unable to watch Hedwig and the Angry Inch like Harmony or you have seen it every day for a month like Jonfen, it’s undeniable that the film’s complex legacy feels just as poignant today as it did in 2001. Perhaps its themes feel even more important in the queer environment of 2021? As Rasmussen puts it, “So much of what we see is simply heterosexual pandering for the good of the company creating the platform so they can fill out a diversity form...I can learn more about my edges and my queerness from Hedwig than from an IKEA sofa in the colors of the non-binary flag. And very often that’s learning what’s problematic, what’s different now and why something is bad. It’s valuable.”