A scene from the film version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch
A scene from the film version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch
If you'd never heard of Hedwig before this summer, you've probably heard of her by now. America's favorite, not-quite-post-op transsexual graced the storefront window of Barney's New York earlier this month, leaving Madison Avenue attorneys and business people to wonder what had happened to their favorite suit store. On July 20, the display moved to Barney's L.A. branch just in time for the premiere of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the film adaptation of the Off-Broadway cult hit.

As did the stage show, the film follows the life of Hansel, an East Berlin boy who flees to the States with Luther--an American G.I.--as his passport. In order to marry the American, Hansel must pass a physical examination proving that he's a woman. (As Luther puts it: "To be free, you have to leave something behind.") Goaded by his mother, the boy visits a seedy surgeon who, in a botched operation, attempts to remove Hansel's member but leaves him with one "angry inch." Hansel somehow passes the physical anyway, then changes his name to Hedwig to complete his U.S. identity.

Does this sound remotely like prepackaged material for a Disney epic? That was more or less the opinion of the Village Voice's review of the film, titled "Return of the Repressed." The writer charged that Hedwig avoided serious insight into transsexuality and copped-out on full-frontal nudity. So, has Hedwig really turned toward the more mainstream in its screen adaptation?

If "mainstream" means "widely accepted," the signs point to "yes." The movie was a runaway hit at the Sundance Film Festival, winning not only Best Director honors for John Cameron Mitchell--who also stars as Hedwig, as he did Off-Broadway--but an Audience Award as well. PBS interviewed the filmmakers for its gay-themed series In the Life. The Barney's window display will spread to its Chicago and Seattle branches in August. (If that isn't a mainstream endorsement, what is?) And, in its original stage form, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is currently rocking Chicago. With the exception of the Voice slam, the Hedwig movie received almost unilateral approval from the critics. For example, The New York Times raved that the film is "clever, funny, [and] wildly innovative," while Spin described it as a "midnight movie classic in the making."

Hed fever has spread far and wide since the early days when Mitchell presented the character as a novelty act at Squeezebox, a gay club in Manhattan's West Village. Although Hedwig has kept its loyal, queer following, fans now include devotees of the American musical, indie film buffs, PBS' "viewers like you," and, evidently, guys in three-piece suits. Mitchell seems headed full-steam toward his goal for the movie, as he phrased it in an HX interview, to "be accepted as broadly as possible."

But, again: Has Mitchell watered-down Hedwig for the masses? Judge for yourself. The movie contains a scene in which Hedwig takes a break from her babysitting duties to pleasure her boyfriend, Tommy Gnosis, in a bathtub, leaving Tommy with a business card from her prostitution days. (She describes her former career as "the job we call 'blow.' ") Gnosis eventually steals Hedwig's songs and becomes a rock star, prompting another radio-friendly sound byte from our heroine: "From this milkless tit you have sucked the business we call 'show.' " Although the rhymes may recall Dr. Seuss, the sexual content does not.

John Cameron Mitchell as Hedwig
John Cameron Mitchell as Hedwig
Had Mitchell heeded the Voice's call for full-frontal nudity, he would not only have had a prosthetic nightmare on his hands but would also have ruined one of the movie's ongoing jokes. When pre-op Hansel talks to Luther about his "bishop in a turtleneck," the camera cuts to his crotch, decorated with a sock puppet. Hedwig performs the closing number, "Midnight Radio," in skin-tight spandex that suggests the character's sex change. And, in the film's closing image, we see Hedwig from behind, walking the New York City streets in her birthday suit.

Rest assured, the movie of Hedwig is even less likely than the stage musical to gain a seal of approval from the Christian Coalition. Both the original cast album and the soundtrack CD have parental advisory warnings emblazoned on their covers. Certain lines in the film are sure to enrage the Religious Right: When little Hansel tells his mother that "Jesus died for our sins," the mother snaps, "So did Hitler!" When Tommy asks Hedwig, "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Savior," her smirking reply is, "No, but I'm a fan of his work."

It should be pointed out that Hedwig--not unlike the The Producers--is an equal-opportunity offender. The movie contains a non-PC dig at feminist music as Hedwig tours "the Menses Festival," a parody of Lilith Fair. We are also invited to laugh at an introverted, Goth kid who attends a Hedwig performance and at a Hasidic Jew who solicits transsexual prostitutes. Fans of Rent will be upset to hear that Hedwig makes fun of that show by having one of Hedwig's band members, Yitzhak, try out for a fictitious production of the Jonathan Larson musical on a cruise ship.

In the HX interview, John Cameron Mitchell quipped: "I think the film will probably make a lot of people want to do [the show]. I hope they do it in their high schools and their nursing homes and on cruise ships." When all PTAs disband, Gen-X turns geriatric, and travel agents really loosen up, Mitchell may get his wish. Until that time, fans must look to the professional stage and screen if they want to "Get Hed."

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[For more information, check out the Hedwig website at www.get-hed.com]