The diva rushes her entrance, walking through a dark alley past clumps of people. A pair of massive scarlet-framed sunglasses conceal half her face, and her voluminous blonde wig rolls past her shoulders onto her denim mini-dress. She tosses aside her pink umbrella and pushes open the back door to a chain seafood restaurant: her performance space. The diva, by definition, surpasses her surroundings. Her towering presence commands attention, and everything else fades away.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the 2001 film directed, written by, and starring John Cameron Mitchell, adapted from his 1998 musical, has amassed a reputation that stretches beyond cult success—it has been lionized for its transgressive queerness, punk ethos, and expert performances. It has somewhat less frequently been discussed in the broader canon of film musicals. This is understandable: In tone, structure, and content, Hedwig diverges sharply from, say, Singin’ in the Rain or Meet Me in St. Louis. But Hedwig is keenly aware of musical structure and tropes, and I’ve found that I cannot separate Hedwig from a particular subgenre: the diva musical. The diva, stemming from operatic tradition, is a well-established archetype in musical theatre and film. The diva character, always a woman, dominates the musical narratively and performatively. The character dictates the action, bends the plot to her will, and gives the performer a multitude of opportunities to display their vocal power. Hedwig, the character, fulfills the diva’s propulsive narrative functions, and Mitchell performs the role with the virtuosic intensity required. But Hedwig stretches beyond simply representing the archetype. With a narrative that explicitly portrays Hedwig’s gender as a conscious construction and a finale that questions the purpose of individual stardom, Hedwig and the Angry Inch enacts a transgressive, queer divadom.
For a viewer, the pleasure of watching a diva musical lies in this central performance: Beyond appreciating a character or performance at a critical distance, we can become transfixed by a diva’s magnetic charisma and skill. In her journal article “Embracing excess: The queer feminist power of musical theatre diva roles,” Michelle Dvoskin points to a feminist read of this pleasure, writing that “divas require us to see and hear women as women; divas are unmistakably female, even as these roles also exceed and in some cases refute certain core ideas of western femininity.” Dvoskin points out the diva’s duality: The diva’s power is rooted in her womanhood, yet her boldness and dominance subvert ideas of feminine passivity. D.A. Miller, in his book-length analysis of gay male cathexis to Broadway musicals, Place for Us: Essay on the Broadway Musical, takes this argument a step further by arguing that the musical is a space where women are virtually required to upstage men. He writes that women “represent the stage,” while men merely “enhance” the women’s showcase—meaning that the diva maintains supremacy over the stage musical.
Miller’s line of thought extends to many film musicals. While male performers like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire have earned legendary reputations, the musical film has still historically been a form that encourages gloriously excessive diva performance. Dvoskin has written that divas “exceed the frame” of a musical, a metaphor that becomes literalized when applied to film: When Liza Minnelli performs “Mein Herr” in 1972’s Cabaret, for instance, she might as well be bursting through the screen. If anything, film heightens diva performance due to the camera’s ability to focus the frame on individual performers; the performer’s blazing intensity is magnified when seen in close-up. If a film is devoted to a diva, the viewer literally cannot look away.
Our diva, Hedwig, is both a triumphant culmination and queer subversion of the cinematic and theatrical diva tradition. The film’s narrative structure shows each step of her journey—her nascent otherness in childhood, her deliberate construction of a persona, a series of bombastic performances, and a breakdown from which a new Hedwig rises from the ashes. Hedwig was born in East Berlin as Hansel Schmidt, and since childhood, has endeavored to find her “other half.” As a young adult, she falls for a G.I.-cum–sugar daddy named Luther (Maurice Dean Wint) and undergoes vaginoplasty to legally marry him and move to the United States. The operation is botched, leaving her with an “angry inch” between her legs. After Luther abruptly divorces her and leaves her in a Kansas trailer park, she embraces her newfound womanhood by crafting a dramatic feminine persona. In her search for connection, she romances teenage army brat Tommy Speck (Michael Pitt), whom she re-christens Tommy Gnosis. Her and Tommy begin writing songs together and become successful musicians locally, but Tommy abandons her in shock and confusion upon realizing her absence of genitalia. Tommy steals her songs and becomes a rock star, and Hedwig, embittered, recruits a band (named the Angry Inch) and embarks on a low-budget tour, trailing Tommy’s own tour stops. Irascible and vindictive of her bandmates, particularly her new husband, Yitzhak (Miriam Shor), she is eventually abandoned by them, too. After a chance encounter with Tommy that ends in a highly publicized limousine crash, Hedwig gains notoriety but feels emptiness—she’s come no closer to finding her “other half.” In a climactic suite of songs, Hedwig self-destructs and stitches herself back together. She ultimately strips herself of her carefully maintained persona and walks off into the night, having finally found wholeness within herself.
This story is told primarily in past tense: As Hedwig’s tour unfolds, she recounts the events of her life through songs and anecdotes, which are then enacted in flashback. A narrative develops of constant rejection and gritty self-reliance: Hedwig, discarded repeatedly since childhood, crafted her divadom through sheer force of will. We see the results in the film’s first song, “Tear Me Down.” She performs punk defiance and camp glamour for bewildered audiences, announcing her power with a challenge: “Don’t you know me?/ I’m the new Berlin Wall, baby/ Try and tear me down!” While some suburbanites avert their eyes, a few diehard fans cheer for her. The divisions in her audience indicate the power of her performance. Enacting an audaciously queer performance style through confrontational sexuality and campy humor, Hedwig acts as a magnet, attracting and repelling simultaneously.
Hedwig’s first performance echoes numerous other moments in diva-centric films. One of the most notable is Judy Garland’s performance of “The Man that Got Away” in the 1954 version of A Star Is Born, her emotive first solo number. Director George Cukor films Garland with reverence, keeping the lighting on her face luminous while her band recedes into the shadows. The attentive direction and performance train the viewer’s eye to Garland, and Mitchell uses the same techniques in Hedwig as both director and performer. In another sense, “Tear Me Down” echoes Gypsy, the 1962 adaptation of the legendary Broadway musical. In keeping with her self-asserted stardom, Hedwig represses any threats. At one point in the song, Yitzhak threatens to overpower her vocally. Hedwig clocks this and unplugs his microphone, drawing the attention back to her. Hedwig carries this attitude in her daily life as well—her glamorous persona and self-mythologizing are constant, as is her denigration of Yitzhak. Here, Hedwig brings to mind Gypsy’s protagonist, Mama Rose (Rosalind Russell), the ambitious stage mother who creates vaudeville acts to showcase her daughters and keep her close to show business. Rose relentlessly dominates her daughters, her performers, and her romantic partner, Herbie (Karl Malden), redirecting their will to her own. When Hedwig silences Yitzhak, she follows the tradition of Rose, who commands her daughter to “sing out!” and dictates to Herbie that he’ll “never get away” from their relationship.
In “Tear Me Down” alone, Hedwig’s divadom is apparent to any attentive audience member, both in her virtuosic performance and in her commanding personality. But the film’s flashback presentations allow the viewer to see the pivotal moments in Hedwig’s coming-of-age—and the most important moment in this process occurs in the song “Wig in a Box.”
Hedwig performs this song after Luther abandons her, running off with a young man. On the TV, Hedwig watches the Berlin Wall come down, rendering her move to the U.S. unnecessary. Despondent in a shabby wig, Hedwig sings of what brings her comfort:
I put on some make-up
And turn on the tape deck
And put the wig down on my head
Suddenly I’m Miss Midwest
Midnight Checkout Queen
Until I head home
And I put myself to bed
Hedwig’s performing femininity by putting on makeup and a wig allows her, at least temporarily, to adopt idealized presentations of womanhood. At this moment, Hedwig is “Miss Midnight Checkout Queen,” but she also names wigs reminiscent of celebrities Dorothy Hamill and Toni Tennille, whom Hedwig admired as a child. Here, lyricist Stephen Trask comments on Hedwig’s conscious performances of gender, with her wigs serving as metonyms for her shifting gendered identities.
Visually, Mitchell walks the viewer through the emergence of Hedwig-as-diva in “Wig in a Box.” In a commentary track with Mitchell and director of photography Frank G. DeMarco, DeMarco refers to this song as the “closest to a Hollywood production number” that there is in the film. In contrast to the diegetic songs performed by Hedwig in public venues, “Wig in a Box” is a personal rumination set to music, following the axiom that characters in musicals sing when speech can no longer contain the intensity of their emotions. One formal choice immediately indicates the “Hollywood” nature of the song: As Hedwig begins singing, the natural lighting shifts to a golden glow. As the tempo picks up and Hedwig gains confidence, her entire band walks in to accompany her. Crucially, they give her a makeover, too—when Hedwig looks in the mirror in dramatic makeup and a luxurious wig, she proclaims that she is “Miss Farrah Fawcett from TV.”
Mitchell then bursts open the frame of the song. As the bridge kicks in, we see the entire front wall of the trailer fall open, transforming the interior into a concert stage where Hedwig and her bandmates perform. A row of bulbs below illuminates their elaborate costumes, of which Hedwig’s is particularly dramatic: A straight blonde wig falls over her shoulders and down her back, and the same glossy hair is attached to her two-piece costume. Her gloves and thigh-high boots, both bright white, also have hair attachments. Hedwig’s attire has become one massive, perfectly coiffed wig. And if Hedwig’s wigs signify her emerging diva flair, then certainly this outfit, and her bombastic performance, solidify her newfound identity.
A notable lyrical shift occurs in this gleeful, flamboyant section of the song. Hedwig had previously framed her experiments with femininity as temporary distractions from her isolated life, eventually “turn[ing] back to [her]self.” At the song’s end, however, she makes a decisive statement: “Suddenly I’m this punk rock star of stage and screen/ And I ain’t never/ I’m never turning back”. Hedwig has become “Hedwig”—she has decided to become a “punk rock star.” The invocation of a “punk rock” wig reconciles Hedwig’s feminine gender experimentation with her long-standing interest in American rock musicians and the film’s own punk aesthetics. Hedwig, then, has become a full-fledged diva both lyrically and visually, and we watch her embrace her new identity in real time.
“Wig in a Box,” narratively, represents the birth of Hedwig’s persona, and also reaches an apex of Hedwig-as-star. While “Wig in a Box” and the film’s other musical numbers prime the viewer to adore and exult Hedwig, her eventual disintegration complicates her glorification.
After her highly publicized car crash with Tommy and her resultant ascendancy to celebrity (she appears on the cover of Time and on The Rosie O’Donnell Show), Hedwig decompensates live on stage. The externally shifting circumstances of her life at this point have not resolved her internal struggles—Tommy’s co-opting of her work without providing her credit or respect, her continual rejection from loved ones, and her insecurity and precarity masked by an egocentric persona—and she loses her ability to contain her pain when performing the song “Exquisite Corpse.” While singing of herself as a Frankenstein of stitched-together parts, Hedwig physically rejects the “whole” being she has created, frantically stripping herself onstage. In a sort of dream sequence following this song, now wearing only a pair of black shorts, Hedwig duets with Tommy in a reprise of the plaintive ballad “Wicked Little Town.” We see that Hedwig and Tommy look virtually the same, two parts of an unconstituted whole. Tommy begins to seem like a projection of Hedwig’s desires, a physical manifestation of the search for an “other half” (this is even more apparent in the stage version, where Hedwig and Tommy are played by the same actor and Hedwig adopts Tommy’s persona for the entirety of the song).
“Midnight Radio,” the power ballad closing out the film, sees Hedwig fully embracing an identity not tied to diva performance. The beginning shot of the song is a close-up on Hedwig’s face, revealing a glittering silver cross painted on her forehead—an insignia she had painted on Tommy that has now become part of his public image. When the camera zooms out, we see Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the band dressed in white and Hedwig wearing only a pair of black shorts. The performance space, too, is bright white with large photographs of sinking ships pasted on the walls behind them. The visual aesthetic for this song is notably distinct from Hedwig’s previous musical performances. The fluorescent white surroundings and Hedwig’s lack of dramatic attire indicate an uncharacteristic ambiguity and openness. If Hedwig performed a cultivated and maintained identity in her previous performances, then her comparative neutrality here indicates a willingness to let go of her premeditated persona.
Having stripped herself virtually nude, and merged physically and psychically with Tommy, Hedwig has dispensed with the two aspects of her life that she has previously clung to with ferocity: her own persona and her codependent attachments. It is apparent that her dysfunctional relationships are directly connected to her consuming isolation and need, but her onstage shift in identity suggests that her divadom has been a reaction to this same force—initially liberating, her persona defended her against reflection or the consequences of rejection. Hedwig passes on her wig to Yitzhak early in the song, which similarly suggests her evolution, as here she finally grants Yitzhak his divadom at the apparent expense of her own. (Yitzhak stage-dives after putting on the wig, when he spontaneously transforms into a glamorous woman.)
The lyrics of “Midnight Radio” put a snag in the argument that Hedwig refutes her divadom, as in the middle of the song, she runs through a list of the rock divas who have inspired her, then tags the verse with “and me.” If anything, Hedwig inflates her own status by associating herself with artists like Tina Turner and Patti Smith through a solo power ballad. But while Hedwig does not entirely discard her own divadom, she does let go of her performed persona and her need to steal the spotlight. It should also be said that Mitchell’s performance of this song is ferociously emotive, creating a true “diva performance” on the part of the actor as well as the character. So Hedwig is still a sort of diva, still commanding rapt attention through performance, but she relinquishes the constraints of traditional divadom: a consistent feminine gender expression and prioritization of individuality at the expense of all else.
A final lyrical and physical gesture at the close of “Midnight Radio” signifies Hedwig’s ultimate ethos. Hedwig invites the audience to “lift up your hands,” explicitly involving them in a performance that they have previously been observing. By initiating a collective action and receding from the spotlight, Hedwig associates herself with a broader community, becoming both performer and spectator.
This collective conclusion stands in stark contrast to previous diva films. Often, a diva will go out in an self-centered blaze of glory—see Cabaret, where Sally Bowles gives a stirring performance in the midst of a dissolving relationship, or Gypsy, where Mama Rose bemoans her unfulfilled desires in the tour-de-force “Rose’s Turn,” or any iteration of A Star Is Born, where the star at the film’s center becomes solitary after her partner and mentor’s untimely death. These form a pattern: The diva’s emotional life may be bottoming out, but she reaches a performative zenith. She is more than capable of transcending the dregs of her life, if only for a moment.
Hedwig’s expressed ethos, then, provides an alternative trajectory. She rids herself of the external trappings of divadom while still commanding an extravagant, emotive performance. She trades legible gender expression for a seemingly undefined, nonbinary identity, and she embraces a community and her loved ones instead of denigrating them. In effect, Hedwig queers divadom itself, stepping past subversions of gendered expectations into a rapturous ambiguity.
As Yitzhak steps into her femininity, we see a queer divadom of a different sort: Rather than casting aside her identity in favor of a physical and emotional nakedness, Yitzhak finds the liberation that Hedwig ultimately could not in a feminine diva persona. In the commentary track, Mitchell notes that the feminization of Yitzhak represents the “reveal of her true essence, off to her future, with the help of the wig.” While this appears to be an opposite trajectory to Hedwig, who uproots herself from gender, the motivation and effect are the same. Yitzhak had always strived toward stardom and womanhood, meticulously maintaining Hedwig’s wigs, and at one point, booking the drag role of Angel in a cruise ship production of Rent. Hedwig’s reaction to the news of Yitzhak’s new gig was to destroy his passport, a last-ditch effort at total control of Yitzhak and an absolute refutation of his claim to individual glory as a performer. By bestowing her wig, Hedwig relinquishes the predominant symbol of her own identity and grants Yitzhak the ability to embrace the core of his being. When Hedwig liberates herself of the influences that controlled her life’s trajectory—her mother, Luther, Tommy, a society that has never made space for her—she gains the capacity and self-awareness to liberate Yitzhak, whom she herself had rigorously controlled.
The intense pleasures of diva performance, the utter dominance of the screen and the excessiveness that compels the viewer’s gaze are fulfilled and then some by Hedwig and the Angry Inch—a multitude of angry, joyful, and melancholy songs are packed into the short runtime, and each carries a power transmitted with razor-sharp delivery by Mitchell. Yitzhak’s emergence only adds to this, a diva-on-the-rise exhibiting Miriam Shor’s vocal prowess and triumphantly reaching a glamorous apotheosis by the film’s conclusion. Hedwig takes a step beyond traditional divadom, which subverts misogynistic expectations of docility but hinges on an individualism where only a single exceptional person can thrive, by allowing for a flexibility of identity and a collective ethos. Hedwig is allowed to thrive in a communal sense as well as beyond the gender binary, and Yitzhak is finally able to claim her own divadom. Hedwig ultimately marks a queer intervention of the diva trope, basking in its pleasures while pushing on its limitations.
ROBERT STINNER is a freelance film and culture writer based in Pennsylvania, often writing about queer aesthetics and musicality. His work can be found in Bright Wall/Dark Room, Animus Magazine, Crooked Marquee, and Muhlenberg Academic Review.