#16 — John Cameron Mitchell as Hedwig Robinson in Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, 2001)
It’s almost unfair to celebrate John Cameron Mitchell’s performance as a transgendered rock singer in the film version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. By the time the film was released, in 2001, Mitchell had been living with the character for years, at least as far back as a 1994 performance at the New York City club Squeezebox. Those early dalliances with the character and associated material can probably be viewed as a sort of workshopping that eventually led to the 1998 Off-Broadway debut of the musical version that endures, with songs written by Stephen Trask, a book by Mitchell, and the latter as the ferocious, vulnerable songstress. Though Mitchell has gone on to other projects (including directing Nicole Kidman to an Oscar nomination), Hedwig clearly has a powerful hold on him, with the occasional return to the material (sometimes in the company of legit pop stars) and the task of presiding over someone else pulling the wig out of the box for the show’s Broadway debut. The part truly belong to Mitchell.
All that typed out hemming and hawing doesn’t diminish the loveliness and potency of his acting in Hedwig. As conceived by Mitchell, Hedwig is a person entirely out of place, abused, seduced, and discarded in her youth, a pattern that recurs like the seasons. The injury added to the insult comes in the form of a botched sex change operation which leave her somewhere in between the state she was fleeing and the true sense of self she desired, a disappointment with a physical manifestation in the form of the enraged unit of measurement referenced in the title. This tragic disconnection shades the entire performance, with Hedwig operating from a place of melancholic disappointment, usually delivered with a sardonic grace. Hedwig is a survivor, but that doesn’t mean she feels good about it.
Mitchell played the role on stage many, many times, and he belts out the songs with the high emotion of a person filled a crowded theater space with the force of their tuneful will. He also astutely knows how to dial back his work to suit the camera’s closer scrutiny. Emotions play across his face like reflected light off the surface of an active, unpredictable stream. In particular, the portions of the story that revolve around Tommy Speck (Michael Pitt), the young man who catches Hedwig’s eye only to become the latest and most famous person to betray her, an action that involves adoption of the stage name Tommy Gnosis. This may not be the greatest turmoil of the soul Hedwig experiences, but in some ways it’s the most heartbreaking. Mitchell expertly delivers the tender feelings of the situation without ever resorting to maudlin posturing. In Mitchell’s careful rendering, its an emotional experience, not a emotive tour de force.
The tour de force arrives in the musical numbers. As the lyrics to “Wig in a Box” explain, Hedwig at her most triumphant feels herself transformed into “this punk rock star/ Of stage and screen.” The forcefulness of that genre is infused into each of the musical numbers, even when they’re down-tempo and quietly agonizing. There are stretches when it feels like Hedwig is an extended demonstration in all the different ways a showstopper can be delivered, from grandiose blast complete with sing-along to wistful rumination of potential mythologies proving the existence of soul mates. Across the whole range, Mitchell cracks the character open like a fragile statuette, giving every bit of her inner self to act of singing. They are expressions of self–conflicted self–as much as they’re songs, and Mitchell approaches them with the necessary gravity. He’s got a great singing voice, but it’s the fact that he acts through the songs that makes the difference, far more than his ability to hit the right notes. That’s ultimately more important. Mitchell knows that. It comes with his understanding of the role. He lived with it deeply.
About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh as Amy Archer in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei as Mona Lisa Vito in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte as Lionel Dobie in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton as Regina Lambert in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover as Simon in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams as Lisa Reisert in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell as H.G. Wells in Time After Time