John Cameron Mitchell Receives Provincetown's Filmmaker on the Edge Award

Mae Gammino / Provincetown International Film Festival
John Waters, left, and John Cameron Mitchell at the Provincetown International Film Festival

The 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' creator swapped stories with longtime festival ambassador John Waters, summing up his philosophy for our times as "Woke without empathy is death."

John Cameron Mitchell on Saturday joined the boundary-breaking ranks of iconoclasts and innovators who have received the Provincetown International Film Festival's Filmmaker on the Edge Award, reflecting on a fearless artistic path that began with him playing the Virgin Mary in a Scottish Benedictine boys boarding school at age 11.

That unlikely launch pad to a career of more than 25 years as an actor, cult indie director and queer folk hero surfaced during a characteristically unfiltered onstage interview conducted by unofficial festival godfather John Waters, who is kicking of his 55th summer in Provincetown, MA.

Mitchell was one of three key honorees at the Cape Cod event's 21st edition. Judith Light received the Excellence in Acting Award, inspiring audiences not just with her career achievements but with a heartfelt reaffirmation of her decades-long activism for LGBTQ rights and the fight against HIV/AIDS. (Full disclosure: I moderated that conversation.) And Jillian Bell, who stars in Provincetown opening night film, Paul Downs Colaizzo's Brittany Runs a Marathon, received the Next Wave Award.

The Provincetown festival's inaugural Filmmaker on the Edge award went to Waters himself in 1999, and the annual honor has since been presented to such mavericks as Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, Jim Jarmusch, Gregg Araki, Todd Solondz, Quentin Tarantino, Darren Aronofsky, Roger Corman, Harmony Korine, David Cronenberg, Ang Lee, Sofia Coppola and Sean Baker, among others.

Speaking of Mitchell's defining creation, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, in relation to his own most regenerative success, Waters said: "Hedwig, his alter ego, has been reborn more times than Hairspray, and he seems at ease in Hollywood, Broadway and the underground. Talk about reinventing himself constantly, he's also an actor, a deejay, a producer, a songwriter, a podcast creator, a music video director and one of the best independent cinema directors in the world. But he’s also a Radical Faerie, and I mean that in the political sense."

Waters asked Mitchell about his first acting roles, following that auspicious beginning of being the boy soprano chosen to play the mother of Jesus.

"I didn't really get to act because the military schools and small Catholic schools I went to had very little theater," recalled Mitchell. "My first real play was junior year in Albuquerque at St. Pius X. The crypto-lesbian drama teacher cast me and changed my life in my first play, which was The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter."

Mitchell studied theater at Northwestern University and began getting professional roles while still in college, including being cast in John Hughes' The Breakfast Club, though he didn't end up doing the film.

"I wasn't getting laid, but I was working. I was getting parts, I wasn't getting the part I wanted," deadpanned Mitchell, whose early stage credits include the original productions of Six Degrees of Separation, The Secret Garden and The Destiny of Me, Larry Kramer's sequel to The Normal Heart.

The turning point in his career came when he created the role of Hedwig, the East German rock singer with the botched gender reassignment surgery, whose ex-lover stole her songs. Mitchell performed the show first at legendary 1990s New York gay punk club SqueezeBox!, where Hedwig composer Stephen Trask fronted the house band.

Waters asked whether it would even be possible to create a work like Hedwig and the Angry Inch today, with all the heightened sensitivity around trans representation.

"The rules have changed, but I never thought of Hedwig as trans, because of the coercion involved," explained Mitchell. "It's possible that the boy was quite comfortable being the feminine gay boy that he was, and he was in a way forced into a kind of mutilation. There was no choice, there was no agency. It was the patriarchy saying, 'You gotta do this or that, to be married, to get out, to be free.'"

"Many trans, nonbinary queer or straight people have said it felt activating for them at a certain age,” he added. "It's a freeing thing. It's a metaphor, a fairy tale. And on stage, it's played by all genders. It's a mask. Drag is a mask that you put on, and it's more about drag than a trans thing. So to me, the self-invention comes after the forced sex change."

Mitchell described his indelible association with that role as being "like an ex-wife that I love, and I'm glad we're apart." He is, however, currently revisiting the show in a "Making of Hedwig" concert tour, telling stories and singing songs with a backup band, to raise money for his ailing mother's health care.

Waters coaxed Mitchell through recollections of making the 1998 movie of Hedwig; his explicit 2006 exploration of the sexual relationships of a group of New Yorkers, Shortbus, which he suspects would be impossible to finance today; his 2010 film of the Pulitzer-winning play about parental grief, Rabbit Hole, for which he was recruited by star Nicole Kidman; and his 2017 punk sci-fi Neil Gaiman adaptation, How to Talk to Girls at Parties, which starred Elle Fanning as a rebellious alien alongside Kidman, Alex Sharp and Ruth Wilson.

Among Mitchell's more entertaining stories was an account of going into an acquisition meeting with Lionsgate at the Toronto Film Festival for Rabbit Hole, which was sprung on him by his producers only after he had dropped MDMA.

"I got in the cab and the Somali cab driver's story was so moving," recalled Mitchell. "And I said, 'God bless you for bringing your family here!' I got to the hotel for the meeting and we were embracing, the cab driver and I, and the producers were looking at me, and then it finally kicked in and I said, 'Let's do this.'"

"They were supposed to be in charge of making the deal, but I waltzed into this private dining room with 10 people from Lionsgate," continued Mitchell. "They were talking about an Oscar campaign and a minimum guarantee, and I said, 'Let's not talk about money. I'd like to know what each of the 10 of you felt when you saw this movie, and that means you, the assistant.' And the producers were going, 'What is he doing, he's fucking it up, we don't want to have to go with the fucking Weinsteins.' But by the end we were all crying, and we got the best deal we've ever gotten for a film."

Mitchell and Waters compared their worst reviews. Regarding the fairly brutal critical response generated by How to Talk to Girls at Parties, Mitchell said, "Those things you treasure later. I learned not to read reviews or box office for at least six months because you're too tender. But my favorite review was someone at the BBC who said it was the worst film ever made. So if you're going to be bad, you want to be the worst."

The two filmmakers discussed constantly needing to reinvent themselves and Mitchell talked about balancing work driven by financial needs with doing the things he cares about.

His major current project is the ambitious 10-episode musical podcast Anthem: Homunculus, in which he debuts as a songwriter, with a starry cast that includes Glenn Close, Cynthia Erivo, Marion Cotillard, Denis O'Hare and Patti LuPone. He's also appearing on Hulu's Shrill, starring Aidy Bryant.

"I play the gay villain on two shows this year, Shrill and The Good Fight, and it's a testament to how far we've come, John," said Mitchell. "For so long the queer guy was always the villain or the sad victim, and now things have gotten so much better that we can safely be the villain again."

Mitchell closed by speaking eloquently about how being a queer artist has informed his work.

"Interestingly, queer people and other outsiders understand metaphor at five years old," he said. "You understand that there's a surface of something and then its true nature when you're different, and that's why we go into the arts, because we understand masks, we understand metaphor and simile, and we understand camp. There's a beauty in that shared humor for outsiders, because there's a power above that you skewer and make fun of. You take the insults, you make them your own and empower them again."

"In the end, your empathy part of your brain is developed," he added. "Everyone is capable of empathy, but when you're part of the ruling party, there's a punishing literalness. That's why I get upset when from the left you get too many political correctness rules, leaning toward censorship. Of course they come from true grievances, and people want to fix things. We all want to fix things so fast. Good things are happening, but when you start mimicking your oppressor, you start limiting again. That goes against what we're given as outsiders, which is a great view of empathy, because woke without empathy is death. It's nothing."

The Provincetown festival wrapped Sunday, with HBO Audience Awards going for best narrative feature to Official Secrets, director Gavin Hood's thriller about British whistle-blower Katharine Gun's ordeal after leaking information on illegal NSA spying in the run-up to the Iraq War, starring Keira Knightley; and for documentary feature to Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, a poignant tribute to the singer's life and career.

The John Schlesinger Awards for first-time directors went, for narrative feature, to Carlo Mirabella-Davis' Swallow, a domestic thriller about a pregnant woman losing control of her life via a dangerous disorder; and for documentary feature, to Gay Chorus Deep South, David Charles Rodrigues' chronicle of the 300-member San Francisco men's singing group's bus tour to confront the resurgence of faith-based anti-LGBTQ laws.

Dates for the 22nd Provincetown International Film Festival have been set for June 17-21, 2020.