Hats Off

Quite reasonably identified as one of “the 50 most beautiful people in New York” three years ago, when she was 90, Mimi Weddell has enjoyed a distinguished (if not famous) career as an actor, a character and a muse. She is someone who knows how to give the camera what it wants, and in Hats Off, Bay Area filmmaker Jyll Johnstone gently wonders how she knows.

Weddell, whose headshot might be in the dictionary under “a class act,” didn’t really get started as a public persona until she was 65, but apparently she’s anything but a dawdler. “Doesn’t time go really fast?” she says of her own drive. “It’s moment by moment by moment and you’ve got to grab it.”

She hustles, all right, sometimes enduring 14-hour days of cattle-call auditions, often all for naught. “I rarely get calls for little old ladies,” says one casting director who has worked with Weddell, “‘cause that’s not what the world is about anymore.”

Which must be why it’s so satisfying to see that, in the tradition of Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s Ballets Russes documentary, Johnstone’s film has a wise, sly way of telling the commercially youth-obsessed entertainment industry to kiss off. A few spots of generically jazzy stock soundtrack music notwithstanding, Hats Off doesn’t patronize its subject or its audience.

Instead, it delights, with judicious selections from the Mimi Weddell highlight reel: out for blood in Dracula’s Last Rites, dozing off at the Nicholson-Streep wedding in Heartburn; stealing brief scenes in Law & Order, just doing it at the gym in a Nike commercial, and more. It must be said that Weddell’s gymnastic skills do impress–not because she’s old, but because she also seems to smoke like a madwoman.

The nutshell meaning of Weddell’s “rise above it” mantra: Try not to stay in bed too much and, as you age, you’ll tend to dwell less on life’s misery. Works for her, most of the time.

“If you don’t dance, for heaven’s sake, you can not aspire; you do not lift up from this earth,” she says. To which her daughter Sarah responds, “Baloney. Yeah, talk to me when you have to pay the phone bill and you can’t figure out how to do it. Talk to the earthbound girl.”

So there’s that, too. What really gets Hats Off past the potential for greeting card platitudes is its kind but clear-eyed appraisal of poignant family dynamics. Witness the telling detachment with which Sarah, who still lives with Mimi as an adult, calls her parents by their first names; or offhandedly tells her mother, “You probably wish you didn’t have children–they must have held you back,” one day while slicing Brussels sprouts; or chides herself with a mocking laugh for spoiling Mimi’s life by being a “complete schlump of a daughter.”

Mimi’s son Tom has a subtly wounded quality, too, and a bond with her that implies as much mutual admiration as mutual disappointment.

Why Weddell’s life warrants a documentary portrait at all, Johnstone sees, is that it’s ultimately a life much fuller and more unruly and therefore more affecting than Weddell’s self-cultivated image lets on.

“She’s a great success,” Sarah says. “She’s lived on her wits and her beauty.” It is and isn’t a compliment. 

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