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Movie Review: Hats Off

This documentary about the life of eccentric nonagenarian Mimi Weddell entertains, enlightens, and inspires.

Monday, May 19, 2008

HatsOff.jpg

At an age where many in her profession would have hung up their hats, actress Mimi Weddell has not—in any sense. A 93-year-old force of nature with the determination, drive, and tenacity of those many decades younger, Weddell is as theatrical a figure as any she's portrayed on screen, a tiny dynamo perpetually topped by a picturesque chapeau.

It's easy to see why filmmaker Jyll Johnstone, a childhood friend of Weddell's daughter, Sarah, wanted to document her life. She did so by following the petite Mayflower descendant for 11 years around New York, where Weddell shares a cramped apartment with Sarah and more than 100 hat boxes. The film winds down in Florence, Italy, where Weddell celebrated a memorable birthday a few years ago.

In Hats Off, Weddell is seen going on countless auditions—a process she began tackling full time at age 65, after her husband's death. Often cast as an elegant society matron (Hitch, Sex and the City), she has also played a bag lady on Law & Order and several madwomen.

The film shows Weddell dressed in impeccable ensembles—befitting for someone who was, as her daughter points out, "the belle of the ball" in her youth. Also present are Weddell's two favorite accessories—a cigarette holder and a hat. A hat "gives me a frame—I have to have a frame," she announces. In more casual moments the documentary shows her exercising at the gym, dancing tap and ballet, and getting her hair done at the Elizabeth Arden salon, where the doorman pronounces her "one of the classic ladies of New York."

Arthritis has slowed her down, but not stopped her; her son Tommy calls her driven, but Weddell says it's just her active mind hard at work. "I suppose it's my imagination that keeps my energy up," she declares. She's equally determined to "rise above" hardship, and she has had her share of that, as the documentary depicts. Always living hand to mouth, she provided for her family by working multiple secretarial jobs when her music exec husband was laid off and later died.

She still speaks of her late husband adoringly, but she can't hide her disappointment that her "earthbound" offspring didn't have higher aspirations or appreciate the arts in the same way she did. Sarah, now a bookbinder, and Tommy, a financial services consultant, hated the cotillions she made them attend.

While the film touches on that family friction, it mainly paints an affectionate portrait of an eccentric, outspoken character making the most of her remaining years. "There's a lot more to be learned," Weddell says, "and I'm going to learn all the way up the stairway to the stars."

Rating:

 

–Reviewed by Gerri Miller


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