There is a big difference between interesting and intriguing. The former identification can be connected to any subject that spikes our attention. We may not enjoy everything that we hear, but at least we wanted to listen. The latter is far more fascinating. It’s indicative of something that transcends the initial curiosity, and moves us to consider ideas far beyond the scope of the subject matter. Clearly, documentarian Jyll Johnstone believes that 93 year old actress and free spirit Mimi Weddell is intriguing. Her unlikely life story, filled with personal pitfalls and minor professional triumph definitely feels like the stuff of modern mythos. But something in Hats Off, the film focusing on this driven diva, falters. Instead of winning us over, we’re only mildly interested.
Though she always fancied herself a star, Mimi Weddell spent the first 60 years of her life as a wife, mother, and unexpected career gal. While never earning much money, she helped her beloved husband Dick through many a hard time. When he finally lost his job with RCA, it almost destroyed him. Yet Mimi was there, working two or three jobs, getting up at six and coming home at eleven, just to maintain the household. Of course, this didn’t leave much time for her daughter Sarah or son Tom. They were lucky to catch a moment with their mother before she collapsed to catch a few hours sleep.
When Dick finally died, Mimi decided to pursue her dream. She loved the theater and acting, and with perseverance and some unusual casting stock (there aren’t a lot of viable 70, 80, or 90 year olds out there), she soon landed small parts in film and television. She also became a sought after model, and in the process, a New York staple. Now, at 93, she looks back at her life and offers a simple philosophy - rise above it. Life isn’t supposed to be all happiness and fun. When problems come (and she’s faced a veritable mountain of them), she simply stands strong and tries to go beyond them. It’s just too bad that the movie of her life can’t do the same.
Sometimes, blame is easily laid at a film’s foundation. In the case of Hats Off, the critical culprit is Jyll Johnstone. Sometimes, a story is just not worth telling, and while Mimi’s life is definitely an unusual one, it’s not iconic. Indeed, one of the key things we learn about the aging actress is that she’s not an eccentric by circumstance, but by choice. Her idiosyncrasies come from a concerted desire to be different, to stand out in a system that saw her as a nothing more than a gender stereotype. While hopelessly devoted to her husband (the only time we see Mimi tear up is when discussing Dick), she also needed to be her own person. So she developed a mindset, played by the standard social rules, and waited for her moment.
That it came when she was 70, not 20, is nothing novel. In fact, the concept of the elderly doing unbelievable things has become a Baby Boomer cinematic subject du jour as of late. Luckily, Jonstone doesn’t treat Mimi like a too cute cuddly toy. We get to see her in all her cynical, snarky glory. From the time she rises in the morning to the moment she turns in for the night, our heroine acts like the most put upon person in all of entertainment. She tolerates every audition, reminiscing about jobs she landed and lost (we see clips from her few featured parts). She walks around her cramped apartment, showing off the many hats that define her late in life look (the better to hide her unruly hair).
But Hats Off misses the more absorbing moments. We learn that Mimi is a devotee of Elizabeth Arden, sometimes going to the exclusive NYC salon two or three times a week when she has the money. Yet aside from a tossed off anecdote (Sarah claims that, in response to the death of her dad, she was sent to said beauty parlor on the day he passed), we don’t learn the rationale or reason why. Similarly, both adult children still live with Mimi, though the explanation for such a set-up is specious and lacking vital familial information. Johnstone clearly believes that her star is more than capable of carrying the narrative. Unfortunately, the weight of such an aesthetic want is too great for this nonagenarian to manage.
As we watch her work out, tumbling through gymnastics and stumbling through dicey dance routines, we get hints of hospital visits and advancing physical frailty. With money troubles a constant, we also learn very little about how the clan makes ends meet. The directing would have us believe that the Weddells have always been impoverished, and if not outright poor, generally lacking in anything like disposable cash. Yet Mimi takes off to Florence in an unexpected last act dash, and the before credits title cards indicate that both Sarah and Tom are gainfully employed. There are several creative contradictions in Hats Off, statements starting off along one path only to double back and deaden the impact of previous pronouncements. Mimi may be the most compelling old lady in all of Manhattan. We wouldn’t know.
And in the end, that’s Hats Off biggest problem - a lack of knowledge. Audiences need to walk away from such films feeling something of an identification and a kinship with the subject. It’s an emotional bond that has to move beyond the superficial and the strained. While it’s never boring or lacking in intellectual color, this is one fact film that forgets to add in the “stranger than fiction” facet of the overall picture. As a result, we feel satisfied, but sadly underwhelmed. Mimi Weddell probably deserves better than this. Or maybe, this is all her story demanded. Either way, she makes for a strange subject.