Yes, nonagenarian: Jyll Johnstone's 'Hats Off' plays the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki beginning Fri/22 with the filmmaker in person.

'Hats Off' Fascinated With 93-Years-Young Actress

Lynn Rapoport August 21, 2008

The things we know—or think we know—about the lives and loves of Hollywood’s celebrity class are disturbing to ponder. Jennifer Aniston’s bad luck with men…Brad and Angelina’s fertility rites…Will Smith’s religious affiliations, or lack thereof—none of it’s really any of our business, but all it takes is a grocery store checkout line or a treadmill stint at the gym to get the highlights and low points in the lives of the red carpet royalty. True, it’s mostly rumor, surmise, conjecture, and fabrication, but leaving those quibbles aside, what, exactly, is it that makes Will Smith’s cushioned $20-mil-a-pic existence more curious and scrutiny-worthy than that of any of the hundreds of walk-ons, extras, and bit part players who have populated his films?

While you’re standing in line at the supermarket pondering that question—and helplessly reaching for the Us Weekly with Lauren Conrad of The Hills on the cover—somewhere in New York City one of those walk-ons, a 93-year-old woman named Mimi Weddell, is navigating the cramped apartment she shares with her daughter and son, perusing a jaw-dropping collection of hats for the perfect complement to her Elizabeth Arden-styled coiffure, and preparing for one more in a decades-long series of theatrical and commercial auditions.

Chances are you’ve seen Weddell somewhere before, whether in an advertisement for Louis Vuitton or Juicy Couture, an episode of Law and Order (1990 and 1997) or Sex and the City (1998), the 1981 cult horror spoof Student Bodies, or—speaking of Will Smith—the 2005 romantic comedy Hitch, where she carries the final slapstick punchline as a wedding guest in league with Smith’s matchmaking title character. But while her acting résumé is filled with roles like Ticket Buyer in The Purple Rose of Cairo and Bag Lady in Law and Order episode "Subterranean Homeboy Blues," Weddell gets her star turn in Hats Off, a documentary by Marin filmmaker Jyll Johnstone that has its San Francisco premiere on Aug. 22 on the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki.

Shot over a 10-year period and ending shortly after Weddell celebrates her 90th birthday with a long-dreamed-of trip to Florence, the film also features the actress’s son, Tommy, and daughter, Sarah, who, along with her son and off-camera husband, has lived with Weddell for the past 20 years. Interspersed between interviews with the principals, we see glimpses of Weddell in clips and stills from movies and ad campaigns and meet casting directors, dance and voice instructors, a head shot photographer, and others on whom she has left an impression over the course of her acting and modeling career, which she embarked on full-time at the retirement-ready age of 65.

Asked how she came to see Weddell as someone whose life she wanted to document, Johnstone says, "It’s a funny thing. You don’t know what you have until you have it…. Everyone who saw the beginning, the interviews that we had done, they said, ‘What’s the story? What’s the story?’ I said, ‘You know, I don’t know the story; I just find her captivating. And I’m just going to keep working on it, and I can’t give you a reason,’ except now, at the end of it, I can. She exhibits life to its fullest, you know? And she’s not a perfect person by any means. She definitely has her faults. But I like the fact that she just keeps moving through it all."

After a decade of production, Johnstone had seen plenty of Weddell moving through it all, which in a sense made it challenging for her and editor Bill Weber (Kate Stilley Steiner of San Francisco’s Citizen Film also worked on the project) to find an end point, something her husband, coproducer Michael Arlen Davis, helped identify. "You have to stop. I mean, Mimi continues to work, constantly," Johnstone says, listing off recent shoots for Karl Lagerfeld and Citroën. "You have to learn how to stop…. Because these people keep going and keep creating."

Trekking to auditions, learning tap-dance routines, doing exercises on the gymnastic rings (in her 80s!), or puttering around her apartment amid the accretions of the years, the Weddell of Hats Off remains first and foremost a character. "Mimi’s an actress," Johnstone says, "and I think the hardest part for me was getting her to turn it off. And the only way I did that was to keep the camera going when she didn’t really think it was going.

Holding forth in a patrician, mid-Atlantic accent (mention is made more than once of the family’s Mayflower ancestry), Weddell offers her views on the power of live theater, the singular importance of a good hat, her need to work, her relationship with her children, and the mantra that has guided her through a life not without its rough patches: "Rise above it."

Many of the rough patches have been rooted in the family’s financial woes, which began when Dick, Weddell’s late husband, lost his job at RCA. The couple found themselves unable to curb the spending habits they’d acquired during an early adulthood spent among Manhattan’s artistic circles. Dick had a passion for art collecting, and they were determined to give their son and daughter the kind of upbringing (prep schools, debutante balls) enjoyed by the city’s young social elites—choices that the children, particularly Tommy Weddell, now look back on slightly askance.

Johnstone, who herself was raised on Manhattan’s Park Avenue in the ’50s and ’60s in an atmosphere she describes as "restricted," went to a private girls’ school with Weddell’s daughter, Sarah, and remained close with her until the latter left for boarding school in sixth grade. However, she never really got to know Weddell—or Mimi, as Sarah and Tommy have always called her—because, as the filmmaker points out, "Mimi was always working." It wasn’t until Johnstone herself left the closed-in social sphere of her upbringing and entered the acting world that they began to cross paths down at the Screen Actors Guild hall, when they were both going out on cattle calls, Johnstone in her mid-20s and Weddell in her 60s. Eventually transitioning to photography and then to documentary filmmaking, Johnstone began work on a film called Martha & Ethel (1994) that examined, in part, her relationships with the nanny who had raised her and the mother who had not.

A focus on creatively flourishing older women, and a concurrent theme of "mothering, or lack of," as Johnstone puts it, emerged in her next film, 2002’s Throwing Curves: Eva Zeisel, about the influential industrial designer (now almost 102). So it’s not surprising to see these issues rise to the surface again in Hats Off, which Johnstone was in the midst of filming when she completed Throwing Curves. "I’ve been facing it for 15 years," Johnstone says. "As my children have been growing up, all these women, including my own mom, were not able to be there for their children in the way that the children felt they needed their mother to be there. I think it helped me to understand and have a little bit of compassion for these people. Because I learned myself that once you become a mother, you do have a lot more compassion for your own mothering."

Perhaps it’s partly this compassion that has triggered thoughts of a new project, a film centered on archival images and a wealth of scrapbooks compiled by Johnstone’s recently deceased mother, whose own résumé includes Monaco-born émigré, adopted daughter of the renowned turn-of-the-century "Irish tenor" Chauncey Olcott, child prodigy (she studied with the Polish pianist Paderewski), and New York socialite.

Meanwhile, Weddell’s own children seem to have made some kind of peace with their mother—enough, anyway, to share limited square footage with her. The resentments they harbor certainly don’t seem to be of the festering-wound variety, but rather are unhesitatingly aired on camera. And at one point their mother acknowledges their feelings in typical Mimi fashion: "Yeah, I know, I’m off center with these children. I wanted them to be a little graceful. They’re so earthbound. They don’t see the thread…grace, that’s what it is. You dance as you walk through life, as you sail through life. And furthermore, it heightens your living as of the moment. If you don’t dance, for heaven’s sake, you can not aspire, you do not lift up from this earth."

Jyll Johnstone and other guests of the film are expected to attend the 7:15 pm Fri.-Sat. shows and participate in Q+As. Tickets at "Sundance Cinemas Kabuki":; more information at SFFS.

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