Times Staff Writer

You’ve heard of old women with their cats. Mimi Weddell, who turned 93 this year, prefers to be surrounded by her hats. Her Manhattan apartment is wall-to-wall with hundreds of dramatic chapeaus -- day-at-the-races picture hats, humble straw toppers, Scarlett O’Hara bonnets and bubble berets.

“The only romantic thing left in life is a hat,” Weddell says while modeling a few styles in a scene from “Hats Off,” a new documentary that chronicles her life as one of the most recognizable -- and industrious -- models and actresses older than 80. As she ties the velvet ribbon of a feathered bonnet under her chin, she slips into a theatrical character -- chatting up an invisible person in front of her like a little girl playing dress-up.

You’ve probably seen Weddell over the years, playing the upscale grande dame or the eccentric senior in TV shows such as “Sex and the City,” movies including “Hitch” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” and countless commercials and print campaigns for fashion companies, including Juicy Couture, Burberry and Louis Vuitton.


The documentary, which opens Friday at the Laemmle’s Sunset 5 theaters in West Hollywood and Town Center 5 theater in Encino, was filmed over the course of 11 years by director Jyll Johnstone, an old friend of Mimi’s daughter, Sarah Dillon. It follows the pixie-thin woman on cattle-call castings, to private dance, singing and gymnastics lessons and even to Florence, Italy, on a dream vacation; in her 80s she was still flipping upside down on a set of gymnastic rings and doing arabesques in a pale pink leotard.

But it’s not what Weddell does that’s fascinating, it’s who she is. How many nonagenarians, even those with their health, still consider glamour, grace and fantasy to be among the most important things in life? For Weddell, they are part of her daily routine. She smokes cigarettes with a long holder, wears makeup (“it doesn’t necessarily improve much”) and speaks with the kind of clipped Boston accent you hear only in old movies. The words “Rise Above It,” her lifelong motto, are written in marker on her kitchen floor.

She’s partial to costume-y get-ups inspired by the Victorian era, including lace-up heeled boots and jodhpurs. “She always dressed so differently,” Johnstone said. “She stood out for me as an older person who wasn’t in the mold of an older person.”

Weddell was in town recently to promote the film, holding court in a conference room at the Chamberlain hotel in West Hollywood. To greet the media, she paired a crisp white J. Peterman sailor blouse with flat black-and-white Chanel oxfords, Ralph Lauren tapered pants that lace up with leather ties at the hem and a cream silk cloche hat. She looked fantastically eccentric -- like she’d beamed in from some fictionalized era.

“I always feel like I have to wear something that makes me feel good but is a little different,” she said. “If I dress as a regular upper-middle-class woman, that’s quite boring.”

Weddell is quite tiny and frail, resting one hand on a cane even when seated, but she’s still fervently opinionated, especially when it comes to style. “I feel so much has become so third-rate,” she said.

“People walking along the street, they put their eyes straight ahead, then they fall over their long baggy pants that are dragging on the ground. Obviously, they don’t know anything about who they are. It hurts my aesthetic sense.”

Her aesthetic sense wasn’t the only thing smarting that day. She’d just received a “telefax” of lines for an upcoming role and picked out a few grammatical errors in it. “It may or may not be a good opportunity,” she said, “but I thought, ‘Oh, I don’t like that.’ ”