Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada

By Daniel Garrett

The Devil Wears Prada
Directed by David Frankel
Cinematographer: Florian Ballhaus
Editor: Mark Livolsi
Starring: Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway
20th Century Fox, 2006

In the popular moving picture The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly leaves an aura of discrimination, force, and perversity behind her: she is a sacred monster, a demon-angel guarding the crossroad where arty fashion meets popular culture. Miranda Priestly, a fashion magazine editor and fashion industry titan, is a nightmare of a person, and an icon of idiosyncratic power—hardworking, thoughtful, and astute about what concerns her, and the surprise, as one critic remarked, is that what concerns her comes to concern us: something we might have doubted but something she knew. The film makes an argument for Miranda’s importance as an arbiter of taste that affects those high and low, but her treatment of others remains insensitive—she recognizes no boundaries, no alternatives to her own choices. The film is a portrait of power, of personality and pecking order. The film offers a consideration of moral questions and social status. The white-haired, slim, perfectly groomed Miranda, austere and penetrating, is an intriguing presence and Streep’s is a persuasive performance: Meryl Streep lives up to her reputation as an actor. Neither art nor life is made up simply of lovely pictures: there is ugliness in the world, and brave artists give us at least a glimpse of that; and Streep here, as in The Manchurian Candidate, gives us a view of volatile and transmogrifying ambition and arrogance, while playing a character devoted to beauty.

Whether one thinks of Streep as a great actress or merely a formidable technician, it is obvious that she has managed to create one of the more impressive oeuvres of her generation: in Julia, The Deer Hunter, Manhattan, The Seduction of Joe Tynan, Kramer vs. Kramer, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Still of the Night, Sophie’s Choice, Silkwood, Plenty, Out of Africa, A Cry in the Dark, She-Devil, Postcards from the Edge, Defending Your Life, Death Becomes Her, The River Wild, The Bridges of Madison County, Marvin’s Room, One True Thing, Adaptation, The Hours, and A Prairie Home Companion. I am inclined to think that the most significant artists give us the most multifaceted views of their time, of history; and that Meryl Streep has done. Her work is marked by intelligence and taste. I would rather her performances had a little more grit, idiosyncrasy, passion—but my own expectations are very particular. One of the things I like about her characterizations is that her women tend to be going along in a natural way—whatever is natural for them—and then they have a moment of self-realization, an awareness of a new difficulty, possibility, or vulnerability. It occurs in Out of Africa when she confronts Robert Redford’s character with a surprising anger, it occurs in Marvin’s Room when her character sees how her son takes to her sister and she decides to do a small something to help that sister, and it occurs in The Devil Wears Prada when a change in Miranda’s marriage occurs. (My reservation is that Streep can seem to save herself—her intensity, her fervent sensitivity—for those moments.) I remain of two minds about Streep, but for The Devil Wears Prada, I applaud her.

Directed by David Frankel, and written by Aline Brosh McKenna, based on the novel of the same name by Lauren Weisberger, The Devil Wears Prada, the movie in which Miranda appears, is about a serious journalistic student who graduates from college and finds herself working for a stylish boss from hell, Miranda; and through Miranda and her colleagues, the young apprentice, Andrea, called Andi, learns how to serve and accessorize. (The costumes—gorgeous and weird—are by Patricia Field.) The film is about a clash of values, about choices—about self, work, friendship, love, business, and clothes. Clothes are a sign—inspired, created, seen, interpreted, circulated, and tossed out or preserved: an embodiment of imagination and personality and a representative of money, power, and taste. Anne Hathaway as Andi is a presence both sweet and luscious, always likable, even when she is self-deceived or silly. Andi learns how to see, interpret, and manipulate signs of competence and signs of elegance; and she begins to lose touch with whom and what she was and those she cared for. Adrian Grenier, with eyes that fill the screen, eyes set in a charming puppyish face, is a unique screen presence, and he plays Andi’s boyfriend, a chef. (Traci Thoms and Rich Sommer play Andi’s friends—I have seen also Thoms’s first named spelled Tracie and Tracy. She has a few good scenes here as someone who appreciates Andi’s perks—such as free luxurious samples—and worries about how Andi is changing.) Stanley Tucci is attractive and repellent as a magazine art director, who is consultant and friend to both Miranda and Andi; and he echoes real world figures as well as cartoons out of one’s cynical imagination—an eccentric but strangely selfless performance. Daniel Sunjata plays a designer who feels both Miranda’s disfavor and support. Simon Baker is a romantic character, a writer who represents literary talent and glamour, someone Andi finds seductive, and the use of Baker for his physical presence is a waste of his acting talent: the part is both a compliment and a limitation.

“The book was a hit, and Hollywood called. Yet a funny thing happened on the way to the megaplex. The movie holds on to a lot of Weisberger’s frills (couture, bitchery, gossip!) but rebukes her opportunistic shallowness. The Devil Wears Prada now has a brain and a point to make. This adaptation is about two women of different generations at philosophical odds over careerism,” wrote Wesley Morris in The Boston Globe (June 30, 2006), adding that “while the picture isn’t brilliant, it is, at its most entertaining, a kicky, surprisingly astute throwback to bygone Hollywood social comedies.” The book may have been more of an outrageous complaint and satire: the film adds sociological observations, and a bit more understanding of the profession. Casting helps. Miranda Priestly is the kind of role Bette Davis might have bit into years ago, testing a small part of it for texture, and then adding spice. In The New York Times (June 30, 2006), A.O. Scott wrote, “Miranda is played by Meryl Streep, an actress who carries nuance in her every pore, and who endows even her lighthearted comic roles with a rich implication of inner life. With her silver hair and pale skin, her whispery diction as perfect as her posture, Ms. Streep’s Miranda inspires both terror and a measure of awe. No longer simply the incarnation of evil, she is now a vision of aristocratic, purposeful and surprisingly human grace.” Other reviewers concurred; and the film remained a favorite of audiences throughout its run. “Thanks to Meryl Streep, whose performance as the editor in chief of the world’s most influential fashion magazine is eerie perfection, The Devil Wears Prada is often quite funny. But it’s more than that, a film that reveals an entire vibrant and sleazy world that most viewers would never have a hint of, much less experience,” wrote Mick LaSalle, of the San Francisco Chronicle (June 30, 2006). LaSalle also noted, “The fashion-world rudeness seems to derive from a belief (or recognition) that people are as replaceable as styles, and that, just as only a few styles are acceptable at any given moment, the same could be said for individuals. The practitioners of this philosophy accept that these rules apply to themselves as well, and so they feel no impulse for phony courtesy in dealing with others. To be nice would only encourage weakness or instill a false assurance.” Indeed, it is the undisguised common rudeness that is most true to life.

In the film, Andi’s challenges are to be present but humble, efficient and self-effacing: to put up her boss’s coat and bag in the morning, order her coffees and lunch, get hard-to-find gifts for Miranda’s children, escort Miranda’s dog, deliver the nightly update of the magazine mock-up to Miranda’s home, and coordinate Miranda’s meetings with fashion designers, a depressing balance of the personal and the professional. Andi is expected to be a glamorous servant—and though she is told many would kill for the job she has, I doubt that it is a job many, or even few, could do well for very long. It is hard to drink a daily cup of humiliation while living vicariously through an imposing boss and keeping one’s eyes on the prize, the prize being whatever goal or reward one hopes for.

The novel on which the movie was based was reported to have been inspired by Lauren Weisberger’s experience with real world fashion editor Anna Wintour of Vogue(reportedly, her old nickname was Nuclear Wintour). I imagine most of us have had a dream job, one that turned into a nightmare and we weren’t sure why: were the people as grotesque as we imagined, and was the work as banal? The job we thought we were being hired for was the one in which our talents would be respected, properly used, and rewarded, the one in which our personalities would find natural expression, growth, and fellowship. The job we were hired for turned out to be one in which we were one more body, one more brain, and we were to be molded into a piece of equipment that someone else would use how and when he or she wanted, one in which our real ideas and feelings, our hopes and needs, had no value and would not be gratified. Our dreams would be neglected; our dreams would be replaced. If we were to survive in the place in which we found ourselves, we would have to give up our individuality. We would have to be happy when our Miranda Priestly was happy, and sad when she was sad, dissatisfied when she was dissatisfied, and proud when she was proud. What The Devil Wears Prada does is suggest something of that dilemma, but it pays such respect to Miranda Priestly that the alternatives that do exist do not appear with the appropriate appeal or drama in the world the film gives us: alternative ways of being, feeling, thinking, and valuing are barely seen. There is, after all, more in the world than learning to be an attractive, efficient cog in someone else’s wheel. There is more than learning to manage and sell prettiness, no matter how lucrative the sales. The Devil Wears Prada acknowledges but does not explore those alternatives. What alternatives? Work in which people participate as equals, or at least as respected individuals. Work that recognizes broad and deep intellectual questions, or the illness, poverty, suffering, and persecution in the world. Work that is about more than signs, but is itself full of meaning.

There are things that might be learned in work, or in life, but whether they can be learned in the kind of stratified institution in which Miranda and Andi work is another question: some of these lessons are that people often do not give themselves permission to be different, to excel according to exacting personal standards; a great part of education is self-education, and yet the presence of mentors is useful—as an example of dedication, integrity, and rigor; a community of peers is only possible if associates are not afraid of intelligence, passion, talent, or truth; punishment comes if one has no institutional or official power and refuses to hide one’s sense of personal authority and independence; for some people, clichés and prejudices serve as ideas and convictions, and for others conformity, financial security, and power are enough; joys can be principles of worth; pain has long-term effects; the past endures; new allegiances are necessary; one does not get something just by asking, one’s value must be proved—so that the compensation is easily made; and one has to be always in the process of creating wealth and resources. Then again, an institution may be exactly the place where one learns such things—through neglect and silence. Miranda might have expected Andi to learn by imitation and observation.

I, a writer, a lifelong student, recall early publishing jobs in which I worked for or with people I thought were ogres (I think of one woman book editor, a snob full of nasty comments, who sometimes went through her colleagues files without their knowledge to see if their writers were paid more than hers; and of a magazine editor who screamed and made inappropriate sexual comments: both took their ids as well as their egos and superegos to work. I used to say that the woman editor was committed to works of civilization but that she herself was uncivilized. I learned that literature is one thing and publishing, a business, was another). The people I met may have been ogres, but what I knew then but appreciate more now was how good they were at what they did, that they gave themselves entirely to their work, they lived up to their requirements, they lived up to the ideal level of creativity and professionalism regarding their work, but they may have been deformed as people. They sacrificed common decency and even sanity for their work. One tries to protect oneself from such people, and in doing that one can cut oneself off from the primary discourse in an institution, from opportunity. Although I have not achieved their measure of official power, I find that now that unapproved textual changes, grammar errors, bad logic, formatting mistakes, color-bleed on journal covers, and late publication, as well as various displays of ignorance, laziness, and incompetence, are likely to transform me from a gentle, thoughtful person into feeling like a punitive, raging maniac, I understand them a little better, a little more. To accomplish something in the world is not a given: it requires commitment, energy, tenacity, vision. One is attuned to the smallest details while taking the longest view—one has not a day or a week in mind, but a year, or decades in mind, even a century or more, in which one’s efforts will resonate and reverberate. One works at levels of awareness, energy, and tension that are not at all normal or ordinary. I used to think creativity and intelligence and passion were all, but they are merely the beginning. Someone who does not become a sacred monster is very lucky, very wise, and entirely not to be expected. (The other side of this is that anyone who has a commitment to something other than the mediocre and the mundane can look strange, even if he or she is perfectly decent. Most people have no idea how undistinguished they are, how dull, how useless: often their resentment is their only acknowledgement of where they stand in relation to excellence.) One is devoted to one’s work—and one longs for genuine colleagues. Thus, The Devil Wears Prada is not only an amusing movie; it’s a public service announcement: beware pretty, bright young things, Here Be Dragons; and where there are dragons—well, there is fire that burns and scalds, and the most marvelous magic.

About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett is currently a New York resident, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, The Compulsive Reader, Offscreen, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.