As it turns out, what’s most interesting about the film is how it has morphed in its translation from page to screen. It is based on a book by Lauren Weisberger, who was once an assistant to Anna Wintour, the famous editor-in-chief of Vogue. The book, basic chicklit, is about a nice young woman who wants to be a writer, and the totally self-centered witch for whom she works. Reading the book, you are supposed to sympathize with the young heroine and detest the impossible and imperious editor. You’re supposed to be glad at the end that the young woman gets fired from her job and returns to serious journalism. (Although, as an example of her more substantive pursuits, I think our young heroine at the end of the book sells a story to Seventeen. No, I am not kidding!)
In the movie, partly because of Meryl Streep’s interesting performance and partly because of the choices of screen writer Aline Brosh McKenna, it is the editor, Miranda Priestly, not the young assistant, who is our focus. And while the book was a young woman’s coming-of-age tale, the most interesting part of the movie is about a baby-boomer woman in the late stages of her fabulous career, trying to hold on to her position and her power.
Meryl Streep, with a normal-sized figure and a silver-white wig that reportedly cost almost $25,000, is not, no matter how she is dressed, the size-four editor of the book who is thinner and chicer than the editors and assistants who surround her. Frankly, Streep looks a lot more like Liz Tilberis, a silver-haired lady who once was editor of Harper’s Bazaar, than she does like the whippet-thin, always-perfectly-coiffed Anna Wintour. Tilberis was much loved in the fashion industry and was known for always struggling with her weight. She died several years ago of ovarian cancer. And Wintour, in her obituary in Vogue, couldn’t resist commenting on her rival’s “plumpness.”
So no matter how many jokes the movie makes about the necessity of looking bone thin — one crack is that “size six is the new fourteen” — Streep as the Boss Lady is definitely a normal, almost motherly-looking size eight or ten. Always very pale against the dark outfits she wears — some of the styles are a touch Cruella De Vil — Streep looks far older than the editors and models that surround her. And the very, very pretty Anne Hathaway, who plays Andy with her bright-red lips and her thick fall of gleaming dark hair, is the greatest contrast of all. Yes, Miranda is difficult and demanding, sulky and selfish, as she softly insults her staff and quietly orders her assistant to perform nearly impossible tasks. One is supposed to assume that she has total power, but it so easy to see that Andy has the vibrancy of youth, and what a trump card that it is in the fashion world that they are both supposed to inhabit. When Andy takes a liking to Jimmy Choos and Chanel suits, and starts dressing in couture, she does indeed look gorgeous. Miranda throughout just looks expensively dressed.
As the movie progresses, the real drama of the piece is not about whether Andy will see how shallow the world of Runway Magazine is and give it up. (You know she will.) Rather, it is if Miranda, who is being divorced by her husband, will also lose her job as editor. She manages to keep it with a very smooth maneuver, but one wonders for how long. As one of the more odious (but honest) characters notes, there is always someone who is younger and more budget-minded who could replace her — and that, in the world of media, is the real devil.
Though the movie purportedly is about a girl who is smart enough to pass up the glitz, make the right choice, and steer herself in a more serious direction — at the end Andy starts working for a newspaper that has an office that looks suspiciously like the New York Sun — what you remember is a gray-haired editor, still in place in her chauffeur-driven town car, but who has no more choices she can make.
So as it turns out, for all its in-jokes, The Devil Wears Prada is not really a comedy at all.
– Myrna Blyth, former long-time editor of Ladies’ Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness — and Liberalism — to the Women of America and the upcoming How To Raise an American (out next spring from Crown Forum). Blyth is also an NRO contributor.