Making a Deal With ‘The Devil’
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Anna Wintour’s tiny frame has been bashed and beaten all over Manhattan. Yet the more the legendary editor of Vogue is publicly maligned, the more apparent are her virtues. All of the negative depictions in tell-alls and screeds by unhappy assistants just show that beneath her impeccable coif is a woman with a tremendous skill at her job.
In “The Devil Wears Prada,” based on Lauren Weisberger’s novel, Meryl Streep seems to understand this. Her Wintour-inspired character, Miranda Priestly, is an incredibly loose interpretation of the doyenne of fashion, but the portrayal does much to redeem demanding bosses. Ms. Streep may not quite carry off the look of a fashion maven, but her nuanced portrayal highlights many of the traits that could enable a woman to achieve and retain such a powerful and coveted position.
Miranda is not very likeable: she is rude, insensitive, and unreasonable. But she is also hardworking, astute, and clever. And no matter how much she overloads her underlings, it is clear that she works herself even harder.
To that extent, young men and women who are dumped on by their bosses will find much to appreciate in “The Devil Wears Prada.” Anne Hathaway plays young Andrea Sachs, a recent college graduate desperate to break into journalism. When she is offered a job as the assistant to the editor of top fashion magazine, she takes it despite having little interest in or – more important – knowledge of the fashion world.
What follows is another one of those ugly-duckling-turned-swan stories that Ms. Hathaway has built her fledgling career on. She deals with the hilariously high-maintenance Miranda and the odd and endearing fashionistas at her work place, and even learns to appreciate the benefits of a good outfit.
There are plenty of quirks to exploit in the fashion industry and the film takes quick strides toward a solid defense of the fashion world (a speech by Ms. Streep parsing the history of cerulean blue is especially effective in this endeavor).
And the industry lends itself much more easily to the screen than the unillustrated page. While the costumer, Patricia Fields, seems to have taken a color-by-label approach to the clothing here,it is still enjoyable to watch all the beautiful waifs float across the screen in their sparkly trinkets. Ms. Fields makes the characters look like they come from another world, which has both its benefits and flaws (forcing Ms. Hathaway to wear an embarrassing newsboy hat with a straight face during a sentimental montage being one of the major faults).
The film gets much mileage out of a running gag on Ms. Hathaway’s supposed girth as a size six – at one point Miranda says with regret: “I thought, take a chance, hire the smart, fat girl” – but other oddities of the fashion world are not touched. For instance, it is never mentioned that the fashionable young waifs who can afford the lifestyle to match their positions are rarely living off their own meager salaries.
But there are limits to a tell-all written from the perspective of an assistant. While many of them have nearly unlimited access to powerful bosses and their famous clientele, most of the action at a company happens outside the earshot of the assistant’s desk. Moreover, the real-life assistant who inspired this tale abruptly quit her job to write about her nasty boss, so the film does not have the typical happy ending of a small-town-girl-makes-good-in-the-big-city story.
But the film tries to overcome some of the novel’s flaws. Andy has supposedly let her job transform her into a bad person and needs to reassert her good intentions, though it’s hard to see exactly where she went wrong. She has gotten rather caught up in the details of her job, but the only negative actions that Ms. Hathaway takes in the film are the supposed betrayal of a “friend” who has been nothing but terrible to her and- more irritating – her proud announcement that she has transformed from a fattie to a size four.
The protagonist in the novel starts a new career on by publicly flogging her famous former boss. The film makes both Andy and Miranda more likeable characters, and by proving that Andy has excelled at her job, it gives more weight to the story. When she walks away from the assistant position, it may be a bit inexplicable, but at least has about it the whiff of liberation. (Even if it is a bit unbelievable when she scores her “dream job” in the hallowed offices of the New York Sun, refurbished as “The Daily Mirror.” )
Ms. Weisberger’s novel concentrated much more on the minutia of working from the boss from hell. And when her protagonist repeated the refrain that “a million girls would kill for this job,” it was always teaming with sarcasm.
But while most anyone can complain about their job, being good at it is another story. Because it is not simply being in a difficult situation that should be worthy of note, but transcending that situation and surpassing expectations. And that is something that a million girls seem to understand better than the novel’s supposedly smart protagonist, or the author herself.