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THIS DEVIL ISN’T ANNA
Wintour would never have worn those earrings or those clunky shoes. And Streep would never be able to handle Wintour's job at Vogue. But that’s not the point of this movie. It's about making ordinary people feel good.
On Friday, The Devil Wears Prada opens in cinemas across Canada. The film is based on the book of the same name, a roman à clef written by Lauren Weisberger, the young woman who worked briefly as an assistant to Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. The film depicts Miranda Priestly, the acid-tongued editor of a fashion magazine, widely believed to be a thinly veiled portrait of Wintour, and tells the story of the evil regime she inflicts on her assistant.
Meryl Streep plays Miranda with Anne Hathaway as her assistant, Andrea. The movie character Nigel, who is based on Anna’s invaluable fashion guru, André Leon Talley, has for obscure reasons morphed from a sixfoot-seven Afro-American to a five-foot-eight Caucasian—not in my view a change for the better, though the part is wonderfully acted by Stanley Tucci. If for no other reason—and certainly not to learn anything at all about Anna Wintour—the film has to be seen for the exquisite performance of Meryl Streep, whose Miranda is destined for comic immortality. Whether or not the film will have any box office staying power or quickly go into DVD, as Anna Wintour is reputed to have said after spunkily attending a screening of it (wearing a cream and black tea-length Prada dress of “old” vintage, which in Annaspeak could mean a season or two off the current one), remains to be seen. The under25 set will adore it, as will that rather large class of women who guiltily read Hello! magazine at the hairdresser’s.
Anna Wintour has become more than a fashion-world icon for knowledgeable consumers and wistful salesgirls. Candice Bergen has played her in Sex and the City. Wintour’s name is gradually dropping into popular culture the way only film and rock stars have done previously.
Anna happens to be a friend of mine, a fact which is of absolutely no help in coping with the cold panic that grips me whenever we meet. This panic bears no precise relationship to her behaviour as I know it. Anna takes or returns my telephone calls promptly. She is unfailingly warm, animated and interested in my well-being when we lunch. She will readily give any telephone number requested, from the best cosmetician to tattoo permanent eyebrows on my bare forehead to the most effective doctor for tennis elbow. It is not her fault that the perfection of her bobbed and exquisitely lightened hair (Stephen Knoll salon, NYC), the alpha appropriateness of her clothes (Prada, Chanel, Proenza Schouler), and her dislike of the lengthy convoluted sentence all come together to make one feel inadequate.
Just why one breaks into a cold sweat—and
I am not alone in this reaction among her friends and acquaintances—is something of a mystery. Probably it has some kinship to the star-struck syndrome. Possibly, too, it has something to do with the enigma of Anna. What the hell is she thinking behind that silent gaze or those opaque sunglasses?
As arguably the most successful magazine editor currently working, with a run at American Vogue of 18 years and no end in sight, two well-balanced and loving children, and only one divorce in an America where over 40 per cent of marriages break down, it’s a stretch to see Anna’s life as a cautionary morality tale—which is how The Devil Wears Prada paints its editrix. The film’s ending sticks to the predictable template for teen flicks: ambitious young beautiful girl does awful things in order to remedy her inferior social status and get great clothes. Ambitious young beautiful girl is then humiliated and sees the light.
“You sold your soul the day you put on those first Jimmy Choos,” says Miranda to Andrea. Given the price of Jimmy Choos— approx $500 a pair—and the weight of Hathaway’s soul, the price seems exorbitant. Happily, in both book and film the end is satisfyingly conventional. Andrea realizes that her own life—beer-swilling with barhopping dolts and her cute boyfriend Nate (played by HBO’s Entourage star Adrian Grenier), who teaches, what else, disadvantaged children in the South Bronx while looking as if he never left Beverly Hills 90210— is more authentic and valuable than Miranda’s empty universe of flashbulbs and celebrities. Miranda, after all—and this is key—is lonely. She is a woman with no friends, a husband who has left her, and only the cold comfort of her children, a posh suite at a Paris hotel, an Upper East Side Manhattan townhouse, a powerful job she adores, and a salary of a million bucks.
Audiences will be reassured to know that their ordinary lives are far more worthwhile than the unhappy existence of Miranda. Since time immemorial, people of limited or average ability and energy have consoled themselves that they understand the more important values in life, such as relationships and intimacy, as though these things were not available to energetic, talented people. This is a literary convention that fuels many a work on stage, screen and between covers. It always finds a ready audience.
“I turned my back on everything I believed in,” wails Andrea to Nate, “and for what? Shoes and belts and jackets and skirts.” People like to sit back and relax while being reassured that though they don’t amount to a hill of beans, what matters is that their friends love them. Flattering your audience is what any knowledgeable author and certainly all Hollywood directors do. And one of the most common conventions by which this is done is the depiction of powerful and talented beings as human failures.
Whether or not author Lauren Weisberger believes this rot, she has successfully turned a few months internship to good account and got herself a seven-figure book deal, topping up her US$200,000 film advance. The movie, like the book, is a bit of a one-trick pony in which an insanely sadistic editor asks more and more impossible tasks of her put-upon assistant. But half-truths wrapped around lies can make the incredulous sound credible— to the gullible. The notion that Anna Wintour would demand her assistant get the unpublished manuscript of the next Harry Potter book for her children within hours, at penalty of being fired, is ludicrous. The notion that Anna would want something done “now” and not “shortly” is accurate: Anna wants what she wants right away.
If you are famous or notorious, you simply have to put up with being portrayed or caricatured, sometimes by very silly people, sometimes by vicious ones. It comes with the territory. Anna being very famous gets Streep, an A-list actress. Me, being barely notorious, gets Lara Flynn Boyle, doing a TV movie of my life. But then again, as Anna pointed out when we were discussing what to wear to the premieres of the films about ourselves, Boyle is nearly 30 years younger than I am and Streep is nearly five months older than she is. You can’t have everything.
There have been quite a few shots at pinning down the essential Anna Wintour. Front Row by Jerry Oppenheimer is the unauthorized biography. A BBC documentary, Boss Woman, followed her about for weeks. Most surface details of the book, documentary and film are consistent. The woman rises at the ungodly hour of 5.45 a.m., plays an hour of tennis, thus toning her upper arms sufficiently to allow the wearing of Lagerfeld’s sleeveless dresses till death, has hair and makeup before going to the office at 8 a.m. My experience of lunch with her (1.5 hours at Michael’s on West 55th) confirms she does indeed consume a steak and frites.
Unlike many irritating business people of lesser stature, Anna does not take or make telephone calls during meals or ever talk about how busy she is. She never boasts about the accomplishments of her children. At dinner she eats very little and leaves virtually every function early to get home. She is stick thin but manages—or so my husband tells me—to be persuasively sexual without obvious flash when she dances, which she does with a vengeance and irritatingly well.
THE MYSTERY OF ANNA—ONE THAT BAFFLED ME FOR YEARS—IS THAT SHE CARRIES NO HANDBAG. HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE?
Having little knowledge of her private life, I couldn’t tell you who her close girlfriends are, but the name Anne McNally, fashionista from Vanity Fair, sometimes crops up. Her daughter Bee is a smasher, writing a column for a British newspaper. Anna is English in aspects of her style, which means she honours the British obsession with privacy and shows no emotion in public, a manner that translates as aloof, constipated and cold in feely Americanese. Her conversation follows the British “come off it” approach to earnestness, and she has a low tolerance level for small talk.
The singular quality she has is one of loyalty. “Once a friend, that’s it,” says André
Leon Talley. Fighting a weight problem that had seriously threatened his life, Talley had been the subject of Anna’s pleading interventions for years. We all went to meetings summoned by her, had worried conferences over coffee and tea. Anna arranged private dietitians, and stays at spas. Eventually, she triumphed. “I was living in denial and it took her loyalty and caring to get me out of it,” said Talley, who ended up at the Duke Diet & Fitness Center in North Carolina and 70 lb. lighter.
Meryl Streep’s Miranda has little connection with this Wintour, either in style or substance. Wintour’s ears would never display the oversized gold hoop earrings Streep wears in the film. The clunky shoe that stretches out of the limousine in a lingering shot when Miranda first appears would never appear on the foot of Wintour. She wears only Manolo Blahnik, whose shop windows have not been darkened by the platform sole. Wintour wore cardigans when the rest of us were in jackets. She wore smart blue jeans and high heels to Park Avenue dinners a decade ago. The frumpy dark suits of the film’s editrix are a far cry from the graphic white Chanel suit Anna wore this past spring with a black silk stocking and white criss-cross sandals. Anna is above all “modern” in her dressing.
Streep wields chunky handbags throughout the film that she throws like hand grenades on her assistant’s desk. The mystery of Annaone that baffled me for years—is that she carries no handbag. How can any woman do this? Turns out she leaves it in her car and an assistant picks it up and takes it to the office. Why she has this routine I don’t know. Certainly it unnerves females. Possibly a bag spoils the line of her clothes for photographs. Obviously it is part of the persona. Speaking from experience, handbags are a wretched nuisance, digging into shoulders, accumulating debris, susceptible to theft. But as Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir and the Queen have all demonstrated, the most disciplined woman finds life difficult without wielding the protective armour of the handbag.
Ultimately, the woman Streep portrays is inadequate for Anna’s job at Vogue. One cannot imagine Streep’s Miranda joyfully cultivating Hillary Clinton or Laura Bush, happily chatting with Reese Witherspoon or surviving the repetitive suppers with the Fifth Avenue matrons that Wintour tolerates. Streep cannot extinguish something in her own being. She brings an intellectual impatience to her character and an attitude that is simply not part of Anna’s makeup. Nor is there any sign in Streep’s performance of the unerring genius of Wintour’s eye for innovative design and her eerie ability to spot the “next thing” in magazine culture. Anna gets Vogue the advertisers and circulation that dwarfs all other magazines. The September 2005 issue came in at a stupendous 690 pages of advertising with a magazine well over 900 pages. Streep’s editrix couldn’t come close.
Anna is not quite the cool navigator of life she is made out to be. If she were, she might have rounded her talents more. As a public speaker, for example, she exhibits an astonishing shyness. Her remarks are always read rather than improvised spontaneously. I introduced her in 2002 at one of those interminable New York City celebration-ofwomen-lunches called the Matrix Awards, in the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Anna received an award for her talent in magazine publishing. My paean celebrated her “refusal to whine, to temporize and/or to complain when the envious try to debunk her editorial achievement by consigning her to the pigeonhole of fashion.” On this last compliment I was slightly premature. In her written remarks which followed my intro, Anna’s speech took on the whole journalism community for failing to recognize the “profound” aspect of Vogue's editorial content simply because they put it down as a women’s magazine. “What on earth are you doing introducing Anna Wintour?” asked a New York Times opinion columnist afterwards.
Like the Hollywood movie stars that now adorn the cover of Vogue, if she has a political point of view, Anna is a liberal. She endorsed Al Gore in his presidential bid. Which proves, as if it ever needed to be proved, that liberals can demonstrate guts and fight. She survives the tabloid spotlight with fortitude. She routinely gets dead animals, flour or pies thrown in her face by extremists of the animal-rights movement. Her Manhattan downtown home is defaced by their graffiti. Still, she will not back down. Furs keep her in ads and furs are what she has always loved since she knocked about London in the 1960s, modelling a maxi-length white fox coat over her miniskirts. The Fendi fur coats and scarves remain on her back or draped becomingly about her neck.
Fashion is an art form, albeit a minor one, and Anna began to construct her persona and style from a very early age. When a Mozart or Mendelssohn performs at age nine, they are acclaimed. When a woman like Anna begins to construct her persona as an art form at a similarly early age, she is considered affected. Anna left her school, North London Collegiate, under a cloud, having worn her tunic too short. (Having attended the same school, I have a natural sympathy for this.
The hideous brown colour of our school uniforms put both of us off that shade forever.) Hairdressers and skin maintenance were part of her regime before her twenties.
The ability to decorate the body in neverending ways takes imagination, and to do it well takes not only imagination but a sense of artistry and symmetry. For the consumer, though, it can easily be addictive and its ability to ruin women has been a staple of literature. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, with her love of new dresses, sends her husband into a spiral of debt that ultimately causes her suicide. Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart ends up overdosing on chloral due to a similar pas-
ANNA, BEING VERY FAMOUS, GETS STREEP, AN A-LIST ACTRESS. ME, BEING BARELY NOTORIOUS, GETS LARA FLYNN BOYLE.
sion for frippery. The theme surfaced often in Émile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart novels.
“The temptation was acute; mad desires were driving all the women crazy,” Zola writes in his inspired description of opening day of the renovated department store called The Ladies’ Paradise in his novel of the same name. “... everywhere on all the counters, there was a snowy whiteness, Spanish blonde lace as light as air; Brussels appliqué with large flowers on fine mesh, needle point and Venetian lace with heavier designs, Alcenon and Bruges lace of regal and almost religious richness. It seemed as if the God of Fashion had set up his white tabernacle there.”
The air is ever thin in such an environment, and the lack of oxygen seems to send its inhabitants into a mind-altering state. “Put your pencil skirts into the back of the closet,” one stylist advised me this month. “They are done, done, done. You must have something with a gentle balloon look.” This is what happens when you take your subject seriously, and of course it deserves, in one sense, to be taken seriously. It is a multibillion-dollar business whose acceptance, or your lack of it, will pretty much denote your social positioning. But too often its practitioners build a mythical world in which fashion statements acquire a moral weight. Pencil skirts become the lepers of your wardrobe. They must be removed from closets on pain of social exile.
The July Vogue makes it all sound perfectly natural. “Fall’s new silhouettes: The Bustle, the Bell, the Big shoulder” proclaims the cover. Inside the magazine asks, “Will you wear fall’s bold new shapes? From bell coats to balloon pants... proportionis paramount.” The genius of Vogue's vision is apparent on page 99One look at the photos and my pencil skirts were en route to the backroom.
Anna herself has never exhibited any of this insanity. I’ve never heard her make a single comment on fashion apart from perfectly normal statements about the strength of this or that designer’s season. She occasionally slips into an economic haze due to a certain insulation from reality. I encountered her once under the canopy of a Fifth Avenue hotel in Manhattan. She looked a knockout, wearing a fantastic Yves Saint Laurent snakeskin trench coat. “You must have it,” she said. “Go and get it. There’s a size 36 left.” I wanted to ask what it cost but hadn’t the guts. That afternoon, I forked out some US$12,000 and took it home for an hour, only to return it the same day. When she asked me, I mumbled something about having exhausted my budget for the season. “But it’s only three thousand dollars,” she said.
Meryl Streep’s Miranda would have to pay retail. M