According to Karen Valby (writing about Meryl Streep
on page 56 of the “Special Year-End Double Issue” of Entertainment
Weekly), “The Devil Wears
Prada” was last summer’s “Cinderella story,” (with world-wide box
office grosses already over $300 million on a budget of $35M). But as
the awards season heats up, all eyes remain on Streep, as if she’s not
just one of the greatest actors of her generation, but someone who
also transcends her material – writing her own speeches, blocking her
own scenes, and making everyone else on Prada’s creative team simply
“I was thrilled that the book had 2
strong female leads, and that it was about a woman coming-of-age
in the workplace. Older women are drawn in by Meryl [Streep], and
seeing somebody who’s in her mid 50s playing that part, but they
also see themselves having been Andy once, because most of the
women in the audience now have had some experience in the
workplace. People ask me: How do you feel about ‘Prada’ being
called a ‘chick-flick’? If you find a good story, it’s a good
story. Does it have a feminist, female protagonist? So much the
This is, of course, ridiculous.
(about which there is no question) didn’t save “Prime,” “She-Devil,”
or a great many other films in which she’s starred, from critical
and/or commercial oblivion. But ignoring Prada’s creative team and
focusing just on Streep’s performance is nothing new; rather it’s part
of a well-documented pattern. Hilary Swank came out of nowhere to win
the Best Actress Oscar for “Boys Don’t Cry” in 1999, but when was the
last time you heard any buzz about writer/director
Charlize Theron received the Best Actress Oscar for “Monster” in 2003
after years of arm-candy roles, but when was the last time you heard
any buzz about writer/director
Rewarding the actress, as wonderful as she may be, typically goes
hand-in-hand with trivializing the film in which she shines,
especially when the film was written and/or directed by another woman.
In 2003, “Frida” received six Oscar nominations (including one for
Salma Hayek in the title role), but director
Julie Taymor was
slighted, even though Taymor was the first woman ever to win a Tony
award for directing a Broadway musical (“The Lion King”). And this
year Hollywood princess Sofia Coppola learned the lesson too: make a
film that stars a man (“Lost in Translation”) and everyone applauds;
make a film that stars a woman (“Marie
Antoinette”) and you’re yesterday’s news. Like poor Rodney
Dangerfield, films about women, especially when they’re also films by
women, just don’t get no respect.
Does it take anything away from Streep if we sing her praises within
the context of this film? Quite the contrary: as Prada makes clear to
us, “Miranda Priestly” depends on her Runway magazine support staff
every waking minute of every day. With Prada DVDs already on the shelf
for all to see and the closing date for Academy Award nominations
(1/13/07) imminent, there’s just enough time for one more look before
the envelopes are irrevocably sealed.
In “The Devil Wears Prada” Meryl Streep plays “Miranda
Priestly,” one of the most
genuinely powerful female characters ever depicted on film.
“Miranda: we wanted to take Miranda and her work very seriously,
and make sure the audience got a sense of what she does and why
she’s so accomplished. She’s not just inspiring that behavior in
the other people around her because she’s ‘scary,’ but because
she’s so accomplished and she’s achieved such a high level at
work. I wanted to make sure the audience understood why she had so
much power in her world; and then understand that there was a cost
for her… Miranda’s held to a different standard than male
executives might be held to, and she lives under a microscope.”
-- Screenwriter Aline Brosh
Photos courtesy of TM & Twentieth Century Fox Pictures. All rights
When “The Devil Wears Prada” arrived in bookstores in the spring of
2003, the cheeky little novel became an immediate chick-lit classic.
Everyone in the biz knew that author Lauren Weisberger had once worked
for Vogue editor
Anna Wintour, so the book was read as a roman-a-clef, even though
Weisberger herself was always careful to explain that “Miranda” had
many different sources. The novel’s protagonist is definitely “Andy
Sachs” (a character loosely based on Weisberger although she’s given
herself a decidedly more upscale background).
Andy’s life is filled with problems: she has problems with Jill (her
sister), problems with Nate (her boyfriend), problems with Lily (her
roommate/best friend), and oh yes, she also has problems with Miranda
Priestly (her terrifying boss).
Miranda takes Andy to Paris for Fashion Week only after Emily
(Miranda’s “first assistant”) is ordered into bed by her physician,
and Andy abandons Miranda in Paris because Lily’s in the hospital. By
novel’s end, Andy is exploring her options as a freelance writer,
selling-off her Runway magazine chum to consignment shops whenever she
needs some extra pocket cash.
In the screen version of Prada, by contrast, Miranda Priestly is the
sun in Andy’s universe; Andy, Emily, Nigel (a composite of characters
on the edges of the novel’s action) and a Manhattan skyscraper filled
with “clackers” (stringbeans in stiletto heels) orbit around Miranda
and reflect her radiance. Keeping tight focus on the Runway world, the
screenplay reduces Andy’s family to one visit from Dad, turns Lily to
a bit player, and houses Andy in a tiny tenement flat with Nate.
“Andy Sachs” (Anne Hathaway) is subject to often
brutal OJT from her Runway
magazine colleagues “Emily” (Emily Blunt) & “Nigel” (Stanley Tucci).
“…it’s an important thing in your 20s to
recognize when you’re failing. Andy’s making this mistake of
blaming everything on Miranda instead of just understanding that a
boss is boss, and part of what you need to do is figure out how to
work around the boss. It’s not just the fashion world, it’s every
workplace. Everybody’s been that young person in the workplace for
the first time. Everybody’s had to realize that you have to fit in
if you want to succeed.”
-- Screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna
Photos courtesy of TM & Twentieth Century Fox Pictures. All rights
Prada the film then expands to explore the intricacies of Miranda’s
private life (details which the novel’s narrator has no interest in).
And here’s the bottom line: Miranda Priestly is an ambitious working
mother doing her best to raise twin daughters with an endless series
of “father figures” who leave in a huff once they’ve been called “Mr.
Priestly” one too many times in public. Barely adolescents, the
daughters are already little witches, and Miranda, for all her worldly
power, has absolutely none at home.
So beneath the glitter of the clothes and the jewels and all the perks
of limoed life, Prada is, in fact, a highly realistic depiction of a
female executive, probably the most realistic depiction ever filmed.
Yes, Streep embodies Miranda to perfection, but primary credit here
goes to director David
Frankel and screenwriter Alice Brosh McKenna. They’ve made Prada
so much fun to watch that many people don’t even realize what they’re
really seeing. Frankel (the Emmy-winning son of Max Frankel, a former
executive editor at the New York Times) and McKenna (who graduated
magna cum lauda from Harvard) clearly know everything there is to know
about east coast Jewish workaholics, and it’s that insider knowledge
that enables them to pull the whole thing off with such elan.
Life at Runway magazine is like life in office towers all around the
world, filled with competitive, aggressive young people from top
schools who work horrendous hours under oppressive conditions,
scratching and scheming to get ahead. Like Andy, most of these newbees
will come to have second thoughts about the price of success, and very
few of the people who will eventually inhabit corner offices will be
women. Anyone who really wants to understand the world in which we
live today would do well to take Prada very seriously. It addresses
questions few of us have yet had the courage to ask.
Jan Lisa Huttner is the managing editor of
Films for Two: The Online Guide for
Busy Couples. In addition to freelance work for a variety of print
and online publications, Jan writes regular columns for the
JUF News, Chicago's
Jewish community monthly, and
Chicago Woman, a
bi-monthly published by The Woman's Newspapers. She is an active
member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Illinois
Woman's Press Association.