Friday, June 30, 2006

Sympathy for the she-devil

I love this very perceptive Salon article by Rebecca Traister about Meryl Streep's richly comic and surprisingly touching portrayal of the title character in The Devil Wears Prada. I thought as I watched the movie about all those Rosalind Russell/Bette Davis/Joan Crawford movies of the 30's and 40's, movies like "June Bride" (Davis is the editor of a magazine with ex-boyfriend Robert Montgomery as the reporter covering a wedding for her) and "Mildred Pierce" (Crawford goes from waitress to CEO of a chain of restaurants, ruining the lives of just about everyone along the way). In those movies, women were strong and capable, if dictatorial and (always) missing what really mattered in life, home and family.

Traister mentions "Woman of the Year," with Katharine Hepburn as a brilliant political columnist who falls for Spencer Tracy (in their first of 9 films together), a sportswriter. He loves her as she is but is disappointed that she does not make their lives together a priority. In an unexpectedly wrenching episode, she carelessly adopts a war orphan and then, when she neglects him, Tracy's character returns him to the orphanage, where he is happy to be reunited with his friends. In an unintentionally awkward last scene that seems more like a rejected episode of "I Love Lucy," Hepburn's character tries to make a Martha Stewart-style breakfast for her husband but it turns into disaster. Still, this is better than the portrayals of working women in the 1950's. Doris Day sees husband James Garner deliver a baby and realizes that she should quit her job as a spokeswoman for a soap company to be a full-time mother in "The Thrill of it All." Polly Bergan resigns her job as the first woman President of the United States because...she becomes pregnant(!) in "Kisses for My President." And, in the movie with the closest parallels to "Devil Wears Prada," "The Best of Everything," Joan Crawford (again) is the witchy dragon lady boss of a publishing outfit whose example shows sweet Hope Lange that she'd be better off as a housewife.

Dana Stevens, one of the best writers in the country on movies and television, makes a similar point in Slate.

To reframe Andy's defense of her boss: What if this were a movie about man—a young man apprenticing himself to a hard-boiled older mentor? I can't help but think that the moral compromises required in order to sully the hero's character would be much greater, and that he wouldn't have to apologize for caring about his job.

Could Streep's character, Miranda Priestly, be just as successful and be less of a monster? Sure, but who would go to that movie? Traister is right that Streep makes Priestly someone who is always the smartest and most dedicated one in the room and someone who is aware of the costs of the choices she has made. It's one of the best and most complex performances of the year.

Also in Slate, Amanda Fortini says that real-life fashion magazine staff don't dress as flamboyantly as the characters in the movie.
You'd ... be hard-pressed to find fashion editors who put themselves together in the fussy manner of the film's characters. With their swarms of gold chains heaped upon embroidered jackets layered over sequined tops, all of it cinched by wide belts and accessorized with knee-high boots, these editors look like conceptual art assemblages. ("More is more" seems to be the film's guiding aesthetic.)

But Fortini's most important conclusion is about what the movie does right in how well the clothes that are the focus of the movie tell the story. Andy's frumpy clothes in her "before" persona and the glam clothes that reflect her insecurity -- she wears full-scale outfits instead of putting something together on her own -- and lack of a personal style -- "On successive days, she approximates Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's (swingy green coat with leopard collar and cuffs), Ali MacGraw in Love Story (long belted jacket with snug knit cap), and Jane Fonda in Klute (minidress and overcoat paired with up-to-there boots).

It is not a documentary.
[S]ubdued, well-edited clothing [like that worn by real-life fashion editors] doesn't play well onscreen. The camera cannot sufficiently capture a sumptuous texture or a nuanced cut. The bright colors and conspicuous logos Field uses serve as visual shorthand for the glamour of a fashion editor's life. To differentiate her characters from regular women dressed up for work, Field had to make their ensembles over-the-top. And if the clothes pander to an outsider's expectation of what fashion should look like, it's hardly surprising; fashion outsiders will no doubt be the film's main viewers.


Anonymous said...

Movie Mom - Just saw the movie, and I haven't seen this mentioned in any of the reviews: Do you think the movie overemphasizes the "size 6 is fat" theme? My mom and I were concerned about young girls who see the movie and may walk away thinking that you have to be a size 0, 2 or 4, and if you're a size 6, you're fat. Seems like they continually mention this over and over in the movie, and I even had people sitting next to me in the theater whispering, "Oh my gosh, she's not fat!"

Just wondered what your thoughts were on this particular theme in the movie. Thanks!

Nell Minow said...

Thanks for a great comment! Yes, I mentioned this issue in my review: "Families may also want to talk about their most tyranical bosses and teachers and about the pressure on girls to be skinny and wear what magaznes dictate as the latest fashions. How do we decide what we want to look like?"

I am glad this movie raises the issue, but I agree with you that it begs the question by having Andy be proud of losing weight -- and by having her played by such a gorgeous actress. Still, it gives families a good way to start the conversation.

When my daughter was 12 she asked for a subscription to Vogue(!). I told her she could have one if she repeated after me: "Everything in the magazine, including the ads and the articles, is there to make me feel bad about myself and buy expensive junk I don't need." She laughed and repeated it and I am very proud of the way she creates fabulously inventive ensembles out of thrift store finery, outlet mall goodies, Ebay, and hand-me-downs. And she has a healthy self-image and does not obsess about weight.

JulieB said...

Just to remind everyone, movies are over the top -- overstatements for effect including for that matter the sizes. When they mentioned Streep as playing a "perfect size zero" I checked. Her clothes are rather normal human being sized, somewhat slender but nothing you'd stare at. Her clothes in the movie are being sold on Ebay, if you'd like to check. Here's a jacket, worn in the film:

A size 40 italian is about a size 10 American.

Anne Hathaway is a similarly slender but not skeletal size.


Anonymous said...

Actually, as someone who wears a 'healthy' size, I was not offended by the comical references to 'size 6 is the new 14"....I think it was clear that they were mocking the obsession with dress size. The best line in the movie? When Meryl Streep explains why she hired the "smart...FAT GIRL" when Andy is clearly and obviously NOT fat and had no hang ups about her weight. That is rich irony, delivered by the world's finest actress.