Saturday, July 15, 2006

The Devil You Say

I admit to having read The Devil Wears Prada when it first came out, and also to not being terribly impressed. I mean, I enjoyed it, it was a fun book, but it was not very well-written and it was not very interesting. It was also pretty over-the-top, I suspect because Anna Wintour (on whom the villain of the book, Miranda Priestly, is supposedly based) is pretty over-the-top. I think what made it not work, in addition to the sophomoric writing, was that truth really is stranger than fiction, and that these fictionalized truths were so Andy Warhol-esque that they weren't believable (though I suspect they really did happen).

But here's the thing. The New York Times reviewed the book twice, both times giving it a poor review (see here for the Book Review and here for the review in the daily edition). Kinda begs the question of why they'd bother to review it, not once, but twice, doesn't it? Makes you wonder what pressures might have been brought to bear? The Times' reviews focused on poor Anna Wintour who was being so unfairly maligned. And now, the film version is out, and again, the Times has something to say - in its Business section. There's also an actual film review, and not a bad one, but I think it's interesting that the Times felt the need to publicly defend Anna Wintour from the movie - and when I say "to defend," I mean "to noisily and wetly kiss her ass":

David Carr
The Devil Wears Teflon

Published: July 10, 2006

"The Devil Wears Prada," a chic, not-so-veiled look at the fashion magazine world and its empress, Anna Wintour, depicts a demanding, occasionally toxic editor named Miranda Priestly who cares deeply about the semiotics of a particular choice of belts.

The movie, based on a casually vicious roman à clef by a former assistant of Ms. Wintour's, is diverting enough. But is it accurate?

Having spent a few hours here and there watching Ms. Wintour do her job, I would say that although the devil resides in the details, the broad strokes resonate. When she came into a room to survey finished magazine pages or racks of clothing, the air seemed to ionize, with minions moving quickly after she exercised summary judgment.

However, the movie's other chief preoccupation — is Miranda Priestly née Anna Wintour really happy? — seems entirely beside the point. It is a question that seems to come up only when the successful executive happens to wear a dress.

Ms. Wintour has been the editor of Vogue for 18 years and is consulted by every major fashion house. Editorially, she has reinvigorated Vogue and created a platform sturdy enough to build an empire with Teen Vogue and Men's Vogue, and next fall, Vogue Living, reaching at least 2.3 million readers.

She does not put a finger in the wind to judge trends: she is the wind.

And her imperiousness, the precise thing that is parodied throughout the film, means that the movie is just one more spitball against a battleship. Most mortals would have responded to a wide-screen depiction of their excesses by dressing in sackcloth and hiding in the basement. Ms. Wintour donned Prada, natch, and went to a New York premiere.

IN that way, "The Devil Wears Prada" has become just one more lesson in Ms. Wintour's indomitability. A dead raccoon, a gift from antifur activists, dropped on her plate at the Four Seasons, is calmly tented with a napkin by Ms. Wintour before she orders coffee. A flung tofu pie is remarked upon for its benefits as a facial. And when she's satirized on the big screen, she makes sure she's in on the joke.

When the real Ms. Wintour wears Prada, it seems to be woven with Teflon.

"I'm sure she would rather have great press or no press," said S. I. Newhouse Jr., chairman of Condé Nast, which owns Vogue. "She rises above it. Anna has had great success in all aspects of her life and has tremendous inner strength and confidence."

A funny thing happened on the way to Ms. Wintour's cinematic impalement: she not only survives, but her place in the world is curiously ennobled. The movie, a more complex story than the book, tells a cautionary tale about the sacrifices that everyone — big and little, boss and worker — makes to get to or stay on top. But at its heart, the movie is paean to the transformative powers of fashion.

Anne Hathaway plays the schlubby assistant who succumbs to the allure of the fashion closet of the magazine, like Cinderella with a lot more slippers to choose from.

And in spite of what you see in the movies, Ms. Wintour has lots of friends. A brief call to Vogue about this column in the works brought a hail of phone calls from people with names like Harvey and Oscar. To a person, they say that she is nothing like the cartoon of an editor in the movie, that with Ms. Wintour, it is always about the work.

Part of the loyalty is reciprocal — Ms. Wintour sticks by her friends — but the other driver is her enormous power in the industry. Large, multinational concerns involved in fashion do not make a move without first consulting Ms. Wintour. In return, they can expect friendly treatment in the one magazine that brings high-fashion class to a heaving mass.

"She knows how to inspire and provoke the best in her staff," said David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker. "But she also does something that is very rare: she projects and makes effective use of her public persona. That's a high-wire act that takes talent and daring, as well as pure presence."

Ms. Wintour has managed to be the public face of Vogue, but has done so in a very private way. Bonnie Fuller, another successful magazine editor, reveals more about herself in just the title of her how-to book, "From Geek to Oh My Goddess: How to Get the Big Career and the Big Love Life and the Big Family — Even If You Have a Big Loser Complex Inside," than Ms. Wintour has revealed in her entire career. Ms. Wintour's idea of showing a little leg involves a miniskirt and nothing else.

"She is one of the greatest creative executives working," said Barry Diller, chief executive of IAC/InterActiveCorp. "She has absolutely no fear of performing her role. Many male executives have fears and insecurities. She has none."

Powerful women in the media always get inspected more thoroughly than their male counterparts. One of the movie's running jokes occurs when Miranda Priestly, Ms. Wintour's cinematic doppelganger, arrives at work and flings all manner of jillion-dollar handbags and coats on the desk of her hapless assistant. A boss who is always dumping on her underlings: imagine that. Katie Couric's backstage mien was the subject of breathless speculation, and Martha Stewart's executive approach was scrutinized long before her stock trades were.

Male media stars can ingest illegal drugs, make obscene phone calls or hire prostitutes without apparent consequence, but the failure of a female media figure to say please when ordering coffee can lead to wholesale indictment. In her everyday life, Ms. Wintour has a stable, dedicated team that has been with her for many years, never mind her bedside manner.

That is not to say that Ms. Wintour is anything approaching warm and cuddly — while she can be exceedingly droll and funny, she wears her impatience as others might wear a brooch. But that same characteristic in a male executive would seem not really worth mentioning. No wonder she has learned to wipe the pie off her face and keep moving.


And if you've read this far, check out Wikipedia on the subject. An excerpt:

The Wintour angle was of great assistance in promoting the widely-anticipated book. It sold millions of copies in hardback, stayed on The New York Times bestseller list for six months and has since been translated into 27 languages.

Critics, perhaps resigned to the knowledge that their reviews would be irrelevant to the book's runaway success, and also mindful of its subject matter, were largely unimpressed. Kate Betts, a former editor of Harper's Bazaar who also worked for Wintour at one point, spared no barb in the Times Book Review stressing the author's ungracious ungratefulness at the unique opportunity of working at Vogue: "[I]f Andrea doesn't ever realize why she should care about Miranda Priestly, why should we care about Andrea, or prize the text for anything more than the cheap frisson of the context?" Janet Maslin, in the daily paper, joined in: "a mean-spirited Gotcha! of a book, one that offers little indication that the author could interestingly sustain a gossip-free narrative ..."

It was, however, duly noted that Maslin tactfully avoids naming either the magazine where Weisberger actually worked nor the woman she allegedly modeled her main character on (the latter practice continued on the Times' part when the film came out[1]), and that Betts, as a former Condé Nast editor herself, was hardly an impartial reviewer).

Critics who favored the book admitted it had problems, as any first novel might, but praised it as a "fun, frivolous read."

No Condé Nast publication reviewed or otherwise mentioned The Devil Wears Prada.

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