Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Movie Review & Commentary:
THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA


- by Diane Clehane


Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly
(photo: Brigitte Lacombe/Twentieth Century Fox)


“The Devil Wears Prada” has given the fashion industry its own version of the “The Da Vinci Code.” Although the film isn’t scheduled for release until Friday, squadrons of experts have already weighed in on the ‘accuracy’ of the film and -- big surprise -- cries of heresy abound from every faction. Insiders are lining up to gripe about the film’s alleged fashion faux pas and dead wrong details of editorial office etiquette. Others opine that no editor worth her Manolos would wear a ‘dated’ do like Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly. (Paging Suzy Menkes!!) Judging from the vitriol that has been spewed by a cross section of factions – WWD ridiculously asked “Where are the hip clothes?” and in his “New York Observer” column, Simon Doonan decried “Devil” as “cheesy-ass” and “mediocre” without even seeing it – I have to wonder can organized protests be far behind?

Newsflash – it’s just a movie, people!

And, it’s a very entertaining one at that.

Now, here comes the heresy part of the show: “Devil” is hands down the most accurate portrayal of life in fashion in a long time.

Lest you think I’m just some ink stained wretch with no real experience slaving away at fashion’s altar, indulge me in reciting an abridged version of my resume. I gained entry into fashion by answering a blind ad in The New York Times for an assistant’s job which turned out to be working for the director of public relations at Anne Klein. (I take the fifth on the year of my baptism by fire) In short order I found myself making the daily two-hour each way commute from Long Island to Seventh Avenue to work for Patti Cohen, and by proxy, Donna Karan and Louis Dell’Olio. (For the record, I loved every minute of it.) Once my euphoria at having gotten the job subsided, I was terror struck by the thought of knowing I had nothing suitable to wear. My last job had been as an assistant buyer at Macys. I was relieved to learn that I would receive a generous clothing allowance and a steep employee discount. I became the lowest paid, best dressed woman on the 7:02 out of Babylon. I never questioned why I was required to wear the latest styles to pack samples, call in models’ books and run errands. I was in heaven.

I quickly graduated to showing the line to editors – I still remember the abject terror I felt the first time I had to do a solo preview for Nina Hyde who was not amused about being passed off to a fashion neophyte. Celebrity obsessed long before it was a required part of the job, I gamely volunteered to ‘dress’ talking heads and actresses whenever they called looking for an outfit they’d seen in Vogue. Here’s a snapshot of just how different things are now versus then: Today, they’d call “Entertainment Tonight” or “E!” and offer an exclusive if Teri Hatcher came calling looking for a dress. I remember having to show fall suits to Candice Bergen at the height of her “Murphy Brown” fame in reception because the buyers from Belk had completely taken over the showroom.

All too soon Donna – and Patti – departed to start Donna Karan New York. Enter the boss from hell. I exited soon afterward.

A few years later I answered another blind ad for a copywriter’s job (alright, it was the eighties – these things just don’t happen anymore). The job was at VOGUE. I’ll never forget my first interview with the headhunter. She was talking to a Conde Nast human resources person about my resume. Then, just before she hung up, she said, “A size six young Jane Fonda.” When I asked her what she’d been talking about just then she replied, “They wanted to know what you look like and that’s what I said.”

I started the same day that Anna Wintour did – and, like “Devil’s” clueless assistant Andy Sachs -- I had no idea I was breathing the same rarified air as a legend. I was also dangerously ignorant of elevator etiquette. On my second day, I found myself on the 12th floor waiting for an elevator with Anna. I have to laugh now at the memory. Feeling naively confident in my Loehmann’s-bought Armani, I stepped inside along with her when the doors opened, smiled brightly and gave her the most enthusiastic “Good morning!” I could muster. She didn’t flinch -- she simply turned and faced the back corner and remained there for the long, silent ride to the lobby. By the time I got back to my desk, there was a message summoning me to my boss’ office. I never made the same mistake again.

About a year later, I hired away by ELLE by the offer of a substantially higher salary. (I could finally move into the city!) The experience was like moving out of the most popular sorority favored by the richest girl on campus into the upstart bohemian house where no one seemed to care much about who you looked like. And the elevators were always crowded.

Since 1995, I have worked as a freelance writer doing profiles on actors, designers and fashionistas of every ilk. I’ve covered countless Fashion Weeks and Oscar seasons and stood on more red carpets waiting for that all-important pull-quote for that story on the starlet du jour. I’ve been to the dark side. I’ve seen grown women cry over their seats at shows and celebrities exhibit the kind of bad behavior that redefines the “you can’t make this stuff up” category. So, in short, I’ve seen the Devil when she’s worn Prada and Gucci – and everything in between.

Okay, so back to the movie.

I’m going on the record stating “The Devil Wears Prada” is one of the most enjoyable trips to theater I’ve had in a long time. Prediction: it’s going to be one of the biggest hits of the summer. Anne Hathaway, you can put away your “Princess Diaries” tiara for good. Your moment has arrived. And memo to Ms. Streep: keep Valentino on your speed dial because come awards season, you’ll be needing him.

After decades of suffering through laughably bad movies (“Prêt a Porter” among others) that have failed miserably at capturing any real sense of fashion’s caste system and the variously repellent and enchanting personalities that populate it, “Devil” is spot on.

A vast improvement on the infamous snippy revenge memoir disguised as novel by Lauren Weisberger, “Devil” is a modern fairy tale which takes our heroine aspiring writer Andrea Sachs (Anne Hathaway) on Technicolor tour into a world previously unknown to her. Despite her decidedly unchic wardrobe and her disclosure during her job interview that “It’s this or Auto World,” Andy lands the gig “a million girls would kill for” – assistant to Runway’s editor in chief Miranda Priestley (Meryl Streep). The film’s screenplay smartly offsets the true to life sniping and widespread paranoia of Runway’s minions with humor and, as a result “First Assistant” Emily (played brilliantly by scene stealer Emily Blunt) and Andy’s mentor art director Nigel (a fey but world weary Stanley Tucci) have some of the best lines in the film. Two of them embody the overriding truths of a fashionista’s life. When Andy tells Emily she looks thin, she beams and replies, “I’m just one stomach flu away from my goal weight.” Later, when Andy bemoans the state of her love life to Nigel, he replies “Let me know when your whole life goes up in smoke – then it’s time for a promotion.” Sound familiar?


The "Gang" at Runway
(photo: Barry Wetcher/Twentieth Century Fox)


While Andy bemoans the superficiality of her colleagues (“They act like they’re curing cancer”) to her sous-chef boyfriend (“Entourage’s Adrian Grenier), she gets sucked in. Not because of the glamour – and free clothes, she tells herself, but because after logging a year slaving away for Miranda, she will finally be able to work for The New Yorker or Vanity Fair. Still, she makes a wonderful clothes hanger and Patricia Field’s superbly styled montages of Hathaway in full fashionista mode are sure to pop up in tributes to fashion in films for many years to come. Hathaway, who told me she had a ‘working relationship’ with Chanel before being cast in the film, is the ideal mannequin for the house. She lights up the screen every time she walks into frame decked out head to toe. It is pure fashion fantasy – and that’s why it works so well.

Unlike the book’s one dimensional harridan, Streep’s Miranda – however briefly – reveals the wounded woman beneath the sterling façade. Rather than create an over the top cartoonish monster, Streep underplays every scene with a low voice that draws you in and almost imperceptible gestures to signal displeasure or her all too rare approval. In every sense, her scenes with Hathaway are fascinating for their depiction of the relationship between teacher and apt pupil. It’s a battle of wits between Andy and Miranda and in the end, thanks to the performances of both actresses; the two women prove themselves to be worthy opponents.

Not surprisingly, director David Frankel delivers a beautifully shot film. Everything is slick, sleek and shiny. It’s New York City without those annoying teams of t-shirt wearing tourists that are currently clogging up our street corners. Miranda’s office at Runway and her requisite townhouse reflect an idealized version of life at the pinnacle of fashion – at least from an esthetic standpoint. The Paris scenes – while a little too reminiscent of the last few episodes of “Sex & the City” (A coincidence? I think not) – are still a treat.

Perhaps what is most fun about “Devil” is the insider details that (some) fashionistas are sure to enjoy that are somehow made equally appealing to every faithful “Us Weekly” reader who devours the magazine in hopes being able to duplicate the latest trend touched off Olsen twins. Mark my words, this is a movie tribes of fashion - obsessed teenage girls and twentysomethings will see over and over again. The opening montage which depicts the “clackers” – the kind of women who obsessively count out 12 almonds for breakfast and who possess wardrobes worth far more than their annual assistant salaries – will elicit smiles from those who know them (and who doesn’t?) and envious sighs from those who want to be them. Therein lies “Devil’s” appeal – and secret of the film’s success. It’s like a funhouse mirror – the reflection you see, although undeniably distorted, depends solely on who is looking in. And, if you’re looking for a good time, it will make you smile – even if you don’t want to say why.

Diane Clehane is Lookonline.com's entertainment editor. You can email her at dclehane@aol.com

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