Tuesday, July 04, 2006

On Meryl Streep in "The Devil Wears Prada"

Our greatest living actress enjoys herself tremendously in this otherwise inconsequential remake of Nichols' "Working Girl" ("Prada" is based on a chick-lit novel whose author had clearly seen the 1988 film). One has to admire Streep's refusal to rest on her laurels. As always, she gives a complete performance -- nuanced, consistent, understated. Her "Miranda Priestly" is carefully constructed and laser-beam precise. She wastes nothing. Every gesture or inflection, no matter how slight, has been calculated far in advance. Clean and technical.

Presumably, the "Devil" in the title refers to Miranda, but Streep (and possibly the screenwriters, though I rather doubt it) refuses to make this character a farcical harridan or bitchy boss-lady. (Cf. Sigourney Weaver's character in "Working Girl".) This character reminds us more of an 18th century duchess, right down to the physical aspects -- regal white hair, haute couture, pale skin. She eventually comes across as an almost admirable existentialist, and in any case, it's rare in cinema -- or in life -- to find a character who takes their job this seriously. At one point in the film, Miranda demolishes the main character's disdain for all the fuss over High Fashion by pointing out the global consequences of this industry's activities: putting people to work; determining, in a sort of trickle-down manner, the very clothes we wear on our backs, and so forth. We're practically convinced.

However, it is likely that our affection for Streep, earned by decades of superb work, distorts our view of the character. It is such a joy to see a great performer getting it so consistently right that we're willing to go along with just about anything. We are seduced, the way we're seduced by a great actor playing Richard III or Iago. We root for the villain. We want Anne Hathaway's character to continue working for Miranda, instead of going back to her boring chef boyfriend and pursuing a dull career as a "serious" journalist. (I understand that in the novel the boyfriend is a teacher, but I guess that would've been even more boring, eh girls?) Finally, it occurs to us that this might be the first time that Streep has generated a truly iconic character, in the De Niro/Travis Bickle manner, the Leigh/Scarlett O'Hara manner, the Bridges/Jeff Lebowski manner. Because her performances have been so excellent over the years, it's easy to forget that she has rarely played titanic figures. Even her Sophie from "Sophie's Choice", or her Isak Dinesen from "Out of Africa", were more-or-less down-to-earth people. Miranda's little catch-phrase here -- "That is all", uttered almost sotto voce, accompanied by a dismissive wave of the fingers -- will likely become one of those great quotable movie lines comparable to "Am I clown? Do I amuse you?", "You talkin' to me?", or any number of others. Again, consistency is the key to such a gaudy conception. Streep, it will be noted, never raises her voice above the haughty monotone employed throughout, not even when, in a rather shocking moment, we see her without her Marquise de Merteuil mask of expertly applied make-up. Even when teary, Streep never lets Miranda -- or us -- down by getting all ghastly and womanly. A moment's regret, then back to business. Fictively and metafictively speaking, a master at work.


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