So we went, and I didn't expect to be blown away, but I was. Not by Meryl Streep so much (though she was manificent), or Stanley Tucci (who was wonderful, as always) or by Anne Hathaway (who I am more and more impressed by, and who didn't get the props she deserved for Brokeback Mountain)--but by the story itself.
I know somebody who used to work for Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue who is the model, everybody strenuously denies, for the Amanda Priestley character in the film. Yes, my former colleague says, Anna Wintour was hard to work for, and demanding, and occasionally imperious; yes, she inspired fear. It was true that people had been known to break into a run to fetch Anna's coffee...even people who didn't actually work for her. And yet, my former colleague said, Anna was, on the whole, a good boss.
It's funny, that a movie that was supposed to skewer this Bitch on Wheels ended up making her look pretty good, in my opinion. But then, I have a weakness for people who have high standards--even if they have a lot of foibles thrown in there, too--and so I suspect that in real life, I would have tried pretty hard to win Anna Wintour/Amanda Priestley's good opinion of me, too.
Is this groveling? No. There are limits--the character of Andi, played in the movie by Anne Hathaway--found her limits; there was a line she would not cross to be successful at all costs. That's an important thing to keep in mind. But within those fairly broad confines, there is lots of room to learn from people who care about what they are doing, who want it done right, who never stop looking for ways to improve it, and who see a larger significance in what they do.
I saw this movie as somebody who doesn't "get" fashion--as anybody who has ever known me will attest--and so I shared Andi's initial disdain about a job at a "mere" fashion magazine, where any woman bigger than a size 2 is considered fat and where appearance is everything. What blew me away, though, was the way Amanda disemboweled that intellectual pretense, in a scene where Andi snickers at some confab over color choices. I don't remember the dialogue, of course, but it went something like this. "Oh, I see," Amanda says, glancing at Andi. "You think this isn't important. You think that because this is just about...clothes...that only frivolous people are concerned with it, and so we are all beneath you. But that...thing...you're wearing, that blue thing--yes, that's cerulean blue. That color was big five or six years ago. Karl Lagerfeld used it, I think, and so it trickled down into the pret-a-porter, and then into the better department stores, and from there into the mass market and then, no doubt, into the clearance bin at Casual Corner where you found it. And you think that you chose that color. But, you see, you didn't choose it at all. It was chosen for you, by the five or six people standing right here in this room." In other words, this is a billion-dollar industry, toots, which employs millions of people around the world, and if you don't think it's important, then you are too snobby to see past your own little nose. When she's done, Andi is about six inches tall, and looking for a rug to crawl under.
And so, soon after, Andi goes to Stanley Tucci (the art director of the magazine) to complain about how little appreciated she is, how Amanda never notices when she does things right, just excoriates her when she screws up. "And that is my problem how?" he asks coolly. "Look at you. You have a job that a million girls would give anything for, and you deigned to take it--you lowered your standards to take it--because it pays the rent. And then you complain because Amanda doesn't think you take your work very seriously." It's a turning point: Andi starts getting serious about learning the fashion industry, and her career takes a dramatic upward turn. But in the end, she is not ready to become another Amanda; she won't sacrifice just anything to get ahead. She does not believe, as Amanda so assuredly states, "Darling, everybody wants to be us." Andi learns what's there to be learned, and what will be of value to her--chiefly, that she is capable of so much more than she ever dreamed of--and then she walks away. And her career is launched, in a whole new direction.
We should all be so lucky to have bosses who expect that much of us, and to encounter them early in our careers. The world is full of asshole bosses these days, who don't know what they're doing but don't let that get in the way of acting as if they do; the world is also full of employees ready to lay down the law to their employer about what they will and will not do--sometimes for good reason. But sometimes, let's be honest, it's just laziness, the "clocking out" syndrome. The thing to look for is the boss who expects the world of you because he or she has standards, and because they expect you to live up to them. I've had bosses like that--one or two--and, believe me, I busted my ass to deliver. Some were curmudgeonly; some lacked basic people skills; some were eccentric as hell; some were saints in the workplace but hell for their families to put up with--but they all made me a better writer and a better journalist than I would have been under other circumstances. I am fortunate to have known them.
So for every young person starting out today: I hope you, too, encounter a Devil who wears Prada, or Armani, or the functional equivalent. Someday you'll thank your lucky stars.