When people think of movies that gross big bucks in the summer time, they’ll often think of action films, sequels, bloated studio tentpoles that cost 200 million dollars or more; most people don’t think of movies made for a female audience, and they certainly don’t assume a film with a lead actress who’s—yikes—older than fifty could possibly star in a movie that makes money. Studio executives have been known, now more than ever before, to make their summer movies for a specific demographic—teen boys—and any movie aimed at women that happens to earn a few dollars is typically regarded as a fluke. In the summer of 2006, when blockbusters like Poseidon and Superman Returns were failing, a sharp, clever, exceedingly funny film broke through and became a modern comedy classic. The Devil Wears Prada is not only one of Meryl’s most entertaining films but it was arguably her first true blockbuster.
Meryl has had a few noteworthy stages in her career. In the late 1970s, she was a supporting actress, appearing in small roles in five films and one mini-series that started to get her noticed. Throughout the 1980s, she appeared in one heavy drama after another, in complex roles that netted her a whopping six Academy Award nominations for Best Actress in a span of just seven years. From 1989 to 1992 she stretched her comedic muscles by making four comedies in a row. She moved into action with The River Wild, gave a startling performance in The Bridges of Madison County, then played it sort of safe for the rest of the 1990s with a series of mediocre dramas. In the first half of the 2000s she made a few memorable turns in Adaptation and Angels in America, and started becoming more unpredictable with her choices. And then in the second half of the 2000s she became something truly unexpected, probably by no one more than Meryl herself—a box office superstar.
She made The Devil Wears Prada when she was fifty-six years old, an age when most actors, especially women, have been relegated to the role of the supportive mother or the wise schoolteacher. Women in their fifties almost never receive exciting lead roles in movies, and it’s practically unheard of for a woman in that age bracket to be able to open a movie. So when The Devil Wears Prada opened to twenty-seven million and went on to earn 125 million in the United States alone, more than a few people turned their heads. The only movie Meryl was a lead in prior that even came close to such a mammoth box office take was Out of Africa, in 1985, with eighty-seven million—and that won Best Picture. Many assumed The Devil Wears Prada’s high gross was a rare success story, but then it kept happening. Two years later, Meryl’s female-driven Mamma Mia opened on the same weekend as The Dark Knight, and still made 144 million nationwide (and 610 million worldwide!), her highest film gross to date. A year later Julie & Julia soared to ninety-four million, and It’s Complicated topped out at 113 million. Even 2012’s Hope Springs, a low-key relationship dramedy, made sixty-four million. For the last few years, Meryl has enjoyed a fascinating new stage of her career, and it all started with The Devil Wears Prada.
Meryl’s 2006 blockbuster is not a perfect film by any means. It’s predictable most of the way through, and while Anne Hathaway, Stanley Tucci, and especially Emily Blunt shine in their roles, the movie would not work nearly as well without Meryl’s memorable portrayal of the boss from Hell. Hathaway, who received a major career boost of her own with this project, plays Andy Sachs, a recent college graduate who comes to New York to be a famous journalist and ends up working as second assistant to Miranda Priestley (Meryl), one of the most important and notorious fashion magazine editors in town. Working alongside first assistant Emily (the hilarious Blunt), Andy tries to survive under the dictatorship of her maniacal boss who expects everything and more for those who work for her. Miranda barks seventeen orders at Andy, then changes them, then demands her to find an unpublished Harry Potter manuscript in a matter of hours. It at times gets to be too much for Andy, especially as she tries to make a relationship work with her boyfriend Nate (Adrian Grenier). As the year goes on, however, she hits her stride at work and becomes Miranda’s most trusted assistant. Will Andy ultimately become the next Miranda Priestley and abandon the person she used to be, or will she get out before it’s too late?
David Frankel, who had previously directed episodes of Sex and the City and Entourage, made The Devil Wears Prada colorful and fun, with a brisk pacing that almost never falters. From the quick-moving opening titles to the various fashion montages to an ending that wraps things fast and satisfactorily, this is not a slow-moving drama that takes its time. The Devil Wears Prada is meant to be a crowd-pleaser from beginning to end, and on that level, it shines. It’s a movie that knows what it wants to be but at the same time never panders to its audience. The screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna, which was adapted from Lauren Weisberger’s popular novel, has a familiar structure, but it’s the dialogue throughout that makes this film stand out from others. Miranda’s vicious speeches and outrageous demands always yield laughs, and Emily’s put-downs to Andy might be the funniest of all. Many movies in this genre can feel too pedestrian, too manipulative at times, but such is never the case with The Devil Wears Prada.
Casting always makes or breaks a film, and in this case, the casting of the four major characters is perfect. While Andy’s boyfriend Nate could have been played by anyone—Grenier is OK but doesn’t have a lot to work with—and Simon Baker is adequate but nothing special in the role of the scheming Christian, the four leads all leave memorable impressions. Anne Hathaway was most known for playing a Disney princess before this movie (Meryl was reportedly skeptical of Hathaway’s casting in the beginning), but it was her completely charming performance in The Devil Wears Prada that signified a new chapter of her blossoming career. She is appropriately dowdy in the beginning, wearing awkward sweaters and eating onion bagels, and as well as her outer transformation into the more fashionable Andy works, it’s the change on the inside that pops off the screen. Hathaway holds her own against Meryl all the way through. Emily Blunt was plucked from near obscurity for this movie—she had mostly acted in British television productions before—and was an inspired choice for the smart-mouthed, hot-tempered Emily. “I’m one stomach flu away from my goal weight” is probably the line people remember the most but she has countless zingers all the way through. Stanley Tucci, who went on to play Meryl’s loving husband in Julie & Julia, makes the role of Miranda’s right hand man Nigel an original and ultimately endearing character, when he could have been played more selfish and stereotypical by another actor. He is at his best here, too.
Meryl received her fourteenth Academy Award nomination for The Devil Wears Prada, one of the few she has nabbed for a comedic film, and she, more than any other actor in the film, takes a role that could have easily—very easily—been one-note and obvious, and makes it three-dimensional in every way. Remarkably, Meryl gets us to care about Miranda by the end of the movie, no small feat. When we are first introduced to her, she is the tyrannical boss who trudges down her office hallway like a Tyrannosaurus Rex willing to squash anyone who gets in her way. The early scenes where she spits out one venomous line of dialogue after another give the film some of its best entertainment value, and the monologues when she voices her disappointment in Andy are always shockingly vitriolic. Despite her being the villain of the movie, Miranda can’t always be a hateful witch, and no one knows that better than Meryl herself. Occasionally we see traces of Miranda’s personal life at home, but it’s in a heartbreaking scene in a Paris hotel room, when Meryl wears no make-up and trembles as she talks about the break-up of her marriage, that shows more than anything else Meryl’s mastery. She finds just the right balance of Miranda’s vulnerability and still brewing cynicism in this moment, the scene that made Meryl want to do the movie, and probably the scene that netted her the well-deserved Oscar nomination.
The Devil Wears Prada will never be viewed on the same level as Meryl’s masterful dramas like Kramer Vs. Kramer and Sophie’s Choice, and in a career that has seen two comedic gems—Defending Your Life and Death Becomes Her—this film might not even be considered her great comedy achievement. But in the year since its successful release it has become one of Meryl’s most beloved movies and features what will always be one of her most memorable performances. Meryl could have played the role of Miranda as a superficial villain but instead infused in her just enough humanity to show why she became this way and what she really wants out of her life and career. The Devil Wears Prada is grand entertainment every step of the way, and it remains one of my all-time favorite Meryl movies.