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'The September Issue': Stop Picking on Anna Wintour!

Is Anna Wintour hiring? She won’t have any trouble collecting résumés after her new film makes the rounds. In The September Issue, a new documentary about the editor of Vogue, we learn that the woman who inspired The Devil Wears Prada isn’t really so devilish. Actually, she’s diligent, demanding, decisive, and, yes, even at times a little debonair, like when she greets an up-and-coming designer on the red carpet. So why does Anna Wintour get labeled with the other D word, and a B word that makes powerful women cringe?

Until now, we’ve only known Wintour as a character, or a caricature. She was lampooned not only in Prada but in The Incredibles and Ugly Betty—as a power-hungry, conceited empress. In real life, her public persona is cold and distant. She wears her furs like armor, and those dark sunglasses seem to shield her from any scrutiny. When she was on 60 Minutes earlier this year, Morley Safer asked her if she was a bitch, to which Wintour awkwardly had to offer a denial. The September Issue chronicles eight months of work at Vogue, as the magazine’s staff puts together its largest issue ever. We see a lot about fashion—Sienna Miller is the cover girl, and she gets into more dresses than Whoopi Goldberg at the Oscars—but we also see a lot of Anna. The filmmakers had 320 hours of Vogue footage.

The portrait of the real Anna Wintour is nothing like the Anna Wintour myth. As an editor, she’s firm but not abrasive. Yes, she’s controlling and sometimes condescending, but aren’t most bosses? Throughout the movie you keep wondering: would Wintour have to continually defend herself if she were a man? “Compare the way we shot this film to the way 60 Minutes shot that segment, which I thought was cinematically abrasive and obnoxious,” says director R. J. Cutler (The War Room) over a recent sushi lunch in Manhattan. “I thought the interview was childish. Morley Safer didn’t have any curiosity about his subject. All he wanted to do was make fun of fashion and ask Anna if she was a bitch─a question, by the way, he never would have asked a man with Anna’s achievements and power. He would have buddied up with that man and gone golfing with him and told all his friends how chummy he was with that man.”

Cutler had to buddy up with Wintour for his movie, and he speaks about her as he would about a great athlete. “I was interested in how does she do it,” he says, adding that he didn’t really have a lot of knowledge of the fashion industry before doing the movie. He calls The Devil Wears Prada “a terrible, terrible book ... like eating awful food,” and says the character of Miranda Priestly has no resemblance to Wintour at all. “She was a straight shooter,” Cutler says. “I told her in the first meeting I couldn’t do the film unless I had final cut. She said, ‘I totally get it. My father is a journalist. I’m a journalist. That won’t be a problem.’ I thought that was instantly fascinating, that she granted me final cut right away. This person who was supposed to be sphinxlike and secretive was talking to me about her dad, and I had just met her.”

The most revealing scene in the movie involves Wintour and her college-age daughter, Bee. The two have a conversation in their home, and then Bee later talks to the camera alone, giggling about her mom’s job. Wintour confesses that her family doesn’t always take her seriously—they sometimes don’t see the value in her work. It’s a raw, vulnerable moment, and you can’t help but sympathize with Wintour. She might be the most powerful woman in fashion, but is she also the most misunderstood?

When Wintour made her appearance on David Letterman, the New York Post ran a story with the headline “Ice Queen Thaws But Doesn’t Melt Hearts.” Wintour nervously joked on the show about how The New York Times had recently called her “the Sun King,” “an alien fleeing from District 9,” and “a dominatrix,” and she seemed to ready herself for a comedic punch or two from Letterman. Don’t let them bully you! I wanted to shout from my couch. Stay strong! I was surprised at how protective I felt, and I remembered Cutler’s observation that “people relate to Anna.” Really? The fact that The September Issue delivers on that promise makes it one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.

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