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Movie Review

The September Issue

Wintour’s tale: ‘September Issue’ shows Vogue boss as tough and tender

By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / September 11, 2009

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‘The September Issue’’ is one of the most revealing movies you’ll see about work: the stress to meet deadlines, please a boss, articulate objections. It’s set at the Manhattan offices of Vogue, a magazine that often weighs more than the women who grace its cover. R.J. Cutler’s documentary treats it all seriously, but not so seriously that there’s no joy. The people who work at Vogue work hard. They’re serious, really thinking about fashion, how it evolves, and where exactly it belongs in a woman’s life.

The movie focuses, rather shrewdly, on the production of a single issue, from September 2007, which its editor, Anna Wintour, announces will be the biggest (and most hernia-inducing) ever. What the movie unfolds is how the magazine is inextricable from Wintour’s vision of it.

Rather than merely compose a series of heads talking about why Wintour is the pope of fashion, as one staffer basically says, Cutler shows the pope at work. Making a house call to Oscar de la Renta, who shows a couple of gorgeous gowns, and to Stefano Pilati, at Yves St. Laurent, whose collection seems to bore her. Wintour tells Pilati what she thinks, and the designer’s slightly embarrassed response speaks volumes about how the rest of us can’t handle an honest assessment of our work without taking it personally, either. Taste is personal.

And sometimes Wintour is wrong, especially when it comes to the sensibility of Grace Coddington, Vogue’s creative director. Coddington is Wintour’s opposite. They’re about the same age and from the U.K., but Coddington is frumpy where Wintour is sleek (granted she’s as glamorous a frump as one can hope to be); reflective where Wintour is reactive; nurturing where Wintour can be steely. Coddington wears her orange hair in a wild frizz. Wintour favors that iconic pageboy. An automobile accident ended Coddington’s modeling career in the 1960s and has left her with a limp, and I’m assuming it takes an amazing amount of gumption to thrive in fashion with that particular accessory. She and Wintour have worked together for 20 years. But they took glaringly different paths to the top. Coddington toiled her way there. Wintour tells us, with a hint of embarrassment, she was essentially installed.

The movie makes these differences matter. Their relationship with each other and to the magazine become the dramatic center of the movie. As the issue comes together, they seem to grow apart. Coddington says, with a laugh, “I know when to stop pushing Anna. She doesn’t know when to stop pushing me.’’ What emerges is a kind of comic thriller about the insult of having hard work ignored or heartlessly omitted, as Wintour does to several images from one of Coddington’s photo shoots. We see Wintour in the layout room inspecting the images from one shoot, leaving out a gorgeous one that we know Coddington adores. Coddington enters later to find it cut from the spread.

But Cutler is careful not to cast Wintour as a villain. She’s simply a leader who insists she be followed. We see nervous employees try to impress her with bad ideas at story meetings and designers make excuses for weak collections. If Wintour is frosty, though, she’s also more radiant than she receives credit for being. She conducts most of her conversations for the camera without her famous sunglasses, and there’s something touching about seeing emotion on her face. At some point we see her going through back issues of Vogue with her daughter, Bee Shaffer, and she looks at the child with such unadulterated love that it’s shocking.

You can see how a callow staffer might eke out a roman à clef like “The Devil Wears Prada.’’ But it’s even clearer what Meryl Streep was going for when she played a version of Wintour in the movie adaptation: a human being. At the end of the day, Wintour believes that Coddington is an artist and a visionary and very much her equal.

Actually, if you love old movies, watching the fruits of Coddington’s labor can be depressing. This is where glamour and style have gone: to the fashion magazines. The production budgets for some of these shoots are staggering. (And the Vogue power lunches here might as well be taking place at the Palace of Versailles.) But they produce fun, sexy, exhilaratingly feminine images. If Coddington ever tires of clashing with Wintour, she should go to Hollywood. The movies need more Vogue.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE Directed by: R.J. Cutler

At: Boston Common, Harvard Square, Landmark Embassy

Running time: 90 minutes

Rated: PG-13 (brief strong language)

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