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Jewish Journal

Portrait of a Fashion Diva as Human Being

by Naomi Pfefferman

September 9, 2009 | 8:25 pm

R.J. Cutler. Photo by Lori Hawkins/Actual Reality Pictures

R.J. Cutler. Photo by Lori Hawkins/Actual Reality Pictures

Due to an error at our printers, a portion of this article did not appear in the Jewish Journal print edition. The full article appears below.

In “The September Issue,” R.J. Cutler’s new documentary about the behind-the-scenes workings of American Vogue magazine, the formidable editor-in-chief Anna Wintour lives up to her reputation as the frosty doyenne of the fashion industry — aka Nuclear Wintour — who inspired Meryl Streep’s imperious performance in the film version of “The Devil Wears Prada.” 

As cameras capture the creation of the September 2007 issue, traditionally the largest edition of the fashion year, the diminutive Wintour intimidates designers and employees alike with her terse speech and icy glare. She unabashedly tells Oscar de la Renta he should reinterpret parts of his collection, and her critical remarks so fluster the head designer at Yves Saint Laurent that he vows to rethink his work. In one photograph, she decrees, the slender actress Jennifer Garner “looks pregnant”; in the issue’s cover photo, the actress Sienna Miller is too “toothy” and her picture must be retouched. When a Vogue staffer wonders aloud whether Anna would approve of a particular jacket, he quickly corrects himself, explaining that the garment is black (apparently a Wintour no-no): “I could get fired for that.” 

Yet the ruling diva, who often appears distant in her trademark sunglasses and severe bob haircut, nevertheless radiates a surprising vulnerability when she removes her glasses to reveal large green eyes in an on-camera interview. It becomes clear that despite her accomplishments, she still seeks validation from her relatives, who apparently regard fashion as trivial.

One of her siblings holds a prominent position in the field of low-income housing; another is the political editor of The Guardian; the third is a human-rights activist. “They’re brilliant,” the 59-year-old Wintour says. “My two brothers and sister are very amused by what I do — they’re amused,” she adds, in an almost self-deprecating tone.

Then there is Wintour’s college-age daughter, Bee, who explains that while she respects her mother, who wishes she would become an editor, she would prefer to become an attorney. Bee adds that she does not understand those who make fashion the center of their universe: “I would never want to take it too seriously.”

Cutler, a 47-year-old veteran filmmaker, grew up in a Jewish home in Great Neck, N.Y., and he identifies in an unexpected way with Wintour’s struggle between her public and private personas. “It’s like a classic Jewish folk tale, the story of Anna Wintour and her family,” he said of the editor. “It’s just so Jewish that this is a woman people bow down to everywhere she goes — they worship her, they’re terrified of her, they revere her. But the one group of people she wants to take her seriously — her family — think she’s silly.”

Cutler glimpsed Wintour’s vulnerability regarding her family in his very first meeting with the fashion monarch. The filmmaker finally secured an appointment with the often-inaccessible Wintour in October 2005, and reportedly even got himself a manicure for the occasion. He explained his documentary approach, which is observational rather than judgmental, inspired by his days working with the great cinema verité artist D.A. Pennebaker on films such as “The War Room.”


Anna Wintour, editor of American Vogue in
“The September Issue.”
Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Wintour proved a “crafty negotiator,” he said, but was amenable to a movie because she had always hoped to structure a film around the creation of the all-important September issue. Cutler agreed to make that his focus, with one caveat: He alone would determine the final cut of the documentary, without compromise. Wintour said she understood this journalistic prerogative, because her late father had been editor of London’s Evening Standard. “I was really struck by the way in which she talked about her father,” Cutler recalled. “I thought, ‘This is Anna Wintour, she doesn’t know me from Adam, so why is she telling me about her father?’ That was the moment I really wanted to make the movie.”

So in 2007, Cutler and his crew captured Wintour and her entourage of designers, models, photographers and editors as they prepared what promised to be the fattest September issue ever. He followed the action during New York’s fashion week, filmed within the hallowed halls of Vogue, which are lined with couture, and traveled for shoots and re-shoots to Paris and Milan. He also captured closed-door meetings and some staff meltdowns. 

Along the way, he discovered that the centerpiece of the film should be the relationship between Wintour and Grace Coddington, Vogue’s second-in-command — a 68-year-old former model with flaming red hair who doesn’t wear even a scrap of makeup. Coddington is widely regarded as the most brilliant stylist in the modern fashion business; she joined American Vogue the same day as her boss, and she is the only Vogue staffer unafraid to spar with Wintour. 

Initially, though, Coddington wanted no part of the documentary. She reportedly even threatened to quit over Wintour’s decision to allow cameras at Vogue, and she snapped at Cutler to get out of her way whenever he approached.

“Fashion people see cameras and think, ‘The enemy has landed,’” Cutler said. But after four months of hostility, Coddington relented upon viewing previous films by Cutler and his director of photography, Bob Richman. “My instinct was that Grace would connect to Bob’s artistic soul the way she had connected with so many photographers,” Cutler said.

“Anna and I understand each other,” Coddington says in the film. “She knows I’m stubborn; I know she’s stubborn. I know when to stop pushing her.” Coddington pauses, and then says dryly, “She doesn’t know when to stop pushing me.”

Cutler himself came across as both bold and opinionated in an interview at a Hollywood bistro; he fiercely defends Wintour against those who would indiscriminately label her with the b-word. Wintour is paid to nix ideas, he insists; she is too busy to mince words, and while she is demanding, she is also forthright, hardworking and passionate about her job.

“Now, I’m not naïve; fashion is a bitchy business,” Cutler added. But he said he thought a recent “60 Minutes” interview with Wintour went too far. “The subject of the whole damn thing was, ‘Are you a bitch or not?’” he said. “Besides the fact that that is sexist, it’s so boring. Morley Safer would never ask a man, ‘Are you an asshole?’ But he actually looked Anna in the eye and asked, ‘Are you a bitch?’ She should’ve given him the finger.”

As bold as he is with his opinions, Cutler laughed a tad sheepishly when asked about how his Jewish family reminds him of Wintour’s. He told a story of how his mother, during his senior year at Harvard University, was concerned when he announced his initial career plans, which included directing theater because he enjoyed the human drama explored onstage. His mother replied that if he liked human drama so much, how about exploring courtroom drama as an attorney? Or life saving on the operating table as a surgeon?

Cutler actually blushes when asked about Wintour’s response to his film. In the documentary, her scathing one-liners are at times amusing: “This type seems so large and pretentious — it looks like something for blind people,” she says on camera at one point. Did Wintour have any such critiques about “The September Issue?”

“She had about 30 of them,” Cutler said. “But you would want nothing less from Anna Wintour, wouldn’t you? You would want her to be opinionated, to be forceful.”

And, he added, she was true to her word. “She honored her agreement that this was my movie, and she has done a lot to support it. I say, ‘God bless her.’”


“The September Issue” opens Sept. 11.

 

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