Why This Scene From 'The Devil Wears Prada' Is Significant
Film critic Tim Robey looks back at a memorable moment in film and how Meryl Streep put cerulean on the map
“Cerulean”. Millions could have lived and died unaware of this once-innocuous shade of blue. But in the summer of 2006, they received an education. Meryl Streep, in The Devil Wears Prada, picked it as her weapon of choice in the film’s most withering monologue.
Anne Hathaway’s choice of sweater colour, in this much-quoted scene, came to define her, she it, and “cerulean” became a byword for everything fashion knows and the power it holds.
The scene; A dress trial is happening at the offices of Runway magazine, whose terrifying editor Miranda Priestly (Streep) is, characteristically, not impressed. Everything’s old hat; nothing’s working, save one thulian-pink tutu which she and art director Nigel (Stanley Tucci) think might just do. “You know me”, he says, “full ballerina skirt and a hint of saloon and I’m on board”.
It’s a stray snigger from Andy (Hathaway), who can’t tell two chromatically identical teal belts apart because she’s “still... learning about this stuff”, that spells her doom. Every head spins her way, Miranda’s snapping in her direction like a python sizing up its quivering prey. It is time for Andy to be put very publicly in her place.
WATCH: The iconic scene from The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
The ammunition chosen against the hapless junior personal assistant is her very own jumper, a clingy blue cable-knit job that Miranda waves at with a dismissive left hand. It denotes everything about Andy that’s non-fashion-conscious, everything artless and thrown-on.
And yet Miranda knows - and narrates - the whole genealogy of how it came to be that colour, via an Oscar de la Renta gown collection in 2002, and then - “I think it was Yves Saint Laurent, wasn’t it, who showed cerulean military jackets?” and then the colour “filtered down into the department stores” and indeed (as Miranda turns her back to fetch a hat) “trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you no doubt fished it out of a clearance bin”.
And so, in conclusion, it’s sort-of-comical that Andy thinks she made “a choice exempting herself from the fashion industry”, when in fact she’s just a bottom-feeder in the food chain, the victim and/or beneficiary (but mainly the victim) of vast and invisible market forces, her entire wardrobe just a range of coloured garments “selected for you, by the people in this room, from a pile of… stuff”.
Why is it so good?
Whole books could be written on Streep’s inflections in this scene, but let’s focus on one word. While an aide scurries off to grab the belts, she drawls the line “Why is no one reaa-dy?” with a truly extraordinary emphasis on the first syllable.
WATCH: Meryl Streep Meets Anna Wintour At Vogue
Everything the world has ever known about incompetence, time-wasting and being a lone genius in a nest of fools is somehow contained in this sound. She stretches out the very word as if it’s not doing its job - as if “ready” isn’t even ready, but dragging its tiresome heels like everyone else.
The scene is a Streep showcase guaranteed to make her lifetime-achievement clipreels. (Emily Blunt’s one moment, silently shaking her head by the doorway to pre-empt interruption, is a tiny treat, too.) But it’s also an instance of this ditzy comedy acquiring depth, because for all Miranda’s air of utter boredom with other people, this attack on Andy’s very being also amounts to a philosophical defence of her boss’s line of work.
No decision is trivial; every distinction is crucial. Everything an outsider like Andy might find pretentious about fashion winds up affecting her, though she may not know it. Without needing to raise that voice she never raises, Miranda’s annoyance is hilariously punishing, but it also has an emotional edge. Is that even a hint of moisture in her eyes, right at the end? She’s angry because, for all the perfection of her bored routines – that bulletproof aloofness – she actually cares.
Behind the scenes
Adapting Lauren Weisberger’s roman à clef, screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna did all the legwork here, but she wasn’t even sure the scene would be needed - it doesn’t advance the plot, after all. “Cerulean” was Streep’s choice from a list of blue hues McKenna sent, realising in mid-draft that Miranda would be very specific about her colours. And so what was going to be a plaid skirt morphed into Andy’s lumpy blue sweater, and “it’s actually cerulean” became the point of the scene. McKenna admits she completely made up all the blather about cerulean’s lineage - it only needed to sound convincing.
The Devil Wears Prada without Streep is inconceivable, but she wasn’t sold on starring until Fox doubled their measly salary offer of $2m. While she relished the chance to skewer fashion’s doyennes, she wasn’t interested in doing an impression of Anna Wintour - on whom Priestly in the book was based - or in playing Miranda as a cartoonish witch who eventually got punished.
This was one of the reasons she wanted the speech beefed up. Interviewed for the film’s 10th anniversary, Streep singled this out as the “most interesting piece” for her, because it showed “the responsibility lying on the shoulders of a woman who was the head of a global brand. In business terms, I wanted to know what that was like.”
The Devil Wears Prada opened on the same weekend as Superman Returns and would wind up grossing nearly as much, despite being made on a budget of $41m to that film’s $200m-plus. It was a rare female-centred smash to rule the summer without anyone needing to get into a halter top, gave both Streep and Hathaway their biggest hits to that date, and turbo-charged Blunt’s film career in the States.
Streep, naturally, got her 14th Oscar nomination. The film’s most lasting impact was re-establishing her as a popular star, not just a critics’ darling. Since 1999, she had downsized into supporting roles in the likes of Adaptation (2002) and The Manchurian Candidate (2004).
After Prada she was a leading lady all over again, who would gun for an even wider mainstream audience in Mamma Mia! (2008) and moonlight simultaneously as both rom-com queen and incessant darling of awards season.
To millennials, born after Streep’s first-wave stardom, who might only have had a dim idea of who Meryl Streep was before this, Prada made her - and “cerulean” - legendary.