When, in the early '00s, I worked as a freelancer for a publication two floors below Vogue — this was pre-Devil Wears Prada — each sighting of Anna Wintour, no matter from how great a distance, was terrifying enough to immobilize me for a few seconds, leading to a sweaty paralysis when I found myself alone with her in an elevator. Wintour's arctic imperiousness has a way of creating the most masochistic deference, a dynamic that R.J. Cutler superficially explores — and becomes prone to — in his documentary The September Issue.
Cutler, one of the producers of 1993's The War Room, was granted full access by Wintour to film the creation of her magazine's September 2007 issue, which, at 840 pages, was the largest ever in Vogue's history. Who knows why the infamously aloof and inscrutable editor chose to cooperate — to do Miranda Priestly better than Meryl Streep? To quell rumors that she would be replaced by French Vogue EIC Carine Roitfeld? — but her blessing seems to account for her kind treatment here; none of Wintour's many detractors speak in the film. Though Wintour is definitely shown as curt, dismissive and demanding, Cutler includes this explanation from gung-ho Vogue publisher Tom Florio: "I don't find her hidden. I just don't find her accessible to people she doesn't need to be accessible to. She's busy — she's not warm and friendly."
Filmed in tight close-up at the doc's beginning, her pageboy-bob helmet immovable, Wintour offers, smiling as best she can, her own unconvincing defense of her life's work to naysayers: "People are frightened of fashion. Because it scares them or makes them nervous, they put it down. There is something about fashion that can make people very nervous." Those people might include Wintour's beloved daughter, Bee, who says she would prefer a career in law to fashion ("It's a really weird industry for me. Sorry, Mommy.") or the editor's three far more civic-minded siblings, of whom Wintour, in her most revealing moment, can only say, "I think they're very amused by what I do."
The quick peeks into Her Highness' inner life break up Cutler's too-often-rushed, montage-heavy countdown of the frenzied months leading up to that behemoth issue's close, capturing the desperate attempts of Vogue staffers to please their boss and their singular, gnomic pronouncements at meetings: "The jacket is the new coat." Even Vogue's queenly editor-at-large André Leon Talley must bend to Madam's will, explaining his presence on a tennis court: "Miss Wintour said I had to lose weight. What Miss Wintour says, goes."
But not always. Grace Coddington, Vogue's creative director and the only one who dares to say no — if not always directly — to Wintour, emerges as The September Issue's true star, or at least the player with the greatest resolve, a devoted romantic who still has the sanest perspective on the industry. A former model from North Wales whose career on the runway ended after a car accident, the flame-haired Coddington started at Vogue the same day as Wintour, beginning a decades-long relationship of both begrudging respect and some inspired passive-aggressive behavior: Coddington is especially gifted at manipulating the presence of Cutler's crew to get what she wants from her boss.
If it feels perverse to cheer when Coddington's lavish visions — including a couture spread at the gardens of Versailles — ultimately dominate the magazine, it's a reminder of what a completely different era two years ago was. The September 2009 Vogue has 256 fewer pages than 2007's; last month, S.I. Newhouse called in consulting firm McKinsey & Co. to audit Condé Nast's spending. During the closing credits of Cutler's film, a scene at a printing press depicts the assembly of the doorstopper issue as lovingly as similar moments in the broadsheet-dramas The Soloist and State of Play. "I get very angry," Wintour notes in confessional mode about the demands of her position. "When I find myself getting really angry, I'll leave." The choice may not be hers to make.