The Art of the Iceberg: An Ode to Stanley Tucci in The Devil Wears Prada

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I.

“That’s all.”

Two pithy words; a whole universe of cold indifference. Those words reemerge insistently in the reviews for The Devil Wears Prada, David Frankel’s 2006 adaptation of Lauren Weisberger’s bestselling roman à clef. They’re delivered a couple of times in the film, always by Meryl Streep as Anna Wintour stand-in Miranda Priestly, editor of Vogue stand-in Runway, and every time, they’re absolutely devastating in their cruelty, though Streep’s intonation barely rises above a whisper. Critics in 2006 were right to zero in on “That’s all” as emblematic of what makes Streep’s performance so captivating. For The Devil Wears Prada to succeed, Miranda Priestly needs to seem like the most important person not just in the movie’s plot but in the entire narrative world of which that plot is but a figment; the film demands a performance with real gravitational pull, and its screenwriters certainly got what they asked for. Streep’s Miranda walks into a room and all orbits realign; she gives the once-over to Andrea Sachs, a dowdy postgrad played by Anne Hathaway, and the latter’s dreams almost visibly wither and die; Streep mutters, “That’s all,” and a frost covers everything in sight. Because Streep is an accomplished actor who is always nuanced and controlled even when she is playing a person who is neither nuanced nor controlled, and who cannot play a character without some humanity seeping in, it doesn’t look like scenery-chewing. Yet scenery-chewing, -devouring even, it nevertheless most certainly is. Hers is a greedy performance; not content to be part of an ensemble, Streep doesn’t so much engage with her fellow actors as hijack every scene she appears in and suck all energy unto herself. Hathaway, when she’s trying her very hardest, is a serviceable but unremarkable actor (yes, I saw Les Miserables), so of course, she never stood a chance in a room with Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestly. From their first scene together, Streep makes sure it’s clear that their subsequent conflict will not be a battle but a bloodbath.

That Streep accomplishes what she does whilst never raising her voice, whilst modulating her expression only through a slight quirk of the eyebrow or pursing of the lips, is testament to her immense talents. It’s dazzling work, so it’s understandable that critics were a little blinded at the time by the sheer mastery on display. It’s not wrong to commend Streep’s performance in The Devil Wears Prada, but there’s something not quite right about the reception of this film. An overwhelming majority of critics who gave the film a thumbs-up seem to have fallaciously assumed that because Miranda is the plot’s focal point (yeah, the movie’s ostensibly about Hathaway’s character, but please, there’s only room for one eponymous Devil), and because Streep is by far its most forceful element, Miranda must therefore have been the most interesting and important component as well. And while she’s certainly crucial, in that there’d be no movie without her, there are other agents at work here, and at least one other performance which, although it lacks the readily quantifiable value, is equally indispensable: no Meryl Streep, no movie, but no Stanley Tucci, no meaning.

Tucci plays Nigel, Runway’s art director, and he does it with wit, depth, gravity, and verve. Much is made, in the film and in its reception, of the way Streep manages to humanize a demonic character like Miranda, but really, what’s so exciting about that? There are only two paths her character could possibly travel: one where she’s a cartoonish villain, and another where’s she’s a relatable villain. Is anyone, watching The Devil Wears Prada, surprised to learn that Miranda has a heart, any more than they’re surprised to see protagonist Andrea slide inexorably toward the Dark Side? Streep imbues this character arc with all the emotion she can, but it’s a stock plot in an adequately written and flavorlessly directed film – there’s only so much she can do. Nigel, on the other hand… well, Nigel, you see, matters exactly nothing to the plot of The Devil Wears Prada. He gives Andrea some advice and some clothes that together convince her to stay at Runway and keep the plot moving forward, but really, if he didn’t do these things, someone else would. In the film’s final act, he is thrilled to receive a long-awaited promotion only to be publicly betrayed by Miranda and denied it at the last moment, and thus is offered up as a kind of complement to Andrea’s story: his victimhood illustrates Miranda’s brutality and backstabbing, providing us with a vision of the tragic figure Andrea could easily become should she stay on at Runway for the long haul. Here, again, Nigel is filling a role that has little to do with Nigel as Nigel; Emily (played by Tucci’s sister-in-law Emily Blunt) might easily have served this purpose and indeed does, albeit to a less dramatically high-stakes extent. Nigel’s two plot functions therefore could be excised or replaced with little impact to the narrative per se.

In this way above all others, Nigel’s role is quite unlike that of Miranda: Miranda, as written by screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna, demands a performance like Streep’s, while Nigel, as written, demands nothing whatsoever. Nigel could be anyone. In the television sitcom Ugly Betty, another fish-out-of-water tale of a supposedly plus-size girl employed at a Vogue-like fashion glossy, the Nigel figure is a thirty-something Irish woman whose plot function is identical to his even though their personalities and characteristics are largely without overlap. There is barely any personality implied by Nigel’s dialogue as it appears on the page. There aren’t even any implied qualities to him save for a general likability, and while Hathaway’s struggle to muster up that very trait in her performance as Andrea might lead one to think otherwise, most competent actors could manage this barest of minimums. Tucci certainly can. So if his Nigel is not necessary to the plot of The Devil Wears Prada or even its atmosphere – Streep and Blunt contribute far more to the overall climate of pervasive aggressions both passive and otherwise – then why is he even in the film at all?

 

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II.

There is a reason, but to get to it, we need to look a bit more closely at Tucci’s performance as Nigel – truly masterful work by a supremely gifted actor. Streep might hog the attention of characters and viewers alike, but her work pales in comparison to Tucci’s, who doesn’t get a headlining performance to play with. Instead, Tucci gets almost nothing, and from the meager scraps he’s handed, he spins not just a memorable comic character but a whole individual, inconsequential to the plot but jarringly real in a human sense. From a line of dialogue as seemingly obvious and one-note as his transcendently cruel sneer, “Did someone eat an onion bagel?”, Tucci does far more than elicit a chuckle. With disbelief curdling in his mouth around the word “onion,” Tucci invents a person.

Let’s rewind to the moment when we first encounter Nigel. Hopeful, mousy Andrea has arrived at Runway for a job interview but the place is in pandemonium because Emily, as we hear her hiss frantically over the telephone to a coworker, has just been informed by Miranda that the Devil herself will be arriving hours ahead of schedule. Emily is the entire staff’s source for this intel, so we know that Nigel has not been informed when he enters Emily’s office, and we can see that he enters too late to overhear the conversation. All he hears is Emily barking, “Tell everyone!” and slamming down the receiver. Nigel immediately sighs and grumbles, “She’s not supposed to be here until nine.” How does he know what’s going on? Without any delay, he’s read the signs: he’s heard Emily’s tone, seen the way she treats the phone. He promptly interprets this information, concludes that Miranda has arrived early, absorbs this information, and adapts accordingly, making an announcement to his own staff right away and then getting down to business. It’s not that Nigel is exceptionally prepared – it’s clear that this early arrival of the boss is an unusual event in the Runway workday – but rather than he’s exceptionally perceptive. Moreover, he’s perceptive of signs that a stranger, Andrea for example, could not have read. Nigel knows what Emily’s behavior means because he’s spent time with Emily and paid attention.

The significance of this may not be immediately evident, but let’s press on. The next time we see Nigel, he walks up to Andrea’s desk and offers her a pair of designer heels: “I guessed an 8½.” He’s right. Later that day, at a fitting, Miranda is contemplating a certain dress and asks Nigel’s opinion. “Do you think it’s too much like…” she begins, and he finishes, “…like from July? No, I thought that, but no, with the right accessories, it should work.” Now we know that Nigel – as befits the art director of a leading fashion magazine – has an at least somewhat encyclopedic knowledge of his field as well as an uncanny ability to understand what Miranda is thinking; his knowledge is so thorough that he can communicate with her about fashion solely through inference. A worse actor would make a bigger deal of this moment, showing off how great Nigel is at his job (to sour the betrayal he suffers at Miranda’s hands in the film’s climax, perhaps), but as Tucci plays it, it’s just a normal workplace conversation. In another scene, a despairing Andrea attempts to convince Nigel to give her a makeover. All she says, though, is, “Nigel, Nigel, Nigel,” with an imploring expression. Nigel looks up from his work: “What?” He sees her face. “No.” Nigel knows right away what Andrea wants.

How? How does he know? Is he psychic? Again, in a less capable actor’s hands, perhaps this would’ve been the impression; McKenna’s script doesn’t offer any other explanation. But with Tucci in the role, no, Nigel’s not psychic. Nigel knows, because Nigel pays close attention, and because Nigel has been around the block before. In these four moments, all of them so small they barely register in the film as a whole – only “What? No.” is edited with even the suggestion of comic timing – Nigel grows from a stock secondary character, “nice new friend in hostile new environment” with unarticulated undertones of “sassy gay friend” (in Weisberger’s novel, he’s openly gay, whereas the film remains silent on the subject) into something much more complex. An inner life has been activated. We can now sense a backstory to Nigel, and we can sense that he is always thinking actual thoughts. Interestingly, although moments like the conversation with Miranda should position Nigel as sycophantic, a cipher who exists to fill Miranda’s professional demands, Tucci makes them into opportunities to deepen and enrich the character without ever making him the center of attention. Andrea has a handful of similar dialogues later, when she’s become a really capable personal assistant to Miranda, lines where she finishes her boss’s sentences and does her job before it’s even become her job. But Hathaway brings none of Tucci’s depth and suggestiveness to such moments; nothing appears to be going on in Andrea’s head, which makes it easy for Miranda to dominate her thoughts. Conversely there always seem to be gears spinning behind Tucci’s twinkling eyes. If he acquiesces to Miranda, it’s because he wants to, or needs to for professional reasons, but never because he has nothing else to think or say or do. Andrea is a screenwriter’s construction, but Nigel’s a person. The first time I saw The Devil Wears Prada, when Nigel is inexplicably absent from the entire middle third of the film, I wondered not only, “Hey, where’s Nigel?” – i.e., Tucci was successfully entertaining the audience – but also, “What’s Nigel been doing this whole time?” – i.e., Tucci was successfully bringing his character to life. I felt that Nigel was actually active in the world even when he wasn’t onscreen. Andrea is in every scene of this movie, but if she weren’t, I would have assumed she was absent because someone had flicked her “off” switch.

That quality becomes especially apparent in the way Tucci interacts with Hathaway. Again, Nigel ostensibly fills the requisite role of the sympathetic guide to the lipstick jungle that is Runway, but upon closer inspection, he doesn’t really turn out to be all that sympathetic to the new assistant. When Andrea declines the shoes he is kind enough to bring her, she insists, “[Miranda] knows what I look like.” Nigel raises his eyebrows quizzically: “Do you?” When he runs into Andrea in the company cafeteria, he comments on her choice of food (“You do know that cellulite is one of the main ingredients in corn chowder?”), her clothing (“I’m sure you have more poly-blend where that came from”), and her body (“6 is the new 14”). These aren’t nice comments, and Tucci smirks ever so slightly as he delivers these insults. Nigel is witty, but he isn’t angelic. It’s never quite clear whether Nigel brings Andrea the shoes because he pities her or because her own choice in footwear affronts his sensibilities, whether he’s being selfless or selfish. In short, Tucci permits Nigel to fill the role of the “sympathetic guide” without succumbing to the idea that this means he cannot be anything else. He can be a sympathetic guide to Andrea and also mercilessly mock her, and not in a friendly way. I’m not impressed by Nigel’s body-shaming, but I’m impressed by the idea of a character who can both body-shame the protagonist and help her out and not seem like a contradiction or construction.

All of this comes to a head in Nigel’s one big scene with Andrea, when she disturbs him in his office to complain about Miranda. After she makes a tearful speech, here is his response:

So quit… I could get another girl to take your job in five minutes, one who really wants it… Oh, Andy, be serious. You are not trying. You are whining. What is it that you want me to say to you, huh? Do you want me to say, ‘Poor you! Miranda’s picking on you! Poor you! Poor Andy!’? Hmm? Wake up, [size] 6! She’s just doing her job. Don’t you know that you are working at the place that published some of the greatest artists of the century? … And what they did, what they created, was greater than art, because you live your life in it. Well, not you, obviously, but some people. You think this is just a magazine? Hmm? This is not just a magazine. This is a shining beacon of hope for, oh, I don’t know, let’s say, a young boy growing up in Rhode Island with six brothers, pretending to go to soccer practice when he was really going to sewing class and reading Runway under the covers with a flashlight. You have no idea how many legends have walked these halls, and what’s worse, you don’t care. Because this place, where so many people would die to work, you only deign to work. And you want to know why she doesn’t kiss you on the forehead and give you a gold star on your homework at the end of the day? Wake up, sweetheart.

McKenna deserves a lot of the credit for penning this searing bit of real talk, which does as much for Nigel’s character development as the rest of Tucci’s screentime put together. However, I don’t say that because this speech contains the script’s sole window into Nigel’s personal history. The mention of his difficult childhood isn’t as important as its position within the speech: Nigel uses his own life as an example, in order to illustrate his point. This isn’t some maudlin moment of tearful bonding for Nigel, with his bruised boyhood masculinity, and Andrea, with her undervalued B.A. His catty exterior isn’t cracking, he’s not confessing. It’s not even explicit in the speech that Nigel is talking about himself – brilliantly, Tucci removes his glasses during this segment, a minor gesture of vulnerability I take as a subtle sign that Nigel is indeed revealing personal information. He’s speaking of himself, but not about himself. Tucci avoids slipping into sentimentality by investing his voice with volatile emotion not during the line about his childhood, but rather when he’s speaking of the designers Runway has published, “some of the greatest artists of the century.” There’s the glimmer of queer subtext in Nigel’s backstory, but even if Nigel is gay, it’s quite apparent that it’s not a source of much pain for him. He’s worked through his shit, whatever it may have been. O Reader! let me be frank: Nigel fucking owns, and he is my hero.

This monologue makes it crystal clear where things stand between Nigel and Andrea without being too blunt about it: Nigel doesn’t care about Andrea, he cares about Runway. He loves Runway with a love that’s literally been lifelong for him. He is interested in seeing Andrea succeed and become a valuable member of the Runway staff, because, keen observer that he is, he believes she has potential – but not because he particularly likes her or thinks she deserves her job. Nigel doesn’t pity Andrea, just as he does not pity himself. When, in the climactic scene, Miranda betrays Nigel by denying him a promotion he’s long dreamed of in order to save her own position at Runway, Frankel is sure to lead the audience to pity Nigel by cutting repeatedly to his cluelessly excited face as Miranda delivers the speech which will ultimately ruin him. But when the backstabbing actually occurs, Tucci carefully modulates his expression. Disappointment registers for just one single, painful beat, and then we see Nigel working through it in order to smile and applaud news that devastates him, even as he looks around and realizes how many of his colleagues had conspired against him in order to pull this switch off. He breaks from his forced smile a couple of times in the following seconds, but always pulls himself together right away. His dignity is wrenching and laudable. To the concerned Andrea, he says wistfully, “When the time is right, she’ll pay me back.” “You sure about that?” she asks him. “No,” he replies, his jaw setting. “But I hope for the best. I have to.”

A man who says that at the moment his closest colleague betrays him has no place in the Hollywood canon of stock secondary figures. Why isn’t Nigel crying, wallowing in self-pity? In a film ostensibly about the vindictive world of elite fashion publishing, this is a perfect opportunity to poke fun at the world of Runway by having Nigel express his plans for petty revenge. Another way of delivering these same lines could have expressed either of those reactions, but Tucci takes a different route. The combination of that set jaw and those saddened eyes tells us everything. Nigel is crushed but he will not let this defeat define him. Unlike Andrea, he is wise to both workplace politics and the reality of sacrifice. He is strong, and he still has Runway, and he knows better than to forget that – likewise, he knows better than to read a personal slight into Miranda’s betrayal. “She’s just doing her job,” he told Andrea back in his office, and Nigel’s greatest triumph of character is remembering that same fact in his bleakest hour.

Nigel is so strong, in fact, that he doesn’t let anything define him. None of Hollywood comedy’s usual strategies for making characters instantly legible to the audience is applicable to Tucci’s Nigel. It would have been so easy to play this character as obvious and one-dimensional. As written, it would have been so easy to make him a bitchy gay caricature, or a bitter, tragic relic of Miranda’s cruelty. It would have been so easy to make him even blander and more forgettable than Hathaway’s Andrea. But instead, Tucci works hard, and it pays off in the film’s most compelling, fascinating, and admirable character. The moments where Nigel conforms to preconceived types or expectations are coincidental. Just as he undercuts his sympathy for Andrea by frequently tearing her confidence down, so his elusiveness, the independence and hidden depth of his personality subvert his occasional moments of clichéd legibility. The audience can never really understand Nigel as Tucci plays him, and that’s why it’s such an honour to spend time in the character’s company.

 

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III.

The Devil Wears Prada was marketed as a summer trifle for the middlebrow cinemagoer; I wonder how many of them were surprised by what they got. For a supposedly light film, it’s heavy and occasionally heady stuff: not only does its cheesy “Stay True To Yourself (But Keep Those Expensive And Flattering New Clothes)” moral trade in actual high stakes – lives, chiefly Nigel’s, are actually ruined in this movie, and it’s not totally glib about those consequences – but it breaks pace twice so that Miranda and Nigel can expound on the importance of fashion to the layperson’s lived experience. Now, fashion is late capitalism’s most blatantly vapid industry, but the first and arguably most challenging lesson Andrea learns as a Runway employee is that her claims to “authenticity” are bullshit, a cover for snobbery that is itself a cover for fear and misunderstanding of fashion’s mystique. Miranda’s early oration on the recent cultural history of cerulean, in particular, is a showstopper: more than a brutal evisceration of Andrea’s Northwestern-educated pretensions, it’s a downright Marxian (although, alas, far from Marxist), nigh-mystical evocation of the labour and the love, the thought and the feeling poured into the long-term commodification of cerulean and the production of Andrea’s horrendous poly-blend cable-knit jumper.

Startling and captivating, this speech also works as a summary of what makes The Devil Wears Prada unusually, wonderfully generous from a narrative standpoint. After Miranda’s incisive exegesis of the jumper, we can see in it a whole history, an apparatus comprising many individual lives full of sweat and pain and passion. The film itself cannot possibly express all of that information explicitly, but it makes the magnitude of these tacit stories felt through Miranda’s evocations (and Streep’s deeply felt delivery). This is not dissimilar from Miranda’s story itself, which is revealed to contain a fuller spectrum of human emotion and experience than her facial expression discloses. The film operates on a principle of generosity – it assumes people and things are interesting and worthwhile until proven otherwise.

Even more so than Miranda, Andrea’s coworker Emily is written into a corner by McKenna, but in practice and as played marvellously by Blunt, Emily’s not just a vicious, vacuous bitch. She’s vicious, and vacuous, and a bitch, but she’s learned to be those things in order to achieve her dreams – and the film never makes Emily’s dreams seem worthy of spite or ridicule, even when she’s literally starving herself to get closer to them. Andrea believes herself to be the reasonable voice of the common people but is in fact cluelessly elitist and, let’s be real, the film’s nastiest character – so of course, it is Andrea and only Andrea who looks down upon Emily. At its most critical, The Devil Wears Prada bemoans the structures Emily’s caught up in rather than the woman herself: it’s the choices Emily’s presented with that are deplorable, not the decisions she makes. Those decisions are respectable even when the fallout is ugly.

It’s very revealing of the film’s ethos that the only character whose decisions are deemed truly corrupt is Andrea – not because she sells her soul to the devil, so to speak, but because she does so while claiming not to have done it, indeed while claiming that she’s superior to the sort of person who would do such a thing. There is only one sin in The Devil Wears Prada, and it is the kind of hypocrisy that stymies empathy. I find this very admirable, as I find Andrea when, in the film’s Paris-set third act, she breaks up with her nice boyfriend Nate (Adrian Grenier), sleeps with sleazy literary hotshot Christian Thompson (Simon Baker), and defends Miranda against double-dealing higher-ups in the publishing industry, all in rapid succession. Only in this segment of the film does Andrea take responsibility for her own decisions, even the ones that make her look bad, and thus it is only in this segment that she feels empathy toward others and, in turn, invites some from the audience. “Baby,” Christian calls her, and Andrea snaps in response, “I’m not your baby.” In the conventional comedy that McKenna wrote, this is Andrea realizing she’s made a huge mistake in dallying with a jerk like this and wishing she could get back together with Nate. In the unconventionally generous film Frankel made, there’s no indication in Hathaway’s delivery that Andrea necessarily regrets having sex with Christian. “I’m not your baby” isn’t a repudiation of her own decision, it’s just a rejection of attention she has no interest in – a real “Go Andrea!” moment in a film that sorely lacks them. (When she has an awkward brunch with her now-ex Nate at the very end of the movie and repents everything, Andrea loses my good will again; where did her hard-won character development go?!)

The principle at work in all of this is one I think of as “iceberg storytelling,” a way of telling stories with vast reserves of tacit content, explicitly acknowledging only the most superficial figment of that content but making the audience aware of the rest by activating empathy and imagination. We know about Andrea whereas we do not know about Nigel, but we can sense that there’s more to Nigel than is apparent, and that he deserves our imaginative and emotional energies even if the script fails to reciprocate them. It’s a narrative habit that consistently errs on the side of human goodness, resulting in a depicted world where there’s always more going on than meets the eye, a world that can be harsh – but only when people are too selfish, short-sighted, and rushed to take the time to understand one another. But – and here’s where setting the film at a fashion magazine, among so many actually beautiful objects, pays off thematically – it’s also a world that seems teemingly alive, a world that positively glows with the possibility of storytelling. The subliminal content of the world makes the surface rich with potential meaning. Cerulean catches Andrea’s eye because it’s a lovely color, but its loveliness is imbued with the weight of innumerable memories made manifest, memories which are not Andrea’s and yet which touch her life and inform her supposedly thoughtless sartorial choices. One might say that this all an elaborate, poetic machinery to sell the audience on the importance of fashion, if not for the fact that it ultimately sells us not so much on clothing as on the value of human beings. Miranda is no devil, but a human of infinite complexity – a complexity that is at once masked by her “demonic” exterior, expressed through that exterior, and the source of that exterior. Behind every perceptible thing, remarkable or banal, is a wealth of stories that deserve to be told even if they go unnarrated, and this wealth is felt acutely in The Devil Wears Prada. In a way, this describes the film itself, a flimsy confection that is revealed to be a great deal cleverer, more sensitive, and more heartfelt than its surface qualities (or its script) would suggest. This empathy and generosity of spirit are exceedingly rare in Hollywood comedies of the third millennium.

It’s the performances that make the iceberg possible and successful. Again, however, the revelation of the three-dimensional inner life behind a one-dimensional villain’s cold stare is a stock dramatic arc, so as good as Streep is here, her performance is not really the key to this subtler effect of the film. Most viewers will see Miranda’s character development on the horizon long before Streep allows cracks to appear in Miranda’s façade. The principle – that we can learn to read the meaning beneath the seemingly frivolous exterior of the world – is the same, but the effect is different in Miranda’s case. She is no poly-blend cerulean jumper, but Nigel is. And when the credits roll, it’s not “That’s all” I remember most vividly, but rather Tucci’s performance, and that jumper. I ruminate on the nuance, the poetry, and the implications not of Streep’s work but Tucci’s; I am moved not by Miranda’s pathos (and certainly not by Andrea’s) but by Nigel’s. I think of the final glimpse of Tucci’s face, with its sad eyes and set jaw, after Nigel tells Andrea that he always hopes for the best. The convergence of Tucci’s intelligent, radiant work with a script that’s wiser about people than it realizes produces a two-hour film that merits a very special kind of praise – even though it’s really just two hours of Anne Hathaway complaining.

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