Going into The September Issue, a documentary chronicling the production of a single, record-breakingly huge issue of Vogue in 2007, we already knew that the magazine's editor, Anna Wintour, wears Prada, drinks Starbucks and favors sunglasses indoors and that her weapon of choice is more frosty glare than flaming pitchfork. In the course of the documentary, she reveals her eyes (hazel), her teeth (not pointy, except the canines) and what she believes to be her greatest vulnerability: her children.
The last is hardly revelatory. It's like saying this flesh stuff coating your skeleton presents maintenance issues occasionally. But the movie offers insights that lift it beyond the realist version of The Devil Wears Prada. For more than two decades, it seems, Wintour, 59, has been in a codependent relationship with a flame-haired wraith named Grace Coddington, Vogue's creative director and resident genius. These two women need and needle each other. Fashion wouldn't be fashion without Wintour, easily the most powerful woman in the industry. But The September Issue suggests that Vogue, the industry's bible, couldn't be Vogue without Coddington.
A 68-year-old former model, Coddington moved behind the scenes after a car accident scarred her face. She arrived at American Vogue on the same day in July 1988 as Wintour. She, too, no doubt wears Prada, but the chief impression we get of her is that of a beautiful elderly hippie in droopy black sacks who drifts through Vogue's corridors in a haze of either artistic irritation or inspiration. If Wintour is the Pope (as one Vogue staffer calls the boss), Coddington is Michelangelo, trying to paint a fresh version of the Sistine Chapel 12 times a year amid hurdles that include budgets (admittedly not much of a restraint, at least when this film was shot), the need to forecast and invent multiple trends (which here go by the name "stories") and the arrival of celebrities with impossible hair.
Speaking of, we get to spy on Sienna Miller's fittings for the cover shoot, which gives us the pleasure of seeing a confident actress quiver in the presence of Wintour (not a hugger). But having sniffed out a good story arc, director R.J. Cutler, who produced The War Room and co-directed A Perfect Candidate, sticks to it, looking for more illustrations of conflict between the masthead's two giant feminine forces like the scene in which Wintour eyes the results of a $50,000 photo shoot inspired by John Galliano designs and starts slashing. Coddington moans to co-workers, "She's killed half of it." Coddington is the creative sponge who soaks up beauty on behalf of Vogue, while Wintour is the hand squeezing it. Mean Anna! Devil Anna!
But wait. Is it possible that Wintour isn't so much a sponge-squeezing killjoy as simply ... an editor? She names decisiveness as her greatest strength, and the movie shows her making good decisions, rapidly and repeatedly. The first picture Wintour vetoes from Coddington's treasured shoot is distractingly fussy and rococo. Grace mopes, but the magazine benefits. At the film's climax, Cutler plays up the drama of Coddington's refusal to allow an appealing but not-quite-model-standard image to be digitally nipped and tucked at Wintour's request. It's lively storytelling, except that Wintour's suggestion seems more like playful banter an attempt to be charming for the documentary crew than an edict.
The Wintour we meet is still capable of the kind of arbitrary intimidations that might inspire a damning best seller. But this empress definitely is wearing clothes. Flattering ones. And if she knows her own mind, she also knows when to change it. As Cutler pans over the final layout for September 2007, complete after a half-year's labor, the camera catches the image of a zany rubber dress from an early "textures" shoot that Coddington had loved but Wintour had removed. There it was, bound for the newsstands. Was it restored in service of the story or in deference to her invaluable right-hand woman? Only Anna knows for sure.