She was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for her portrayal – a category she has been a contender in 18 times and won three times – and when you run down the list of incredible roles in incredible films over an incredible 40-year career, it’s Miranda who remains the most notable. She has been in better films, those that are considered classics of the medium like Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979), Sophie's Choice (1982) and The Deer Hunter (1978). Yet none of those characters have become pop cultural icons in the way Miranda Priestly has, to the point their image becomes merchandise, their performance becomes a go-to in drag, and their monologues being repeated line-for-line becomes a personality trait.
"By all means move at a glacial pace,” she says, in the muted tone that sparks fear in the hearts of audience members by that point of the film. “You know how that thrills me.” Streep’s Miranda Priestly is the feared and revered editor of the fictional Runway magazine, where protagonist Andy (Anne Hathaway) has been working as one of her assistants. Priestly is famously inspired by Vogue’s equally feared and revered real-life editor Anna Wintour, whom the author of the original The Devil Wears Prada novel worked for briefly as an assistant during an 11-month stretch that is said to be the basis for the book’s conception. There are obvious similarities on a macro level – the setting, the role, the scenario – and a micro level – the British accent, the sunglasses, the notoriety – yet in the film we spend more time with Miranda than we ever could with Anna. So in order to craft a fully dimensional character, Streep had to go deeper.
Her barbs and chilly delivery of them are not served up in the film because she believes she’s better than everyone else, it’s because she is better than everyone else through sheer force of will. The stereotype of a Snow Queen in a corporate position of power isn’t exactly fresh, but Streep’s performance somehow makes it feel reinvigorating. Her words are strung out, slow, deliberate so that every single one delivers a punch. Even in a makeup-free moment of vulnerability when Andy gets a glimpse at the reality of her boss’s personal life, Priestley’s mask never slips when she quips “by all means move at a glacial pace”. The exterior perfectly cloaks the interior at all times, which has in many ways helped the character become iconic not just because of the real-life inspiration behind it, but because of the surgical precision of Streep’s performance.
– Maria Lewis