The devil may wear Prada in Meryl Streep's new movie, but she's far from the first satanic boss to get mean on the screen.
Movies from “Nine to Five” and “Working Girl” to "Disclosure" and "Spider-Man" have featured a deliciously wicked head honcho.
Now, this weekend's "The Devil Wears Prada" — the adaptation of the fashion-magazine tell-all book by the same name — revisits the story of the big, bad boss. And fans of the theme are sure to delight in Streep’s poignant interpretation of such a character, who in this instance turns out to have a heart, albeit a tiny one.
“It’s the old office story dressed in Prada,” said Robert Thompson, a pop culture professor at Syracuse University. “Love stories and mean-boss stories are ones that virtually any adult is able to recognize and identify with. They push very strong emotional buttons.”
Streep’s Miranda Priestly, based on real-life Vogue editor Anna Wintour, is a difficult, haughty perfectionist who throws her coat condescendingly on her assistant’s desk every day; demands her coffee just so; sends her lackeys all over town on impossible or demeaning tasks (like getting the latest, unpublished Harry Potter manuscript for her spoiled children); and criticizes the outfits of new go-to Andrea Sachs, played by Anne Hathaway.
Sachs doesn’t wind up taking Priestly prisoner and changing the way the company is run, like the women of “Nine to Five” do. She doesn’t beat her at her own game the way Michael Douglas’ character does to Demi Moore's in “Disclosure” or Melanie Griffith’s protagonist does to Sigourney Weaver’s antagonist in “Working Girl.”
She doesn’t even sue her, the way the gay, AIDS-afflicted attorney in “Philadelphia” does to fight being fired by the evil partners in his law firm.
Without giving away the story, Sachs basically uses the old “if you can’t beat them, join them” principle, for a time.
In the process, Priestly becomes fond of her — or as fond of anyone as she is capable of becoming — and shows she is human underneath, after all.
The depth the screenwriters, director David Frankel and Streep add to the character, who was rotten through and through in the novel, “makes it much more interesting and compelling for audiences and actors,” said Missy Schwartz, an Entertainment Weekly correspondent who interviewed Streep about her role as the Prada-wearing devil. “It’s really easy to have a villain who’s two-dimensional and really evil up on the screen.”
The plot has replayed itself countless times not only on the big screen, but on the small one too — though antagonist bosses on television tend to be more hapless and “laughingly incompetent,” as Thompson puts it, than “dictatorial” and vicious (think Lou Grant in “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and J. Peterman on “Seinfeld”).
They also almost exclusively appear in sitcoms rather than dramas, where plenty of the top dogs are heroes.
And nearly every time a manager with fangs haunts employees in a movie, said workers either triumph by staging a mutiny of sorts, as they did in “Nine to Five,” “Disclosure” and “Working Girl,” or they teach the naughty chief a lesson about being nice, as in “Devil.”
“It’s very unsatisfying if the boss continues to be a tyrant, nobody does anything and the boss is still the boss at the end,” Thompson said.
The theme also has school-movie manifestations, where students outwit cruel or clueless administrators and teachers, as in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Breakfast Club,” “Animal House” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” to name a few.
"What’s the fun if they’re not being skewered?” Thompson said.
Mob movies and TV series, like “The Godfather” and “The Sopranos,” feature the ultimate mixed-bag bosses — they love you like one of their own, but they’ll whack you if you cross them.
However the tales are told onscreen, audiences lap them up because most people aren’t the big cheese themselves, so there’s something supremely satisfying about seeing those in charge raked over the coals, no matter that it’s only in pictures.
Even those who do run the show at work can relate to boss-from-hell syndrome, because everyone has been there. Besides, how often do staff members get to overthrow their supervisor or help them find their inner softie in real life? Rarely to never.
“Having this bad boss character in movies is really a safe way for people to get out their frustration,” said Schwartz. “It’s sort of vicarious catharsis. All of us at one time or another have had a bad boss, but few of us can actually do anything about it.”
Also tantamount to the appeal of the malicious boss movies is the fact that people in power are treated royally in real life, so it's gratifying to see them get their due somewhere — even if it’s only in the fairytales and fantasies brought to us by Hollywood.
"The real world delivers to these people an awful lot of the spoils of life,” said Thompson. “Maybe that’s why movies flip it around. We have to depend on fiction to show that.”