In contention

First look at the cover of the Vanity Fair 2016 Hollywood issue.


For anyone interested in American cinema past and present, Vanity Fair’s March edition is something of an annual institution. From the portfolio of portraits to the in-depth feature articles on the Hollywood of yesteryear, it is not to be missed, and the cover, with its group portrait, is quite properly famous in its own right. First images of this year’s cover, photographed by Annie Leibovitz in her usual inimitable style, were released on yesterday and in the UK press today,

It was in 1940 that David O. Selznick had to call in a favour so that Hattie McDaniel might be admitted to the then ‘whites-only’ Ambassador Hotel on Oscars night, as a nominee in the ‘Best Supporting Actress’ category for her key performance as ‘Mammy’ in Gone With The Wind.  Today, the presence of three black actresses in the Vanity Fair line-up is being interpreted as a direct response to the Academy’s failure to nominate a black person in any of the major categories, for which its members have been subjected to censure from many quarters. From left to right, Viola Davis (looking a stylish world away from her Oscar-nominated role in 2011’s The Help), Lupita Nyong (last year’s winner in the Best Supporting Actress category for 12 Years a Slave) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (star of Belle in 2013 and the upcoming Free State of Jones) appear alongside Jane Fonda, Cate Blanchett (Carol), Jennifer Lawrence (Joy), Charlotte Rampling (45 Years), Brie Larson (Room), Rachel Weisz, Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl), Dame Helen Mirren, Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn) and Diane Keaton.

Among these women, Rampling has attracted vitriol for the views she expressed soon after the Oscar nominations were announced. In a poorly-judged and timed remark, she suggested that the reason there were no black nominees might be because no black talent had produced a performance worthy of the accolade. She has since sought to clarify her intent, stating that ‘in an ideal world every performance will be given equal opportunities for consideration.’ While there is a point to be made here about positive discrimination, and I am fairly sure that no one would want to see a black performance nominated just to meet some quota requirement, it remains a travesty that so few films (whether of quality or not) feature black actors and actresses. In this, of course, they are subjected to a sidelining which denies truth in modern society and which is similar to that afflicting actresses of a certain age – a situation with which Rampling should surely have some sympathy. Like Fonda, Mirren and Keaton, she does at least have the advantage of having made a name for herself when young and possibly the luxury of being able to pick and choose roles with genuine artistic credentials now.

Let us not forget that the women-only line-up is, in itself, something of an anomaly for Hollywood; even Vanity Fair has not featured an all-woman cover since 2001. Seventy-six years after Hattie McDaniel won her award on Oscars night, how sad it is that we are expected to praise, or even comment upon, this year’s cover as something groundbreaking or bold in its choice of subjects – on any level.

Secondary to all of this, but interesting nonetheless, is the decision to clothe the thirteen featured actresses exclusively in black. The reasoning behind this, according to Vanity Fair’s fashion and style director Jessica Diehl, was that ‘[it] lets each actress’s face stand out.’ Yet, for me, the overall impression is one of bleakness, a sombre Hollywood, stripped of glamour in spite of the sequins or frou-frou satin on display, which seems a strange choice in celebrating these actresses, where a little joie de vivre would not have gone amiss. The effect is heightened by expressions of almost universal sulkiness. Perhaps this was supposed to be a reflection of generally more austere, less frivolous times? If so, it is an ethic at once both emphasised and challenged by Diane Keaton’s choice to wear clothes taken from her own (inevitably eccentric) wardrobe and to look cheerful while doing so; she is the only one of the thirteen to have smiled for the camera. Whatever the surrounding circumstances, the star of features as diverse as Annie Hall and Baby Boom continues to inspire and amuse.

Lady Eve copy


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