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Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Pale Lasses of Vanity Fair

Another newsstand pickup I made this week was Vanity Fair's annual Hollywood issue. I used to subscribe to this magazine, but I became disenchanted with the over-abundance of features on the trials and tribulations of the very rich. I enjoy schadenfreude as much as the next guy, but editor Graydon Carter seems to be fixated on a love-hate relationship with the plutocracy.

But the Hollywood issue, released the same month as the Academy Awards, is almost always worth a purchase. For the last generation they've used up-and-coming stars on their covers, which is something of a publicity-generator. The Tom Ford photo of himself with a naked Keira Knightley and Scarlett Johannson of a few years ago was an arresting image, if not salacious. In 1995, there was the infamous grouping that looked like a police line-up of prostitutes in their lingerie (and it was a prescient group, that included still-respected actresses Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sarah Jessica Parker, Sandra Bullock, Angela Bassett, Uma Thurman, Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore, and Patricia Arquette--the only actress on that cover who has slipped into obscurity is Linda Fiorentino). This year they've gone to the tried and true line-up of sweet young starlets, and the publicity has been negative, as not one of the nonet is a woman bearing much more skin pigment than one would find in a Scandinavian sorority.

I understand the outrage--not only are these nine ladies all caucasian (no African or Asians) but there isn't anyone of Hispanic descent, either. This has allowed some groups to ruffle their feathers and tut-tut. But let's look at this rationally. First of all, these covers are a result of publicists, not of any insight into who the big stars will be (past actresses included in these things are the now forgotten Marley Shelton, Jordana Brewster, and Vinessa Shaw). Note the performers who are featured in the extreme left, who are therefore not folded in--Kristen Stewart prominently featured. She's the biggest star of this group, and is her second time on on a VF Hollywood issue. This is designed to move product, which for a print magazine these days is the difference between life and death.

Secondly, if an actress of color had been included--Zoe Saldana, let's say--would that have made everyone content? Is tokenism really the answer? When a new president selects a cabinet there is a mandate to make it "look like America." When Bill Richardson dropped out of the cabinet selection process, a Latino reporter aggressively asked President Obama about too-few Hispanics. But does the cover of Vanity Fair have to look like America? I don't sense any discrimination at work here, just the dice coming up alabaster when the publicists were finished working the phones. I will add, though, that though Oscar-nominee Carey Mulligan is prominently placed on the cover, it is impossible to imagine her fellow nominee Gabourey Sidibe being included, but that's an issue of body type, not of color.

As for the issue, I skipped over the articles on the money of Hollywood--Ryan Kavanaugh and Jon Peters--but enjoyed those on John Hughes, Ali McGraw, the girls who worked in the Ink and Paint department for Disney during the glory years, and on the making of Raging Bull (De Niro had to coax Scorsese into doing it--Marty didn't understand boxing). There is also the list of the top earners of 2009 (at least of the talent, no studio people involved). These lists, like the "power" lists, bore me, but I have to stop and wonder when the top earner is Michael Bay, and the highest placing female is Emma Watson.

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