The cover for the 2018 Hollywood issue of Vanity Fair was revealed this week, and the usual questions surfaced: Why is that person on there, what’s with that pose, how does one hustle to get on the actual cover and not the fold-out page, and so on. Awards season is a time of arbitrary rituals and staid expectations, and while every trade publication or website scrambles to make headlines, there’s something almost comforting about the repetitive glamour of the Vanity Fair Hollywood issue. While they shake up the formula now and then - remember when they put Emma Stone in bed with Ben Affleck and Bradley Cooper while the pair wore bear suits? - they tend to stick to a rigid model: A group of names, big and small, posing together in their finery. It’s impossibly old-school glitz and glamour, the kind of style that you always hear people say they don’t make these days.
While a relatively recent tradition in the illustrious magazine’s history - think the past twenty years or so - the Hollywood issue and that particular cover has already make an impressive impact in both the industry and awards season shenanigans. Being on it means something, at least for the time being or if you’re lucky enough to stick around in the business, then it becomes a crowning moment of your rise to the top. As print still struggles in this dark age and Conde Nast slash magazines left and right, this is the one issue every year that Vanity Fair can guarantee some traction on. People will talk about it, every actor choice and placement will be dissected to the nth degree, and controversies will arise. There’s a reason we all spent several years getting so angry at one white cover after another. So, what is that reason? Why this magazine and not, say, Variety or the Hollywood Reporter, who arguably hold more sway in the insular industry with regards to getting Academy votes?
Vanity Fair loves Hollywood. To be more specific, it loves glamour. While the magazine has evolved greatly throughout its long lifetime, it remains a gateway to the upper echelons of fame, privilege and power. If the New York Times is, as Jill Abramson once said, the prettiest girl at the party, Vanity Fair is the one who will get you into better parties. Not only that, but they’ll make you feel like you’re totally part of the most elite scene on the planet. They specialize in that kind of insider tattle that feels oddly universal in its enthusiasm. They like celebrities, and celebrities like them because they know the boat won’t be rocked by them. Read any of those glossy profiles and you’ll see achingly well-done PR at work. Sure, the profiles might end up being kind of weird and possibly super creepy (seriously, don’t do that), but with that comes a near guarantee that the interview will be conducted on your terms: You don’t answer anything you don’t want to, you don’t risk being called ‘difficult’ or ‘bitchy’, and in some cases, you don’t even have to be there in person to be interviewed.
The Hollywood Issue cover is the most potent form of that oft-imitated celebrity adoration. Most of the time, there’s no actual interview, but your image is power alone to help convey that classic style the magazine wants to accomplish. During a time of the year where all anyone wants to talk about is who’s winning what award, being cemented in the industry and public imagination as A Movie Star says a lot. Whatever point in your career you are at - be it the start of your rise to fame, the complete zenith or the living legend tail-end - that status is secured when you’re placed among the chosen few on the cover.
Those assumptions are what makes the cover so frequently controversial. Those chosen few tend to be mostly, if not exclusively, white. They’re never transgender. They’re always able-bodied. The picks are seldom unexpected or truly radical. You could excuse this as the magazine simply being a microcosm of the narrow ways that Hollywood works, but that would overlook the very real power a magazine like Vanity Fair has to change the narrative. They’re as beholden to PR demands and a need for exclusive access as any publication, although that feels like such a weak justification given how easy and genuinely exciting it would be for them to buck the trend.
How those chosen few are posed is also a revealing tidbit. Few of them ever seem to smile, as if that would break the illusion. Think of the year that Scarlett Johansson and Keira Knightley posed in the nude while designer-turned-director Tom Ford cuddled up to them both while completely clothed. When Vanity Fair parodied that cover with all men, including Jonah Hill and Seth Rogen, they wore nude body-suits. Women don’t pose on the cover: They’re draped across the floor, or seductively posed between men, or hoisted above men’s shoulders. They’re dressed to the nines in corsets and finery, while even the most formally dressed man gets to sit on a proper chair or stand like a normal person. Even in their most poised and coveted moments of stardom, it seems that women struggle to escape being positioned as furniture, or as objectified as the little gold man himself.
What Vanity Fair hopes to evoke more than anything else is timelessness. They want the status of kingmakers and documentarians: They choose the stars and detail their lives to the world. That’s a narrative as old as Hollywood itself. Having one publication, always classy and classic, cover that shift, year after year, holds an undeniable allure to us film and industry geeks. It paints a pretty portrait yet often accidentally reveals the ugly truths behind that façade. If the Vanity Fair Hollywood issue is how the industry wants to see itself, it’s probably a little bit of how we too want to see it. Although that’s a quickly turning tide that the magazine, and Hollywood itself, needs to keep up with.