As Hollywood Prepares for Oscars, a Final Word on Colorless Vanity Fair

Gold statuettes, red carpets and blue Na’vi will mark this weekend’s Oscars, but the top-nominated films and actors unfortunately have something in common with a recent controversial Vanity Fair cover: They lack color.

Outside of the nominations connected to “Precious: Based on a Novel by Sapphire,” and Morgan Freeman for “Invictus,” the awards ceremony will be business as usual for Hollywood. Similarly, when Vanity Fair’s annual Hollywood issue hit newsstands in February, its “A New Decade, A New Hollywood” fold-out cover was classic VF: An Annie Leibovitz-photographed fold-out portrait of ingenues in flowy dresses and crisp shirts lounging on a lush, gorgeously sunlit lawn.

Abbie Cornish, Kristen Stewart, Carey Mulligan, Amanda Seyfried, Rebecca Hall, Mia Wasikowska, Anna Kendrick, Emma Stone and Evan Rachel Wood are young, lovely and, as the cover text promises, fresh-faced.

They are also all white.

Plenty of barbs were thrown at Vanity Fair for its editorial judgment, especially in a year when Gabourey Sidibe (who was featured on the inside of the issue) nabbed an Oscar nomination for her role in “Precious,” and Zoe Saldana starred in “Avatar,” the highest-grossing film of all time.

Do Vanity Fair’s Hollywood-issue cover choices simply hold a mirror up to an industry that lacks diversity, or should the magazine have been more deliberate about avoiding a whiteout?

Yahoo’s Shine was one of the first to object, proclaiming, “Every woman on its new cover is extremely thin and very, very white. Unless Vanity Fair considers one redhead to be diversity, we feel the need to cry foul.” At last count, the post had more than 18,500 comments.

The Huffington Post pointed out that a 2008 “Hollywood’s Next Wave” Vanity Fair cover was similarly all-white. In a statement, Vanity Fair cited body-of-work and scheduling as reasons for their choices for the 2010 cover.

This controversy is hardly new or surprising, said my colleague and Oscar-winning Hollywood veteran Russell Williams. An artist in residence at American University School of Communication, Williams has spoken extensively on minority and labor issues in Hollywood, informed by his personal experiences over a quarter-century.

“This is not a stand-alone as a whites-only cover within the 15th annual oeuvres of Leibovitz photo shoots appearing during award season,” Williams said.

“VF has had only three persons of color in this annual issue that actually made the front fold out of the 15-year history,” Williams recalled. By his count, Djimon Honsou, Thandie Newton and Chris Rock have been the only ones, though Penelope Cruz — a Spaniard — also graced the cover in 2000.

A March 2009 Obama cover was a “wild card,” he added.

This track record may be as reflective of Vanity Fair’s editorial judgment as it is of the movie industry at large. The Oscars will take place March 7, and there isn’t likely to be much diversity among the award winners. (The blue Na’vi in “Avatar” don’t count.)

Williams also said that the Hollywood public relations machine, especially at major agencies, is also lacking in diversity.

Nevertheless, Vanity Fair’s track record for Hollywood issues is troubling, he said, especially because both men and women of color tend to appear — if at all — on the second or third fold of the cover.

“That placement front fold left is the most important, most valued, most easily seen on the newsstand.” Williams said. “To the persons of color they seem to be saying we don’t care if you buy our mag or not.”

Leibovitz herself, no stranger to controversy, has come under scrutiny for the racial (some say racist) dynamics of her portraits of Tiger Woods and LeBron James (with Gisele on the cover of Vogue).

Williams wonders if Vanity Fair’s 15 years of Hollywood covers are reflective of the magazine or Leibovitz’s “preferential framing.”

On the plus side, Sidibe and Saldana both got some added awards-season publicity, each responding to the perceived snub graciously. And forums as wide-ranging as journalism tech blog 10,000 Words and Women & Hollywood: from a feminist perspective used the teachable moment to get their audiences talking about issues of diversity.

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