The customary brouhaha erupted yesterday after the release of Vanity Fair’s annual Hollywood Issue cover photos, the most striking of which depicts an angry Benedict Cumberbatch emerging fully clothed from a hot bubblebath sesh with a bevy of swans.
The Hollywood Issue increasingly feels like it belongs to a different era, when fashion magazines and actors’ star power were at their respective heights. These days, the printed press is clinging on for dear life (Entertainment Weekly announced just last week that it will be ceasing its print edition), and in Hollywood no one performer is bigger than a franchise. So the Hollywood Issue, which trades in the nose-to-the-window glamour of movie stars, has a more forlorn quality than it used to.
In previous issues – such as the “Legends of Hollywood” iteration in 2001, featuring Nicole Kidman, Catherine Deneuve, Meryl Streep and Gwyneth Paltrow variously bestriding and draped over plush scenery – the magazine veritably crowed about the glamour of its catches, and, by extension, its own Brobdingnagian pulling power. Annie Leibovitz has since been taken off photography duties and the covers have been somewhat de-whitened (the extravagantly alabaster tones of 2010’s roster would quite rightly not pass muster in 2022); Maurizio Cattelan and Pierpaolo Ferrari are now on call to provide a self-consciously loopy look at today’s celebrities of the not-so-silver screen. “Look at these stars!” the magazine now appears to mumble, rather hopefully. “You like them?”
In a series of eight covers for 2022, which features such other actors as Andrew Garfield, Idris Elba and Penélope Cruz, Cumberbatch’s is the standout. Where Garfield is photographed in goofy neon pink, suspended over Hollywood on a construction hook, and a dreamy Kristen Stewart surveys the city from atop a diving board, a scintilla more art direction appears to have gone into the Cumberbatch shoot. A soapy Benedict stands in a finely appointed room belonging to a Pemberley-style mansion and stares defiantly into the lens while a quartet of handsome swans cavort in and around a gold bathtub. What does the picture signify (apart from being a play on the well-worn “wet fully-clothed movie star” trope)? It’s notable that, in contrast to his surroundings, Cumberbatch is dressed in distinctly modern, action-man togs, while there are touches of distress – some chipped wood in the doorframes – in the antique chamber behind him.
Perhaps the photograph is intended as a subversive comment on Cumberbatch’s efforts to distance himself from his extraordinarily moneyed family, whose every generation has its own Wikipedia page going right back to his slave-owning ancestor Abraham Parry Cumberbatch?
Certainly it feels as if the UK’s current triumvirate of public school-educated acting superstars, (Cumberbatch, Eddie Redmayne and Tom Hiddleston), have been rather more quiet of late than when they once appeared to dominate the promotional circuits. Indeed, for early students of Cumberbatch’s career – from his stunning Tesman opposite Eve Best in Hedda Gabler in 2005 and his exquisite performance in Stuart: A Life Backwards alongside Tom Hardy in 2007 – a certain level of Cumberbatch fatigue set in after the actor had racked up several Sherlock Holmeses, a Hamlet at the National, the voice of Smaug in three Hobbit films, a Turing and a Julian Assange.
Since then, the actor has appeared to scale things back a smidge, keeping a relatively low profile among Marvel gigs with a few cameos and secondary roles before returning to a world that was now more ready for his award-winning turn in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, playing decidedly against type as a gruff and wounded rancher. This tightly coiled, muscular, surly performance seemed also to present a new Cumberbatch, one whose wit and charm had been excised in favour of a more physical charisma, banishing any Englishness from his persona.
Although the Hollywood Issue has lost a touch of its pizzazz over the years, it’s interesting to see how, in its depiction of Cumberbatch at least, the magazine has resorted to a type of old-school glamour, playing on notions of money, class and perhaps even race to conjure a vision of ambiguous stardom for 2022 – played out against an empty, dilapidated room.