Since 1994, the magazine has featured a selection of pouting, attitude- striking film stars on a double-gatefold cover, invariably photographed by the doyenne of American portrait snappers, Annie Leibovitz. They're very popular. More than a million readers will scrutinise this image, worldwide. But the ladies featured here are a great deal more than film stars. Their presence on the gatefold puts them in a direct line of descent from the screen goddesses of the Golden Age of Hollywood. It ushers them into the same orbit as Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe, Katharine Hepburn, Kim Novak and Elizabeth Taylor. It whispers that they are beyond being simply appreciated for looking quite pretty. They are heading for a territory beyond beauty, beyond fame, beyond even stardom. They are on a fast track to immortality.
Which is odd since some of them are little known, even to American audiences. Kerry Washington, for instance, has only recently been seen in her first substantial starring role, playing Ray Charles's wife in Taylor Hackford's Ray. Rosario Dawson was doubtless much admired by viewers of Men in Black II, but her name has remained a well-kept secret until now. Ziyi Zhang's athletic flights in every key Chinese movie of the past five years has put her picture on a thousand hoardings, but few filmgoers outside the NFT would be able to put a name to her face. Sienna Miller is far better known as the girlfriend, and now fiancee, of Jude Law, than for her film work; although she gamely impersonated a deranged party animal in Alfie.
All ten women, whether well-known or new in town, are considerable actresses for the still camera. Scarlett Johansson looks away from the lens, Garbo- esquely, knowing that her sultry beauty is improved by shadows. Kate Winslet looks shocked, as though informed by someone that she's beginning to resemble Madonna. Kate Bosworth sits like a sulky wallflower at a disappointing ball. Clare Danes lies in a perfect (though clearly uncomfortable) horizontal, like a stricken Edwardian courtesan in need of sal volatile.
Some confusion seems apparent about the dress code. Some of the girls have been advised that strapless frocks are required. Others have been told halter-necks are comme il faut. Rosario Dawson has plumped for a revealing cat-suit, as if auditioning for Desperate Housewives. Uma Thurman (who was on the cover of the first Hollywood Issue) evidently thought it wasn't worth dressing for such a trivial event; her black trousers were loaned to her by a Vanity Fair stylist. Sienna Miller looks as if she is off to a rather louche funeral. Only Ziyi Zhang seems perfectly at ease in this artificial convergence of the world's top screen beauties, as she sits, cool, clever and appraising, in the centre of the action (but then she's been the face, in China, of a dozen sophisticated products, from shampoo to cosmetics).
Future students of iconography will inspect the gatefold for hidden meanings about the nature of human beauty in 2005. Why is so little jewellery being worn? What is this obsession with naked shoulders? And why do so many of the top thoroughbreds from Hollywood's beauty stable look as if, on the whole, they'd rather be somewhere else?
THE CAST LIST
1 Uma Thurman, 34
Forever remembered by cinemagoers as feisty vamp Mia Wallace in Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. A star since age of 20. Played June in Henry Miller flick Henry and June, Maid Marian in Robin Hood, Poison Ivy in Batman & Robin, and Emma Peel in disastrous remake of The Avengers. Has spent interminable time playing sword-wielding avenger The Bride in Kill Bill 1 & 2.
2 Cate Blanchett, 35
Melbourne-born classically trained stage actress who starred in David Mamet's Oleanna, and won awards for her Ophelia in Hamlet and Miranda in The Tempest. In her fourth film, Elizabeth, she won the Golden Globe for best actress. Shone in The Talented Mr Ripley, emoted ineffectually in Charlotte Gray and drooped regally on horseback through seemingly endless succession of forests in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
3 Kate Winslet, 29 Quintessentially English star, with 25 films under her belt since she co-starred in Peter Jackson's Heavenly Creatures in 1994. Never looked back after being praised by co-star Emma Thompson in Sense and Sensibility. Biggest role as Rose, the survivor in Titanic. Notably good in Hideous Kinky, Quills, Iris and Finding Neverland. Currently up for a best actress Oscar for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Married to Sam Mendes. Favourite role: "Being a mother of two."
4 Scarlett Johansson, 20
Swollen-lipped, moody-eyed, husky-voiced, 24-carat prima donna assoluta. The most confident, effortlessly classy leading lady since Grace Kelly. Indeed, played 14-year old called Grace in The Horse Whisperer, her seventh feature. Release of Lost in Translation and The Girl with a Pearl Earring knocked critics and audiences into a loop. Has a thing about dating older men, interestingly.
5 Rosario Dawson, 25
Born in New York, of Puerto Rican, Cuban, African-American, Irish and Native American descent. Sang vocals as Josie in Josie and the Pussycats. Much admired playing Roxane in Oliver Stone's Alexander. Soon to appear in Rent, screen version of Tony-winning musical.
6 Ziyi Zhang, 25
Most popular Chinese export since opium, she's the girl running up the side of the wall in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Beijing-born, non- Anglophone veteran of several kung-fu movies despite complete lack of training in martial arts. Excellent dancer. Currently filming bestselling Memoirs of a Geisha. Appeared in FHM magazine's Sexiest 100 Girls of 2002 (No 100).
7 Kerry Washington, 28
Born in the Bronx, attended same school as Gwyneth Paltrow and Emily Rossum. Graduated from George Washington University's theatre programme. Did lots of television, but first noticed in Save the Last Dance. After 12 films, rocketed to stardom playing Della Bea Robinson, the second Mrs Ray Charles, in Ray. Married to David Moscow, who played the young Tom Hanks in Big.
8 Kate Bosworth, 22
Self-confessed Californian "blue blood" and champion equestrian whose first audition won her a part in Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer. Has appeared, radiating brat-girlfriend urban confidence in 10 films, notably playing Sandra Dee opposite Kevin Spacey in Beyond the Sea. Hate- figure to a million swooning transatlantic girls because of involvement with Orlando Bloom. Suffers from heterochromia iridium (ie, has one hazel and one blue eye).
9 Sienna Miller, 23
Born in New York, attended Lee Strasberg Studio. Appeared in minor American TV series before breakthrough parts in two very British movies, Layer Cake and Alfie, where she had a love scene with inamorata Jude Law. Now engaged, they're pro tempore celebrity London's top couple. Her next project is a film about Casanova.
10 Clare Danes, 27
Gamine New Yorker who went to study at Lee Strasberg Studio when only nine. First came to attention playing neurotic teen Angela Chase in the TV show, My So-Called Life and catapulted to stardom playing Juliet in Baz Lurhman's Romeo and Juliet. Currently making The Shopgirl with Steve Martin.