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Quendrith Johnson

Quendrith Johnson is Los Angeles Correspondent covering everything happening in film in Hollywood... Well, the most interesting things, anyway.
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Were the 93rd Oscars really about Mogul vs Mogul?

by Quendrith Johnson, Los Angeles Correspondent

'Congratulations to Searchlight Pictures for NOMADLAND that just swept the 93rd Oscars with Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress.’ You can hear the echo of the celebrations (however low-key) last night after the telecast beamed ‘round the world, online and on Zoom. But what was this Oscar year really about? You had the Pandemic, the economic contraction brought on by lockdowns, almost everything was influenced by this virus, COVID-19. But there was another cataclysmic event, at least for Hollywood, that really set the stage behind the scenes: Patrick Whitesell vs Jeff Bezos, and the Lauren Sanchez ‘Hollywood wife heist’. How does all this relate to NOMADLAND? Wait and see.

So in January 2019, news broke around the globe and in Hollywood that Amazon titan Jeff Bezos was somehow now romantically involved with the married Lauren Sanchez, former TV news presenter, who was high-power Hollywood agency partner Patrick Whitesell’s longtime spouse and mother to their children. Longtime for Hollywood means since 2005 in this case. Whitesell, whose A-List clients reach around a city block, is part of the Ari Emmanuel dynamic team at WME, William Morris Endeavor. WME is the upstart firm of old with the lower case name “endeavor” that swallowed whole giant of the past, The William Morris Agency.

Patrick Whitesell, whose clients include Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, Ryan Reynolds, and countless other heavies at the box office, was seen as being stripped of his pneumatically enhanced helicopter pilot wife by the hard-charging Billionaire Boy Bezos. Bezos had hired her Black Ops Aviation heli-cam outfit to film (whatever) shots for his Blue Origin rocket venture.

If you are humming ‘sky rockets in flight,’ you get the picture that being up in the air was an aphrodisiac of sorts for Daddy Warbucks and his married Whirly-Girl.

Enter Page Six, part of the New York Post, with a charmingly spun headline: “Jeff Bezos Has Been Seeing Estranged Wife of Hollywood Mogul.” As if the term “estranged” makes it all better. This word reassures the Hollywood folks that Whitesell is indeed still a “Hollywood Mogul.”

Perception is everything in Tinseltown, so having a nicked wife is not an ideal addition to any resume. Unless, of course, if you have the firepower in the media of an insider like Whitesell, widely admired in Hollywood as a “cool” powerbroker (not someone to mess with, that is), who will not take the Hollywood Wife Heist laying down, even if estranged.

The next set of news stories breaks across the scroll. Suddenly Whitesell and Sanchez have been separated for the proverbial “a while.”

Mackenzie Scott Bezos, or in archaic terms the current Mrs. Dan Jewett, re-married just this March and happily so. Remarkably, she stayed above the fray and collected her $53 Billion settlement with all the grace of the World’s 22 Richest Woman. Mackenzie even opted to have wedding gifts for the marriage to her teacher husband pledged to a philanthropic cause on her favorite website Mackenzie Scott remains untarnished in this whole affair.

Now back to our story. Bezos and Sanchez become an item in 2020, even with the breaking National Enquirer scandal that her brother may have leaked clothing optional photos of the Big Man from Amazon.

Throughout 2020 and years before, Amazon as a company has its share of worker-on-edge, over-worked, and under-compensated scandals of its own. Do you really need to work another job if you are working at Amazon in order to support a family? How many Amazon employees get federal benefits? Did AOC kill the Amazon contract because of these issues?

Needless to say, out of the ether (or from the Land of Coincidence) a Mother Jones reporter had been spending time undercover as an Amazon Employee in the old Orange Vest and safety glasses for a deep dive into the working culture of said conglomerate. At the time, there is no unionizing talk going on within the Big Smile (Amazon’s logo). And Chloe Zhao had yet to come across a book by Jessica Bruder, published by W. W. Norton in 2017, entitled "Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century."

Judith Freeman from Los Angeles Review of Books asked Bruder how Nomadland, the book got started. And Bruder replied “The origin story?… There was one Mother Jones cover story that fascinated me. The reporter went undercover in an Amazon warehouse and what got me was a couple of sentences. Someone working a seasonal job there told the reporter, “Yeah, I live in a RV full-time, I can’t afford to retire and there’s a whole program for people like me.” I thought, What?!! I remember searching online and learning that it wasn’t just Amazon offering these jobs. There were hundreds, maybe thousands, of openings aimed at people who live in RVs. I’m a journalist. I’m curious. I started looking into it.”

While NOMADLAND, the movie adapted by Zhao even Oscar Nominated in this category, does not take aim at knight errant wife-swiping Jeff Bezos personally, the film provides enough to context to piece together a, shall we say, uncaring overlord who heads a vast Smile Empire where not very many orange-liveried working serfs are smiling.

Meanwhile in real life? The Bezos and Whitesell families knew each other in their proximity to each other in the greater Seattle area where they both own real estate. In fact, this is where all the entanglement began, there and in LA with the heli-cam rides.

So going into Oscar Season for 2021?

The confluence of events is remarkable in that NOMADLAND is not only in the zeitgeist as far as representation of female directors, not to mention women of color, but as a champion of pro-worker, anti-agist campaigns.

Now three-time Oscar-winner Frances McDormand, to be 64 on June 23, has stepped a foot across film history with Meryl Streep just one shy of the four golden statuette record held by Kate Hepburn. Director Chloe Zhao, who turns 40 next year, has made history all over the world.



But is this just the consumer-facing story in Hollywood, one wonders?

After all, if we learned anything from CITIZEN KANE -- whose derivative [MANK] was up for 10 Oscar Noms this year and made good on only two wins -- it is this... money does not rule in Hollywood; power rules in Hollywood.

A crime against a Mogul is usually tried within the court of private insider opinion in this Town. So while the applause rings out around the block in small towns, coasts, the fly-overs, and around the world for NOMADLAND ?In there with all its breakthroughs for this new Hollywood era of inclusion, baked in is also one of the greatest themes of Classic Hollywood.

The Little Guy wins… yes, that would be Patrick Whitesell. Mogul in this case, vs Mogul, up against the mountain of money, known as Mr. Amazon.

You can be No One from Nowhere but rule the world from that tiny Tinseltown just as the great Hollywood Moguls of the past have done. And when the 9,000-plus members of the Academy line up behind a decision?

Oh Jeff Bezos made off with Lauren Sanchez alright, estranged or not from Patrick Whitesell. But did Mr. Whitesell, much the same as one of the colorful characters in a Tarantino movie, get his revenge come Oscar time?

NOMADLAND makes us all take a second look at the Smile Empire and wonder if the origins of a company that killed all the Mom-and-Pop book stores of yore should be allowed to kill all the joy for working stiffs in a time when his unlimited prosperity includes any maiden in the kingdom and flying her to the moon on Blue Origin.

Then again? Maybe this is just one of those Hollywood Coincidences, where a justifiably deserving film takes the top gongs. You decide.

Until next year’s Oscars, Goodbye to the first Award Season of the Pandemic.

Enjoy the movies streaming or in-person coming soon.

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