Long Stories Short
- L’Oreal bought Australian brand Aesop for $2.5 billion, the company’s largest acquisition.
- Apple released a standalone app dedicated to classical music.
- Rupert Murdoch, 92, called off his engagement to 66 year-old evangelical Christian Ann Lesley Smith after just two weeks.
Once upon a time in Malaysia
by Liz Moseley
Oscar-winning actor Leonardo DiCaprio testified in a Washington DC court this week in an embezzlement case against former Fugees rapper Prakazrel “Pras” Michel. The case – surely heading for a glossy TV dramatisation – is a twisted saga of missing Malaysian billions, Hollywood movies, political influence and a see-through, perspex grand piano.
So what? The case shines a light into the murky world of American political campaign financing. The presence of DiCaprio, whose influence extends way beyond Hollywood, shows how widely the illicit money spread across the US establishment.
The case. After The Fugees disbanded in 1997, Michel became a self-styled “connector” and activist, before meeting the financier Jho Low in a nightclub in New York in 2006. He has pleaded not guilty but is accused of helping Low, now missing, syphon billions of dollars from Malaysian state investment fund 1MDB and channeling it via shell companies into then-president Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. He’s also been charged with trying to shut down a 2017 investigation into Low and failing to register as an agent of the Chinese government. Prosecutor Nicole Rae Lockhart said Michel had accepted over $100 million from Low in a tale of “political intrigue, backroom dealing… burner phones and lies.”
Low and behold. At just 5’5” with wireless spectacles, Low would be an unlikely mastermind of a $4.5 billion international kleptocracy case. He’s accused of pilfering cash from 1MDB to embark on an epic spending spree which bought him attention from the likes of Michel and DiCaprio, and even got him into the Obama’s White House Christmas bash. Michel’s team even wanted Barack Obama to explain under oath how Low ended up partying with the president. The judge denied their request. Low, who has been on the run since 2018 and is thought to be hiding in China, maintains his innocence.
The Leo and Low Show. After meeting at a party in Vegas in 2010, the actor and the financier became pals. Hopeless spendthrift Low couldn’t resist treating his famous chums – gifts including a $3 million Picasso, a $9 million Basquiat and Marlon Brando’s 1954 Oscar were relinquished by DiCaprio to the US authorities in 2017. Low also invested millions in The Wolf of Wall Street, which was co-produced by and starred DiCaprio. DiCaprio told the court that Low passed all investor vetting procedures prior to accepting the money. He severed ties with Low in 2015.
Leo a-go-go. His penchant for dating women decades younger than him dominates his media profile but obfuscates the extent of his influence across Hollywood and beyond.
- His Appian Way production company holds “first look” deals with Sony Pictures Entertainment and Apple. Martin Scorsese’s long awaited next movie, Killers of the Flower Moon (which will premiere in Cannes next month) is co-produced by Appian Way and stars DiCaprio and Robert de Niro. Tom Rothman, chairman of Sony Pictures Motion Picture Group, said “as Michael Jordan and Tom Brady are to basketball and football, so is Leo to film.”
- Named after Leonardo da Vinci, it’s not altogether surprising that the actor – personal wealth between $200 million and $300 million – is partial to a painting. He can remember The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch hanging above his crib, apparently. He’s now a respected fine art collector – he snapped up Salvador Dali’s Chevalier for $1.2 million in 2011. In 2013, working with Low and ex-Christie’s rainmaker Loic Gouzer, he staged “The 11th Hour”, an auction in which 32 lots from artists including Banksy and Anish Kapoor netted $33 million for his foundation.
- DiCaprio’s charitable work pays more than lip service to environmental activism. The 11th Hour is also the name of a 2007 documentary he produced, co-wrote and narrated about global warming, although arguably his more memorable foray into climate catastrophe filmmaking was 2021’s word-of-mouth hit Don’t Look Up. The Leonardo DiCaprio environmental foundation has distributed more than $100 million in grants to wildlife and ecosystem protection projects around the world over 20 years, catching the attention of former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon who designated DiCaprio a Messenger of Peace in 2014. Go, Leo.
What about that piano though? Australian model Miranda Kerr, now wife of billionaire Snap Inc CEO Evan Spiegel, was the lucky recipient of the perspex grand piano from Low. Must be a nightmare to dust.
(News in brief)
It’s all gone wibbly for Ghibli
These are turbulent times for influential Japanese animation studio and megabucks merch machine Studio Ghibli. President Koji Hoshino, formerly president of Disney Japan, unexpectedly announced he will leave the company this June and will be replaced by studio co-founder Suzuki Toshio. His resignation statement makes no mention of allegations made in Japanese celebrity gossip magazine Shukan Josei that Suzuki has been using his position (and company money) to set up a Thai girlfriend with a Bangkok spa and a plum job as an official Ghibli photographer. The studio denies any link between Hoshino’s retirement and the Suzuki rumours – but it’s not ideal timing. Ghibli is eyeing the Best Animated Oscar for How Do You Live?, the final film from legendary studio director Hayao Miyazaki, creator of Spirited Away and My Neighbour Totoro. The film has been seven years in the making and is set for release this July.
Who is… Emily FitzRoy
Living la dolce vita
Emily FitzRoy from Bellini Travel has the best job in the world. Her business, launched in 2000 as a travel guide, sources uber-discreet locations where the most quietly luxurious (and powerful) people on the planet let their perfectly coiffed hair down. It also unearths breathtaking backdrops for hit TV shows including White Lotus and Succession. She cast Villa Tasca (where Harper and Daphne stayed in White Lotus) and Villa La Cassinella (tech billionaire Lukas Matsson’s pad in Succession). Since the White Lotus series two, luxury travel enquiries for Sicily have increased by 90 per cent. It all started two years ago when FitzRoy “fished an email out of my junk from Mark Mylod [Director, Succession] explaining that he was a director of a show I’d probably never heard of and could I give them a hand finding some locations in Italy.” One of FitzRoy’s Italian friends later inspired a key White Lotus character (though she’s far too discreet to say who). Happily, FitzRoy is confident that despite the rise in “telly tourism”, as she calls it, hidden gems can still be found. “Ignore Taormina in Sicily and head to little hill towns such as Ragusa Ibla and the island of Filicudi.”
It touched us
To Russia with love
“We would love for him to know how much he is supported,” said Liza Fokht, a friend of jailed Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, as she called on people to write to him. Liza, who works for BBC Russia, and colleagues received 200 letters in the first two days. Gershkovich is in the brutal Lefortovo prison, and handwritten Russian letters are all he can receive. Liza and co. will translate and forward words of support. SenFreeGershkovich@Gmail.com.
Pivoting to Post
Kara Swisher, the self-proclaimed “liberal, lesbian Donald Trump of San Francisco” who famously sports aviator sunglasses indoors, is not a woman to mess with. A tech journalist since the dawn of the internet, she’s a terrifyingly well-connected workaholic and advisor to new social media platform Post.news which went live in beta this week. Loudmouth marketing professor Scott Galloway, Swisher’s co-presenter on media insiders’ must-listen podcast Pivot, is an investor in Post.news. Galloway is famous for his spookily accurate Big Tech predictions – so if he’s betting big on Post.news, perhaps it’s here to stay? If you missed Kara’s podcast Sway – in which she interviewed Nancy Pelosi, film director Spike Lee and Apple CEO Tim Cook among others – give On with Kara Swisher a try. In the last month she’s chatted with Brooke Shields, Reid Hoffman and Jamie Lee Curtis. Swish.
Thank you and farewell
Until the 2010s, the shop of choice for papyrophiliacs – people who love paper – was Paperchase. But after twice falling into administration, this week the last of 106 stores closed with the loss of 900 jobs. It’s a cautionary stationery tale of too much pricey real estate, no online presence and failing to push the, erm, envelope. Because despite strike woes and soaring postal costs, the greeting cards sector is booming – growth categories include LGBTQ+, Eid and baby showers. Against Moonpig’s hyper-personalisation and the slightly-better-than-a-petrol-station options at Card Factory, Paperchase just didn’t cut it. The brand and intellectual property has been snapped up by Tesco but, as with the Habitat range now available in Sainsbury’s, it’ll never be quite the same. SWALK.
Steaking a claim
by Stephen Armstrong
It’s when Steven Yeun screeches his pick-up truck across a flower bed that the road rage incident in Beef (Netflix, out now) moves from mundanity to madness. Yeun’s struggling handyman Danny and Ali Wong’s flailing entrepreneur Amy are having bad days. When they almost bump in the parking lot, her finger flipping sends him driving after her. Three minutes of red mist become a darkly comic game of cat and mouse as the two stalk each other’s lives with increasing fury. Beef has won near universal praise from critics and there are three reasons why.
The cast – the two leads bring a vulnerability to characters who should be unlovable. He’s a recent immigrant from South Korea, living three to a room and struggling to make good. She’s apparently successful but trapped by a vapid husband and banal life wrapped in the assumption of happiness. The joy they get from their feud means they’re the only people who truly understand each other.
The premise – everyone has had a moment on the verge of something dumb behind the wheel.
The production company – A24, the Hollywood studio that’s so successful it’s becoming a lifestyle brand. It’s everything Miramax could have been without Harvey Weinstein.
A twenty what now? Named after an Italian motorway, A24 started as a movie distributor in 2012, marketing existing films. Four years later, its first original production, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, won the Best Picture Oscar. This year A24 became the first studio to win all six top Oscars with the historic five awards for Everything Everywhere All at Once and Brendan Fraser’s gong for The Whale.
But how? Daniel Katz, David Fenkel, and John Hodges started out in New York’s indie movie scene – and A24 is still East Coast. It grew through clever marketing and expert social media then backed Black and Asian American filmmakers and picked diverse scripts and cast – Dev Patel as Sir Gawaine in The Green Knight and Jeremy Pope as a gay marine in The Inspection – whilst backing Jonah Hill, Jesse Eisenberg and Bo Burnham’s directorial debuts. “It’s the kind of company where they don’t need to know what it’s about. They just need to know how it feels,” says Barry Jenkins.
A24 fandom has themed parties on TikTok, produce A24 fanfiction, buy limited edition merchandise and even join A24 members club – offering a magazine and discounted merch but not access to their streaming service. A24 auctions props from its movies – the Everything Everywhere auction earnings went to a trio of charities selected by the film’s directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert.
And not just them. A24 heads a new breed of private equity-backed movie startups reshaping Hollywood – see also Top Gun: Maverick’s studio Skydance and Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine. They all play fair, find new voices and make hits. And, clearly, win awards.
(Reviews in brief)
A Little Life, Harold Pinter Theatre, till 18 June
Much has been made of James Norton’s nudity in this adaptation of Hanja Yanagihara’s epic novel. But it’s positively PG in comparison to the graphic evocations of self-harm and sexual abuse on stage. Whether this strikes you as profound or repugnant will depend largely on how you found the book. Here, even with 3 hours 40 to play with, some of that feels sped through, Norton’s incidences of self-harm (as the tortured lead Jude) the sole, chillingly slow action.
But an excellent cast, live orchestration and intelligent staging rescue the production. The audience sit on two opposing sides of the stage, as if the characters are in a bear pit. But who’s baiting them? Us, for paying to watch this depravity? Or the inscrutable world that speeds past on the video screens that accompany the performance?
Romantic Comedy, Curtis Sittenfeld, Double Day, 13 April
Curtis Sittenfeld specialises in using fiction to create “re-imagined realities” – her best known work is Rodham, about a world where Hilary Clinton never married Bill. Her latest novel is lighter, a borderline beach read. It follows Sally, a comedy writer on a fictionalised version of Saturday Night Live called The Night Owls who aspires to write “non-condescending, ragingly feminist romantic comedies”. The twist, of course, is that Sally’s life turns into a non-condescending ragingly feminist romantic comedy when she falls for the week’s guest host on The Night Owls. The metaphor is fun if not exactly poignant, giving readers not so much an insight into what love is as to a story about what happens when you find it.
The Record, boygenius (album out now)
The debut album from boygenius – the Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus supergroup – is all about love. They’re female, queer and fit somewhere along the alt-folk singer-songwriter indie continuum. Fittingly, The Record is an album dedicated to telling the story of that amorphous thing known as “female friendship”. It doesn’t reinvent the musical wheel but its earnest lyrics and clean harmonies successfully convey the simple beauty of three people who love each other – and love making music with each other. Roll down the car window, turn up the volume and smile. Catch them live across the UK this August.
For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy (The Apollo Theatre, running until 7 May)
Inspired by For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf, Ntozake Shange’s play about the racism and sexism experienced by Black women, For Black Boys takes the same theme and applies it to six young Black British men: Onyx, Pitch, Jet, Sable, Obsidian and Midnight. Gathering for a group therapy session, the six discuss their treatment at school, the use of the N-word, abandonment, abusive fathers, the tokenism of Black history, the stigma around reading books, dating, toxic masculinity and mental health. The possibility of suicide looms over the play, but while the subject matter is grim at times, there’s also a playful sense of humour that runs throughout. Much like For Colored Girls, For Black Boys is a choreopoem blending poetry, dance and music – and the dialogue is punchy and poetic.
This week: The soundtrack to Trump’s day in court
At a Tortoise pace
The sound of silence
In February, Sebastian Hervas-Jones, 24, jacked in his job as a Tortoise reporter, binned his smart phone and set off on a renovated barge to spend 365 days discovering Britain. This is week five…
As I travel around in the cold, the pub has become an oasis of warmth and life. I have learnt to respect the inimitable quiet in friendship between old men; a silence not to be mistaken for indifference. One relationship stands out to me: every day Vince sits down for a pint with John, on the big round table by the window. They say little, exchanging long stares, and words on the weather. Vince is a stalwart companion to John and is never late. Until, one day, when he was late… John was unsettled, unable to read his newspaper. After a while, a pale white, sweaty, broken Vince trudged in and collapsed into his seat. My heart broke as John asked why Vince wouldn’t see the doctor – “I’m afraid of what he might say.”
You can read more of Seb’s letters “home” here.
for your diary
07/04-10/05 – Grenfell by Steve McQueen, a silent film recorded six months after the eponymous tragedy, screening at Serpentine Gallery, London
19/04-23/04 – Cambridge Literary Festival returns with appearances from Carol Ann Duffy, Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Morpurgo
01/05-14/05 – Liverpool hosts EuroFestival, a programme of 24 commissioned pieces of art and culture, to celebrate the Eurovision Song Contest
12/05-06/06 – Veuve Clicquot celebrates its 250th birthday with a pop-up exhibition at Piccadilly Circus, displaying works from nine female artists along with a café helmed by celebrated chef and TV personality Andi Oliver
21/07 – Barbie, starring Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling as the iconic doll lovers, released in UK cinemas
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Editor: Jane Bruton
Contributions from Hattie Garlick, Steph Preston, Sara Weissel, Dolly Martin and James Wilson
Photographs courtesy Getty Images, Kara Swisher/Vox Media, Alex Bramall, Jan Versweyveld, Ali Wright, Harrison Whitford, Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP, Tom Pilston for Tortoise