The Favouriteand Roma led this years Oscars nominations, with both films racking up 10 nods a piece. The Yorgos Lanthimos-directed period comedy swept all the major categories, including Best Picture, Best Actress (for Olivia Colman), double Best Supporting Actress nominations (for Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz), Lanthimos' directing, the film's screenplay, costumes, and, probably, a new category created just for The Favourite: Bitchiest One-Liners. Throughout awards season, The Favourite has been, well, a favorite -- for those who saw it, that is (it's taken home a modest $42.8 million at the box office).
But how did a period drama about a lesbian throuple become the most-nominated film of awards season?
The Favourite ticks every Oscar voter box: period costume drama with contemporary flair? Check. A-list actors? Check. Auteur director coming off a string of critically-acclaimed-but-commercially-meh films? Check. Based on these elements alone it was clear that The Favourite would sail through awards season.
The film is also grounded in reality, something the Academy loves: Abigail Masham (Stone) and Sarah Churchill (Weisz) were cousins and courtiers to Queen Anne, who according to a biography, was not all that interested in or knowledgeable about politics. The women did have a politically-motivated bitter rivalry: Abigail's alliance with Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) was an attempt to sway Queen Anne to the Tories while Sarah was affiliated with the Whigs. There's no historical confirmation that the women were sexually involved, but songs about their rivalry mention the Queen engaging in "dark deeds at night" with a "dirty chambermaid." Instead, the film expands on what historians can confirm, sprinkling in wonderfully weird touches like the queen's penchant for keeping rabbits and Abigail poisoning Sarah to secure her own marriage, neither of which actually happened.
Contemporary film and television has become obsessed with flawed protagonists, but none of The Favourite's women are what would normally be considered an antihero. Anne, Abigail, and Sarah aren't especially likable -- it's actually possible that no one in the movie is likeable in the way we're used to liking protagonists, or at least sympathizing with their plight -- but their wickedness is so sharp, so beautiful and deliciously cruel, so careful and calculating, that we can't help but root for them as they toy with the lives of millions from the comfort of their literal castle. And Colman, Stone, and Weisz have done such an excellent job of making these women real, finding depth and humor in their casual cruelty that is impossible to look away from.
The Favourite is a movie that couldn't have been made as it is even five years ago, and Lanthimos has spoken about how the film functions in the era of #MeToo, telling Deadline that "because of the prevalent male gaze in cinema, women are portrayed as housewives, girlfriends... Our small contribution is we're just trying to show them as complex and wonderful and horrific as they are, like other human beings." The Favourite allows these women to be monsters, allows them to be cunning and captivating, and, most excitingly, allows them to be unapologetically queer in a way that is uncompromising and fully in service to the story.
The way the film handles sex is also refreshing -- the intimate romance between Anne and Sarah is clear, as is the way Abigail leverages sex for power (I can't think of a sex scene funnier than Stone's apathetic handjob as she plots to against her rival). The sex scenes aren't gratuitous or exploitative, instead functioning as a way to advance the plot and reveal more about the characters. The Favourite is also a perfect example of how a film can deal with the very real threat of sexual violence -- in a clumsier film, Harley's threatening of Abigail would undoubtedly (and unnecessarily) have escalated -- without ever having to depict it.
The Favourite may sweep every category at the Oscars, or it may win none. Either way, its success is proof that a film can take an unflinching look at three deeply flawed and endlessly fascinating women who have sex with other women and be the most-nominated film at the biggest awards show in Hollywood.
And maybe next time they'll, you know, cast an actual lesbian.