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Why The Favourite is our favo(u)rite Best Picture nominee

Our roundtable discusses the Oscar chances for Yorgos Lanthimos’s wickedly funny tale of three women’s power games.

Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah and Olivia Colman as Queen Anne in The Favourite.
Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah and Olivia Colman as Queen Anne in The Favourite.
Fox Searchlight

Each year, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences nominates between five and 10 movies to compete for the Oscars’ Best Picture trophy — its most prestigious award, and the one given out at the very end of the ceremony. There’s no strict definition for what makes a “best” picture; it’s easiest to think about it as an honor given to the film that Hollywood thinks best represents the year in movies.

So whichever film wins Best Picture essentially represents the American movie industry’s view of its role in driving culture, as well as its capabilities and aspirations, at a specific point in time.

Every year’s nominee slate, then, is a rough approximation of the options from which the industry will choose as it attempts to characterize its past 12 months. And one thing that’s definitely true about the eight Best Picture nominees from 2018 is that they exhibit a lot of variety.

There’s a superhero film, two political satires (one set in an 18th-century royal court and one set in the White House), a movie about infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan, a classic Hollywood remake, a classic Hollywood feel-good buddy comedy, a rocker biopic, and a sweeping domestic drama. And thinking about what the Academy voters — as well as audiences and critics — found enticing about them can help us better understand both the state of Hollywood and, broadly speaking, what we were looking for at the movies this year.

In the runup to the Oscars on February 24, Vox’s staff is looking at each of the eight Best Picture nominees in turn. What makes this film appealing to Academy voters? What makes it emblematic of the year? And should it win?

Here, Vox culture reporters Aja Romano, Alissa Wilkinson, and Alex Abad-Santos talk about The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos’s caustic 18th-century dark comedy about Queen Anne and two women battling for her favor and a position of power.

The Favourite is a little more caustic than 2019’s other Best Picture nominees. Does it have a chance of winning?

Alissa Wilkinson: If you asked me to name 2019’s weirdest Best Picture nominee, I’d say The Favourite — and it may be my favorite, too. It’s a wickedly delightful costume drama about power and sex, centering on three women who really did exist: Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), her closest companion and confidante Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), and Sarah’s cousin Abigail Masham (Emma Stone), who tries to usurp Sarah in the role of Anne’s favorite.

But The Favourite is not exactly gunning for historical accuracy. It’s a little more accessible than director Yorgos Lanthimos’s other films (like The Lobster, Dogtooth, or The Killing of a Sacred Deer), but it still feels like it’s happening in a universe only a few ticks away from our own. The costumes, though sumptuous, are not particularly period-precise; the games the palace’s residents play seem more inspired by period details than realistic; and there’s an unforgettable dance sequence that’s wholly lifted from some other universe. Plus, some of the film’s details — like the rabbits Anne keeps in her chambers — are entirely made up.

Queen Anne addresses her court.
Queen Anne addresses her court.
Fox Searchlight

To me, The Favourite feels as contemporary as any actually contemporary movie from 2018, and I was delighted to see that Academy voters liked it enough to put it up for the Oscars’ biggest award. With 10 total nods, it’s tied with Roma for the most nominations overall — and that’s all the more impressive given that although it’s a visually sumptuous period drama, it’s got none of the usual qualities of a high-nomination movie: It’s not heartwarming, it’s not inspiring, it has a rather dark view of human nature, and it gets rather icky in places. It’s part of a year’s worth of films that propose that men are essentially useless, and it does so with a humor that’s both mean and humanistic. I found it delightful.

But I don’t think it will win the big award. Do you? What did you think of The Favourite when you saw it? And how do you think it wound up nominated for Best Picture?

Aja Romano: In many ways, The Favourite feels like a very updated version of the kind of movie that is typically Oscar bait. It has all the traditional trappings: It’s a sumptuous period drama about real historical figures caught up in a fraught political moment, with lush lighting, richly detailed set and costume design, and a stellar acting ensemble, all brought together by a director who’s seemed to be just on the cusp of Oscar recognition for a while. It has elegant flourishes to spare. And honestly, the Academy has never wasted time nattering over historical accuracy when a movie shows up trumpeting a three-hour runtime, an “epic” storyline, and excellent outdoor cinematography.

But The Favourite’s writing, acting, and direction are also heavily informed by the #MeToo era, and it’s easy to imagine that in previous years, when the Academy’s membership was less diverse, the film’s narrative might have seemed too politically charged to draw voter support. That’s not to say The Favourite is aiming to be a political firestarter, but it’s the quintessential example of a movie that illustrates the overlay between the personal and the political.

In fact, The Favourite is almost gleefully ruthless about pointing out that within a patriarchal society, the pursuit of personal power for women almost necessarily becomes political. (And given that men in The Favourite are demonstrably useless, the overlapping games women play in support of these pursuits have deep ramifications for the whole society.) Couple that with the stark way that sexual power games are framed in the film, not just as a political tool but as a weapon born of women’s experience with sexual assault, and it’s easy to see how The Favourite might make some viewers more than a little uncomfortable.

Like nearly every other person I know, I deeply loved The Favourite, though I remain bemused by its defiance of conventional genre categories at awards ceremonies. Its placement in the “comedy” category at the Golden Globes was a testament to its scintillating wit and chortle-inducing script, but it definitely obscured the film’s pointedly dark, even grim worldview. What did you all think with regard to how to classify this movie? Was it funny like funny ha ha, or are we tragically erasing all its glorious melodrama?

Alex Abad-Santos: I don’t think being “funny ha ha” and being grim are mutually exclusive. And I don’t think we have to categorize and flatten The Favourite in that way.

My favorite thing about The Favourite is how it slowly swerves against the expectations it sets. It’s a dark comedy dressed up as a period piece. One moment you’re hit with humor, and in the next comes gruesome physical pain. One minute Queen Anne seems like a dithering, badger-eyed idiot, but slowly the movie unfurls her true nature: She might not be well-versed in areas like economic and foreign policy, but she knows she holds all the power.

Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone in The Favourite.
Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone in The Favourite.
Fox Searchlight

The film’s ending sequence — beginning with the bunny-squishing and culminating with more bunnies bringing forth the doom and reminding Abigail of her subservience — is absolutely horrifying and perfect.

I would love for The Favourite to win all the Oscars. But while I could see Colman and Weisz/Stone winning their respective acting categories, I don’t know if the Academy will honor the film with Best Picture. Going by the kind of movies that have won in recent years— The Shape of Water, Moonlight, and SpotlightThe Favourite seems too wicked, too edgy and scratchy to take the trophy.

Are the Oscars going to surprise me? There’s no way Green Book is better than this movie, right?

Is The Favourite a costume drama for the #MeToo era?

Alissa: The Favourite is obviously the arthouse darling movie of the season, and I don’t think it would have made it nearly this far without its specific trio of actresses propelling it forward in awards conversations. That’s not to say the movie’s directing and writing and design aren’t great too — it’s just that it needs a spark in the middle to work, and Colman, Weisz, and Stone absolutely deliver.

I definitely think The Favourite is a comedy, though not one that relies on jokes so much as very grim humor, almost gallows humor, the kind that emerges when the audience is totally aware of how the messed-up world works and is kind of amazed by just how messed up it really is. It’s funny because it’s true, in other words. The bitter laugh of recognition.

Part of what Lanthimos emphasized to me when he and I talked back in September was that The Favourite is a modern story but set in the past, as you say, Alex. Sometimes I think setting stories of power games in a different era helps them to function almost like science fiction — allowing them to disarm us a little, then sock us in the gut.

But I also think this movie is the least likely of this year’s eight nominees to win Best Picture. (Though my money never would have been on the strange The Shape of Water, last year’s Best Picture winner, so who knows?) I’m almost certain it is a little too mean, a little too weird, and a little too transgressive for a lot of Oscar voters. Olivia Colman mainlines a cake and barfs it up. Emma Stone nearly squashes a bunny with her foot. Men utterly suck in this movie. It lacks the obvious moral urgency of a Spotlight or the contemplative poetry, and maybe even humanism, of a Moonlight.

But I’m interested in what you say about it being a movie for the #MeToo era, Aja, because I have run into a few people who think the film is highly misogynistic and paints women in a bad light. I don’t agree. What do you think?

Aja: Oh, I think The Favourite is entirely in line with the #MeToo era, and I think that’s part of Lanthimos’s depiction of Queen Anne’s court as a modern circumstance mapped onto the past. The ways these women are forced to navigate the threat of sexual manipulation and coercion, and learn how to deploy them as weapons themselves, all while strategically turning blind eyes to the ways and means in which sexual manipulation is being used to hurt and manipulate people around them — doesn’t it all feel very much like the interplay of sexual aggression, trauma, silence, and power plays that Harvey Weinstein both used himself and depended on from those around him in order to remain in power for so long?

I think the fact that the film paints women in a bad light is part of what makes it powerful feminist commentary; Weisz and Stone are manipulating each other with tactics that have been codified through patriarchal oppression, tactics that have been used against each of them before. And Colman’s Anne is simultaneously addicted to and imprisoned by her role as the literal embodiment of patriarchy.

Nicholas Hoult — and a sea of wigs — in The Favourite.
Nicholas Hoult — and a sea of wigs — in The Favourite.
Fox Searchlight

I think all these factors make the ending, as Alex mentioned, that much more horrific, because you’re not just watching personal power games come to their dreadful resolution; you’re watching the complete dehumanization of someone who was forced to bargain away her right to sexual autonomy for power, because she was trapped within a system that never saw her as fully human to begin with. (As for those bunnies, if no one else is going to make a Rules of the Game reference, let me be the first to note this parallel, and to point out that The Favourite is rife with symbols of vulnerable things being crushed under the heel of those with money and power, long before the literal heel crush almost happens.)

As I look at this year’s crop of Best Picture nominees, I honestly think this film has as much a chance at taking home the win as any of the others. The crucial thing about the past three Best Picture winners is that they were all outsiders whose wins were seen as upsets. I think the Academy has leaped ahead tremendously over the past decade in admitting members who are aware of the cultural conversation around films, and aware of the kinds of qualities that make films remain parts of that conversation long after Oscar night. I think that’s why smaller, nervier films like Spotlight and Moonlight took the top prize over films like The Revenant and La La Land that are more traditionally what we think of when we think of Oscar winners.

And while I definitely think 2019’s nominees could have been much gutsier, I think the sheer number of bland (if not just, well, bad) films in the category, like Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book, might sway plenty of voters away from the nominees with the most hoopla and toward the film that is their, well, Favourite.

Who’s really the lead actress of The Favourite?

Alex: Here is the inevitable question. Olivia Colman is nominated in the Lead Actress category. But “her bitches” Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone are nominated in the Supporting Actress category. Who is your ... favourite? And why?

Aja: Colman did a stunning job, but Weisz just hypnotized me. How can you not love Rachel Weisz striding around in those pants and boots like she’s a dominatrix whose whip is her brain? Give her all the Oscars or she’ll win them from you in a game you didn’t even know you were playing.

Alex: I might need to see the movie a second time, but I felt like Colman was the supporting actress and Weisz and Stone were the leads. While Colman’s Anne is the bigger presence and the center of the film, Stone’s Abigail and Weisz’s Lady Sarah seemed to have more screen time and more dialogue. I wouldn’t be mad at the idea of flipping the categories and nominations.

Rachel Weisz plays Lady Sarah in The Favourite.
Rachel Weisz plays Lady Sarah in The Favourite.
Fox Searchlight

And when it comes down to Weisz and Stone, I think Weisz takes the win by a hair. Her role is less splashy, less blatantly entertaining than Stone’s, whose character gets to pout, harrumph, and slowly unspool her wickedness throughout the movie. Stone also gets to give the most uninterested handjob in cinematic history. But Weisz, as you said Aja, is a commanding figure. She says so much in the way she subtly sharpens her expression, furrows her brow, shifts her posture. That bathtub scene, one of her last ploys to make up with Anne, is brimming with silent desperation.

Alissa: I left the movie absolutely convinced that Olivia Colman was the lead, and it was only in conversations with other people that I realized she really does have less airtime than Weisz and Stone. I think Anne is such a tragic enigma of a figure — strong and weak, a mess and a queen, petulant and affectionate and regal and gross — that I couldn’t stop thinking about her.

That said, I can’t really choose. I think they’d all be leads in my book.

One last question to you all, then: Suppose The Favourite wins Best Picture, and movie studios miraculously decide that means they should copy its formula of tweaking stories from the past to explore matters that are plenty fresh today. What’s your dream project?

Alex: Give me that retelling of Eleanor of Aquitaine, that pesky annulment, her eventual imprisonment, Richard the Lionheart, outliving her children, and eventually becoming a nun. I would love to see some ferrets in the remake.

Emma Stone stars along with Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman in The Favourite.
Emma Stone stars along with Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman in The Favourite.
Fox Searchlight

Aja: Give me the bleak and tragic story of Lady Jane Grey in all its no-holds-barred ruthless political absurdity. Also give me the story of Anne Bonny and Mary Read, a.k.a. those famous 18th-century lesbian pirates who went viral on Tumblr and later featured in Black Sails.

Alissa: I’m with you on Lady Jane Grey, Aja. And I’d be all about Hatshepsut of Egypt, who ruled as pharaoh and wore a beard(!), getting her due on the big screen sometime. There’s so much to unpack there. In Hollywood, stories about Egyptian queens always end up being about Cleopatra!

And no matter which stories end up getting made, I think we can all agree it’s worth taking a page out of The Favourite’s book: Don’t be afraid of bold characters, surprising choices, great costumes, and, if you want, a whole lot of rabbits.

Check out what our roundtable participants had to say about all eight Best Picture nominees:

Black Panther | BlacKkKlansman | Bohemian Rhapsody | The Favourite | Green Book | Roma | A Star Is Born | Vice