The Favourite Defies Oscars Definition of “Lead Actress”

Emma Stone, Olivia Colman, and Rachel Weisz are all the lead role in The Favourite. So why does film culture reduce analysis to Oscars?

When speaking with the filmmakers and cast of The Favourite late last year, we posed a simple yet impossible question: Who in this darkly hilarious tragedy is the protagonist? Or, just as easily, who is the lead character? It’s a preposterous query, because the answer between its triumvirate of acerbic performances is all of them. Or none of them. At different points, Rachel Weisz’s Lady Sarah, Emma Stone’s Abigail Hill, and Olivia Colman’s not-so-regal Queen Anne dominate the film’s narrative and our sympathies. But at no point do any of them maintain their ownership of that power, which is all the more remarkable since Yorgos Lanthimos’ film is entering an awards season that is compelled to simplify art to categories, and performance to titles.

“For me there was never one protagonist between the three of them,” Yorgos Lanthimos says when asked who is at the center of the film’s triangle. “From starting to write the screenplay with Tony McNamara, we knew that we wanted to create these three very complicated and complex women that, in different times within the film, they would kind of take the lead or have the upper-hand.”

It’s a fair assessment, even as it flew in the face of the arbitrary discussion that film culture had for months around this obsidian-encrusted jewel box of a film. “Who should the Academy nominate for the Best Actress Oscar and who should be nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar?” were among the first remarks I heard from film journalists after two separate screenings of The Favourite. With three fantastic lead performances between Colman, Stone, and Weisz, it’s inevitable to want to discuss award recognition, but as film culture continues to be divided between prestige and blockbuster, art and commerce, so too does the ostensible high-quality work get reduced to a political analyst’s spreadsheet of vulnerabilities and assets after the latest poll.

In the actual film, Colman gives a supremely scene-stealing performance that reclaims Queen Anne from historical obscurity and makes a compelling case that she was every bit as mercurial and peculiar as the infamous, and oft Hollywoodized, Henry VIII. Yet while Henry is able to freely indulge his excesses and whims, the feminine Queen Anne is relegated to the shadows of her own court. Stricken with gout and a seeming legion of bodily weaknesses, Anne is emotionally vulnerable and paranoid throughout. Weisz is right when she tells us that the queen is quite toddler-like and lashes out, looking for distraction and some form of familial love after suffering 17 miscarriages.

She finds it in Weisz’s Lady Sarah, who in turn is as much a protagonist as her wrathful and insecure queen. Lady Sarah is the woman who has been closest to Anne since girlhood, and when Anne inexplicably comes into the crown, Sarah situates herself as Anne’s right-hand woman, usurping the men of early 18th century English court to essentially run the realm while Anne preens over her pet rabbits—17, one for each dead child.

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“They were childhood friends and they’ve been best friends since before they were famous,” Weisz says. “But Sarah, my character, loves England and loves the Queen. But the Queen is England, and England is the Queen.”

It is a less bombastic turn than Colman’s, nor is it as deliciously duplicitous as Stone’s Abigail, who comes to court as a distant relation of Sarah begging for employment… but somehow winds up threatening Weisz’s status as the queen’s favorite courtier. Yet it is arguably the centerpiece as both women apply pressure on Sarah’s status. It’s also the position Hollywood would traditionally enjoy most, as she reflects the golden star who’s winning streak is threatened by a new ingénue, a la Anne Baxter in All About Eve. Still, Abigail is hardly a villain. Much of the first half of the film is viewed from her perspective, as she gets the lay of the land at court, and then starts making her moves. In a lesser period piece, those power plays would be seen as even a moment of heroic triumph, but in this film, Stone laughs at the idea of Abigail as a heroine.

“She’s no Joan of Arc,” Stone deadpans about her character. “She’s using any means necessary to survive. I think she’s a heroine unto herself for sure… But the protagonist [aspect] is hard, because you see the development of all three stories in a pretty equal way.” Stone even invites the All About Eve comparisons between her character and the eponymous Eve. “Near the end, some pretty irredeemable things, I think, start to occur.”

This also plays into how Weisz succinctly sums up all three central characters in the film: “vulnerable and cruel and sadistic and manipulative and bitchy.”

further reading: The Favourite Review

How Lanthimos’ grandiose compositions, and McNamara’s prose, contrast these three women’s journeys and sensibilities is what makes The Favourite a sardonic delight and one of the year’s best films. It is also what reveals the limitations of when film journalism and film culture reduce all works of art to the dated parameters of an institution nearing its centennial.

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By virtue of political opportunity, Fox Searchlight was forced to have to make some prudent decisions about which star they place in the Best Actress category and which they campaign for a Best Supporting statuette in, as two or three nominations in one category would inevitably cancel each other out (or turn off nominating Academy voters during the ballot process). Just ask All About Eve, which ran Baxter and Bette Davis in “Lead Actress,” where both shockingly went home empty-handed. Further still, choices like whether to run Stone in a category she won an Oscar for two years ago or in Supporting had as much to do with who goes where as minutes of screen time. But the reductive nature of this horse race becoming the focal point to The Favourite‘s target audience not only fails to celebrate films that land outside the box of Academy tastes, as fluctuating as those might be, but even deprives much of film criticism to freely evaluate cinema on its own terms.

Colman, Stone, and Weisz all provide awards-worthy performances and should all be recognized, but the obsession with who gets what award or is placed in which category risks robbing The Favourite of ruling on its own terms. It is a film about women who do not play by the rules of the patriarchy, yet much of cinema culture is all too eager to place them back inside that box.

This article was originally published on Nov. 20, 2018.

David Crow is the Film Section Editor at Den of Geek. He’s also a member of the Online Film Critics Society. Read more of his work here. You can follow him on Twitter @DCrowsNest.