This weekend, Yorgos Lanthimos’ $19-million costume dramedy “The Favourite” became the top 2018 specialty opener — and with that, secured the promise of Oscar nominations for its three leads. Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz are already Oscar winners, while Olivia Colman (soon to be a stateside star when she takes over as Queen Elizabeth in Netflix’s “The Crown”) won Best Actress in Venice.
All three are also likely to land SAG, Golden Globe, and BAFTA nominations, but where does that leave Fox Searchlight in positioning them for Oscar campaigning? Technically, it could put all three forward as Best Actress, but that simply isn’t done.
Instead, the reigning distributor of Best Picture Oscar-winners (“Slumdog Millionaire,” “Birdman,” “12 Years a Slave,” “The Shape of Water”) waited to hear from the industry and press as to which way they should go. The consensus: Colman as the volatile yet vulnerable Queen Anne for Best Actress, with Weisz and Stone as her conniving courtiers Lady Marlborough and Abigail Masham in Supporting.
Soon after “Dogtooth” debuted at Cannes in 2010, Element Pictures’ Andrew Lowe and Ed Guiney brought in Lanthimos to develop the true story of 18th-century English monarch Queen Anne and her two romantic rivals. Original writer Deborah Davis researched the details of this scandalous history; Lanthimos also collaborated closely with writer Tony McNamara, who penned his own provocative screenplay about Catherine the Great. “We tried to find a writer that would bring the voice I heard in my head for this film,” said Lanthimos during a Telluride Q&A.
The director had strong ideas about keeping his independence (via multiple financing partners like the Irish Film Board, BFI, Film4, and distributor Fox Searchlight) as well as his cast (Kate Winslet and Cate Blanchett were among several who moved in and out of availability). Until three of his top choices lined up at the same time, he was willing to wait. (He shot “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” in the interim.)
Weisz starred in Lanthimos “The Lobster,” while Colman played a small supporting role as a hotel manager. Stone was the new kid on the block who had to match her accent to the others — what Weisz describes as “dial up to 10 on poshness” — and it wasn’t the half-American accent she used in “Cabaret” on Broadway.
This time, she relied on a dialect coach. At first her proper RP (“received pronunciation”) accent was too clipped. “You sound formal next to Olivia and Rachel,” Lanthimos told her. “They’re modern British women. You need to match them more.” That was easier for Stone, anyway. “I’d hear their accent throughout the day and stay in their lane,” she told me.
“Emma had the tough job, going from English poverty, her accent was flawless and irritatingly good,” said Colman. “She was brilliant. We didn’t have to do the slightly flouncy florid period drama. We could do normal swearing and speech.”
The script revels in Lanthimos’ trademark nastiness, as all three principals move in and out of despicable behavior — much as men in power would do. The women “are very human, not idealized,” said Guiney. “They are capricious, vain, clever, troubled — like all of us in some shape or form.”
“It was enormously fun,” said Colman. “We’re the puppeteers! That’s great. You can’t get more powerful than the monarch back then. It was fun to have the tables turned.”
“It was incredibly high stakes,” said Weisz. “What they’re battling for is more than ‘All About Eve.’ ‘You did all this for a role, Eve?’ This is for running a country. It’s unusual to play women with this much real power, to rule a country or send an army to war, with men wearing makeup and heels and looking ridiculous. That makes it unusual. But it shouldn’t be unusual.”
The actresses participated in three weeks of rehearsals before they settled into shooting in expansive locations at England’s Hatfield House and Hampton Court. “We try to interact and have the actors fool around and play games and be ridiculous and build comfort with each other,” Lanthimos said. “It was a great way for them to be learning the text, which resembles nothing of how they would interpret the text, so it goes into them in a very different manner.”
That rehearsal process was “unique,” said Stone. Among the rituals were finger-snapping, making funny noises, and holding hands as she and her cast mates weaved in a human pretzel. “By the end, we all knew the script by heart, had said the words over and over without any intention behind them. We were comfortable being embarrassed with each other. The movie was nothing like our rehearsal.”
“It was brilliant, ” said Colman. “He makes an environment where we can be ridiculous and do anything and there’s no wrong answer.”
No method acting was involved: Stone became pals with Weisz, even though their characters were arch rivals. The three actresses dug into these rich, layered characters: Love letters exist between the Queen and Lady Marlborough who were childhood friends; their love affair was “deeply thought to be true,” said Colman. “There were whispers in court about the Queen’s closeness with Sarah. The letters between them were very sensual. You couldn’t read them any other way.”
They all recognized how rare it is for women to be at the center of the action. “In a time when they’re reliant on the man in their life and can’t earn their own money, the Queen alone has all the power,” said Colman. “It’s great to watch the women do whatever they need to survive.”
Stone said she saw Abigail as a survivor. “She will be out on the street having horrible experiences with men. It’s life or death for her. It’s not life or death for the Queen or Lady Marlborough. Abigail has been living in horror for so long, she will always be trapped, a slave in different clothes.”
Handling the dialogue was one thing; physical demands added another dimension, as Weisz and Stone not only squeezed themselves into corsets that displaced their inner organs under outsized costumes, but perfected horsemanship, clay-pigeon shooting, and elaborate fight and dance choreography (by Constanza Macras). “That’s the fun of these technically challenging projects,” said Stone. “You get to be free within the structure.”
Colman’s accomplishment is bringing pathos to her ruthless, ailing, and impulsive Queen, who can seem on the verge of madness. “Anyone with a bit of heart makes allowances for that loss of 17 children,” said Colman. “You carry that with you every day. I think audiences feel for her. She was spoilt and powerful. She’s very under confident. She never knows if anyone genuinely likes her or her power. I don’t think any of us would want to be her.”
All three women had to navigate intimate sex scenes. In one memorable bit of business, Stone sits in bed with her back to her brand-new husband (Joe Alwyn), plotting her track to survival, as she reaches behind to give him a hand job. The scene needed adjustment.
“Have you ever done this before?” Alwyn asked Stone. “Why are you going so fast?” (Stone’s response: “I was trying to remember the monologue!”)
Initially, Colman found embarrassing “any sort of scenes about sex or kissing,” she said. “Because my husband’s going to see it! Yeah, but once you get cracking, Rachel is great, it was no hardship in the end.”
Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
The actors felt free with Lanthimos. “He’s big-hearted and very generous,” said Colman, whose wardrobe ranged from slopping around in a nightdress to massive ceremonial regalia. “You can be gross and ugly amid all these lovely things.”
The director improvised camera moves and bits of action as he went. “It would be nice if you sat in front of the door like a broken doll with your legs splayed,” Lanthimos told Stone after she had hit herself in the face with a book. “That was in the moment,” said Stone. “He wants to do something that adds to the absurdity of where we are in the time period, whether with makeup, racing ducks, or shooting those palatial rooms with the mocking fisheye lens.”
Beyond their awards prospects, all three women hope they will get another chance at such a well-written screenplay. “It’s changing slowly,” said Colman. “But surely when people realize half the world is women, and women want to see stories about women, you can’t pretend that half the population isn’t female. A script like that is joyous and brilliant and fun to play!”
Said Weisz: “All films should be like this. They should have three women who are the good, the bad, and the ugly. The others have so many men. Let’s get people to write more things where women drive the story, the protagonists drive the story and get to be anything — whether cruel, vulnerable, kind, sadistic, powerful or manipulative, like we are in real life. I get completely depressed talking about it like we are unicorns or something. They treat us as if we are an outlier. We do have to talk about it. It’s about what stories people choose to tell.”