In a year that offered up more Oscar nominations for queer representation in cinema than ever before — there were, after all, nearly 40 LGBTQ-themed films released in theaters in 2018 — The Favourite, with 10 nominations, including one for Best Picture, depicts a radical queer female sexuality on film that the Academy has traditionally seen fit to ignore. Beyond the film’s delicious political and sexual love triangle, its three female leads exhibit zero interest in or use for the foppish, powdered, bewigged men who mingle among them.
Nominations for LGBTQ-themed films abounded this year (relative to past years). Bohemian Rhapsody’s Rami Malek won Best Actor for his turn as the bisexual Queen front man Freddie Mercury. And Mahershala Ali nabbed the Best Supporting Actor for his role in Green Book, which features a surprising gay storyline. Green Book also won for best original screenplay and best picture in an upset. The stars of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Melissa McCarthy as the lesbian biographer and hapless forger of literary letters Lee Israel, and Richard E. Grant as Jack Hock, her brash gay partner in crime who is also a reminder of the devastation of the AIDS epidemic, were both nominated in acting categories.
The Favourite's nomination in the Best Picture category marks the first time in Oscar history that a film focusing on queer women who engage in sex with each other and unabashedly enjoy it has landed in the top category. For an Oscars voting bloc still heavily composed of members whose tunnel-visioned decisions just three years ago contributed to the backlash that became #OscarsSoWhite and who snubbed Carol in the Best Picture category, The Favourite’s recognition is a radical milestone. For that matter, Olivia Colman's Best Actress win for playing the sickly, often childlike Queen Anne who uses sex as currency with her ladies in waiting, but who also appears to greatly enjoy sex with women, is also an Oscars first.
Prior to The Favourite’s nomination, ignoring stories about women in love who don’t repent, pay for their transgressions through death or endless misery, or sleep with a man somewhere in the narrative was par for the course with Academy voters.
Less than a handful of lesbian-themed films have been earned Best Picture nods since the Academy began handing out awards nearly 90 years ago. Those previously nominated films depicted women who were straight-washed and desexualized (The Color Purple, The Hours) or who floundered sexually with women but thrived with men (The Kids Are All Right). Films that have depicted healthy queer female desire free of pathos have earned Oscar nominations in other categories over the years but were not rewarded with Best Picture nominations. Carol earned an impressive six nominations but was denied the Best Picture slot, even though there are 10 slots and only 9 films were nominated in the category in 2016.
Last year, at the height of #TimesUp and discussions around women’s equality, the Academy completely snubbed the Billie Jean King biopic Battle of the Sexes, a film that bears so many hallmarks of what the Academy generally loves. It’s a hopeful biopic with an important sociological message that stars lovable Hollywood darlings (Emma Stone and Steve Carell). But Battle of the Sexes' central love story excludes straight, cisgender men, and the film ends with its lesbian protagonist triumphant rather than having paid in some way for the sin of being queer. It was completely overlooked when the nominations dropped, despite its stars having already earned Golden Globe nominations.
But this year, there’s The Favourite, director Yorgos Lanthimos’s lush, saucy romp through the court of the lesser known 18th-century British monarch Queen Anne, who decrees within the first third of the film, “fuck me” to her “favourite” lady in waiting, Lady Sarah the Duchess of Marlborough. Lady Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) hungrily obliges (they’ve clearly done this before) while Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) watches from the wings, wide-eyed and plotting.
Beyond the overt representation of sexual desire between women that has never been depicted in a prestige period film with such gleeful abandon — let alone in an Academy Award Best Picture nominee—the scene is the fulcrum that turns the narrative as Abigail discovers the royal secret and uses it to regain her position as a lady.
Soon, Abigail and Sarah begin to parry and thrust at politics, sexual and otherwise — considering they both regularly bed Anne. As the affairs of state and the heart play out, a narrative emerges that Anne and Sarah's borderline sadomasochistic relationship is a love story worth cheering for. What’s also apparent is that the women’s sexual desire is never treated as transgressive or as other, old Hollywood tropes that made lesbian characters more palatable for the male gaze and to the Academy.
The Favourite earned Academy Award nominations for its three leads with Colman winning in the Best Actress category and Weisz and Stone having vied for a win in the Best Supporting Actress category. Lanthimos, the auteur of absurdist films including The Lobster and Dogtooth, earned a directing nod while Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara were nominated in the original screenplay category, to name a few of the film’s major nods.
Despite the groundbreaking film’s nominations across categories, it’s the elusive Best Picture nomination that sets The Favourite apart from past lesbian-themed films the Academy has recognized. Peruse the Best Picture nominees since the Oscars began and there aren’t many.
Among the films that have made the cut is 2002’s The Hours, in which two of the queer women attempt suicide, with one succeeding, thereby paying for their sins. The film, told through generations of queer women, is also oddly desexualized. The movie’s most memorable moment of female desire, or perhaps need, occurs in the form of a sad kiss between Julianne Moore’s ’50s-era Laura and her neighbor, played by Toni Collette, following the revelation of the neighbor’s possible cancer diagnosis.
Also nominated for Best Picture was The Kids Are All Right in 2010. A dramedy from lesbian director Lisa Cholodenko, the film revolves around a female couple, played by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening, who connect with their children’s sperm donor (Mark Ruffalo). Critics adored the film even as it inspired think pieces and wrath from queer women confused by a plot point that had Moore’s character suddenly cheating on her wife with the donor. Regardless of one’s response to that particular plot, the movie failed to counter the depiction of desire between Moore’s character and the donor with any real passion between the central women in the film. The sex between the women was mechanical, bad, and lacked desire or fulfillment, feeding into the harmful lesbian bed death trope. But it earned a Best Picture nomination.
In 1985, Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Alice Walker’s landmark novel The Color Purple earned 10 nominations including a Best Picture nod. But by the time the novel made it to the big screen, it was mostly scrubbed of its queerness. Sure, Whoopi Goldberg’s Celie blanches as Margaret Avery’s Shug serenades her with “Sister” in a juke joint. And the two share a chaste kiss, but the film is largely void of female sexual desire.
Carol, based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, tells the story of Therese (Rooney Mara), a shopgirl, and Carol (Cate Blanchett), a New Jersey socialite, who fall headlong into a '50s-era forbidden love affair. The rub is that while they both have men in their lives, they only desire one another. And they act on it without remorse.
Despite nearly universal critical acclaim and nominations for Blanchett, Mara, director Todd Haynes, screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, costume designer Sandy Powell, cinematographer Edward Lachmann, and composer Carter Burwell, the Academy could not muster enough votes for Carol to honor it in the Best Picture category. Furthermore, Carol was completely shut out on the night of the Oscars.
The Oscars failed to offer a moment like the one at the Golden Globes in which Colman, Weisz, and Stone took to the podium to introduce their film, spouting jokes about oral sex and fingering. And the film picked up just one award out of its 10 nominations on Sunday, but Colman's win in the role was significant. The Favourite, with its naughty witticisms that include Anne delectably taunting Sarah by saying of her nemesis Abigail, "I like it when she puts her tongue inside me," (and appearing to mean it) will go down in Oscar history as the film that landed unabashed queer female sexual desire in the Best Picture category.