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Make the Case: There’s No ‘The Favourite’ Without Emma Stone

Her performance as Abigail is unconventional, slapstick, surprisingly modern—and the true definition of a Supporting Actress

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No one at The Ringer holds an Oscar vote, but we hold lots of opinions. Every day ahead of the 91st Academy Awards on February 24, one of us will share those opinions about who or what ought to win a little golden man. And since we so rarely get what we want at the Oscars, let our “Make the Case” series stand as the official record on the matter.

Like many Oscar categories, the history of the Best Supporting Actress Oscar is littered with quiet carnage. Consider, for instance, the assault that was 1960, in which both Susan Kohner’s and Juanita Moore’s iconic performances in Imitation of Life lost to Shelley Winters in The Diary of Anne Frank. Or, more recently, when Alicia Vikander in The Danish Girl beat out Rooney Mara’s portrayal of Therese Belivet in Carol. Remember also in 1977, when Beatrice Straight won for a mere five minutes and two seconds of screen time on Network? (Among the losers that year were Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, Jane Alexander in All the President’s Men, and Piper Laurie in Carrie.) Not to mention the more famous upsets in which a younger newcomer took home the prize: recall Juliette Binoche winning against Lauren Bacall in 1997; or Marisa Tomei against Miranda Richardson, Judy Davis, Joan Plowright, and Vanessa Redgrave in 1993. The Best Supporting Actress Oscar is notoriously unpredictable—not only because the Academy is generally inconsistent with awarding merit, but because of the specific paradox inherent to the category itself. How do you spotlight a performance that is, by definition, subordinate?

In contrast to the Best Actress Oscar—which is frequently limited to women already in “supporting roles” opposite their male counterparts—the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress recognizes something subtler: knowing when to take a back seat. Because supporting female roles fly more under the radar, however, they are also allowed to be weirder and wilder—the kinds of performances that traditional Hollywood leading ladies do not typically showcase. Looking at last year’s roster alone, they are inhabited by character types that we traditionally see as secondary: complicated mothers, complicated sisters, best friends. In being secondary, supporting actresses occupy the sweet spot where the more experimental roles are allowed to intersect with the overwhelming pool of underutilized women actors. They’re sort of brilliantly destabilizing roles—often because they’re literally too good for the movies they’re in.

Which is also perhaps why Best Supporting Actress is a particularly interesting prize to speculate about. Each nominee this year not only meditates on what it is to be in a subordinate female role, but also asks viewers to desire more from and for them. Regina King plays the representative mother figure in If Beale Street Could Talk, and her solo trip to Puerto Rico actively imagines what an alternate film starring King might look like. Amy Adams’s portrayal of Lynne Cheney in Vice places her firmly in the sidelines as a kind of modern-day Lady Macbeth—a position, notably, Adams has occupied before in both The Fighter and The Master. Marina de Tavira initially plays the more typical central role of the wealthy matriarch in Roma, only to be dismissed as both the scorned wife and rejected leading lady of the film (a role that goes, in a refreshing turn, to newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, who is nominated for Best Actress this year). And, of course, Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite—a film explicitly about female competition among subordinates—has not only one but two actresses in the running: Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone as rivals for Queen Anne’s affection in Lanthimos’s costume drama.

Among the favorites to win this year are King (who won for Best Supporting Actress at the Golden Globes, as well as all the critics’ prizes) and Weisz (who won at the BIFAs and, more recently, the BAFTAs). And while we might wish the Oscar to go to Adams if only because this is her fifth nomination in the category (she’s never won), my vote for Best Supporting Actress would go to, well, the actress who plays the actual underdog in these films: Emma Stone as the dizzyingly sly and underhanded Abigail Masham in The Favourite.

Weisz is the generally preferred candidate over Stone, but this is partly a bias about what constitutes Great Dramatic Acting. As Sarah Churchill, Weisz gives a performance full of heartbreak and depth, with glimpses at Sarah’s rich and complicated interiority. As with Olivia Colman as the queen, rightly nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, Weisz gives the more conventional performance of a well-rounded, coherent, and emotionally motivated character. We could say that Weisz and Colman give the more “straight” (if also more genuinely queer, so no pun intended) performances in The Favourite: Neither of them lie to the other, neither of them want to play games with the other, each genuinely loves the other, albeit in a caustic manner. If we take Stone out of the equation, The Favourite might even approach a genuinely earnest and well-ordered costume drama.

Against Weisz’s and Colman’s more conventionally dramatic characters, Stone does something perverse and strange that is also fundamental to the spirit of Lanthimos’s film. In lieu of depth, Stone’s character represents surface, levity, and deceit. Her performance as Abigail is a maddening trick of mirror effects and second-order acting, such as when she begins to tear up when the queen tells her about her deceased children, or when she starts crying under pressure from Nicholas Hoult’s Robert Harley to extort more information from the queen. In both instances, Abigail mobilizes tears—the physical language for emotional depth—in order to get something for herself. In both instances, she is so convincing that when she later wipes away a tear in private after burning an intercepted letter from Sarah to the queen, we’re not sure whether to believe her. In addition to these feints of interiority are moments in which Stone is unpredictably zany and, oftentimes, deeply funny. Stone’s physical dynamism is off the charts in The Favourite, and includes some of the best falls in the history of recent cinema, as well as moments of pure slapstick (dodging the books Weisz throws at her) and pure injury (hitting herself repeatedly with a book). The moment in which she sits sobbing outside the queen’s bedroom, arms akimbo in an almost apish manner, is chilling—not because it’s an expression of true pain, but because we know it’s fake.

Comedy is routinely undervalued at the Oscars, which might be another reason Weisz is being favored over Stone. Yet, there is an animating humor and irony to Stone’s performance that turns The Favourite from a film simply set in the 17th century to a film about our contemporary relationship to the 17th century. This ironizing perspective is also formalized in the exaggerated fish-eye camera effects and swooping cuts through which scenes are frequently filmed, but Stone is the embodiment of the modern girl in the film itself. As she cattily tells Weisz after the latter is demoted: “All I know is your carriage awaits and my maid is on her way up with something called a pineapple.” Stone’s performance of mischief introduces a satirical edge that makes The Favourite uniquely weird. It is, in many ways, a superior film to The Lobster because it meditates on the perversities of heterosexuality and coupledom without having to make it supernatural. Stone is key to that. I mean, what else can we make of her perfectly deadpan delivery of “You want something … to fuck me?”

Without Stone, there really is no Favourite. Yet Stone’s role works only because it is fundamentally secondary and even interruptive—a literal Supporting Actress role. Abigail sets the plot of The Favourite in motion, and she keeps the film’s narrative going, though always doing so from the wings. This aspect of her character function is often visually represented in the film itself, as when Stone stands silently—almost invisibly—to the side while Colman and Weisz have a conversation. Or, my personal favorite, when the wide shot of Harley telling the queen that a baron seeks to marry Abigail also shows Stone as a tiny speck in the background of the maze, manipulating her will from a distance. On the surface, Abigail is a scrappy upstart who’s only ever in it for herself, but the genius of Stone’s performance is that her rendering of Abigail’s character relies on a total suppression of who she really is.

The history of the Best Supporting Actress Oscar is littered with carnage—darlings that must be killed, characters who must be stifled. What I love about Stone’s twisted performance in The Favourite, however, is that her role so aggressively asks the question “What if I were the protagonist of this story?” The movie’s final scene gets close to answering this wish, as the camera cuts between Colman’s and Stone’s faces—a visual analogy of competition that ultimately cross-fades the two faces together before finally dissolving onto an image of rapidly multiplying rabbits. Here, we glimpse what finally makes The Favourite meaningful: not the sole individual who succeeds, but the sacrificed mass of the collective who are left behind.