The Favourite: 10 Facts About the Real History Behind the Movie

Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman in The Favourite (2018)
Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman in The Favourite (2018)
Yorgos Lanthimos © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

The Favourite has been racking up plenty of award nominations lately, and for good reason: The movie traces the real-life power struggle between Duchess of Marlborough Sarah Churchill (played by Rachel Weisz) and Lady Abigail Masham (Emma Stone) as they attempt to win the favor of Anne, Queen of Great Britain (The Crown's Olivia Colman). While the film fudges some historical details—and adds some fictional drama to heighten the entertainment value—it's generally founded on solid history. Here's some background. (Spoilers ahead.)

1. Queen Anne was the queen of being awkward.

Queen Anne
Charles Jervas, Wikimedia Commons // Public domain

Queen Anne—who ruled as Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland beginning in 1702, then became known as Queen of Great Britain and Ireland when two of her realms formed a sovereign state in 1707, and maintained that position until her death in 1714—is sometimes painted as an indecisive simpleton. “A good woman, but not very bright, nor was she very strong-willed,” historian Edward Potts Cheyney wrote of her in 1904. Some historians, however, don't buy into that characterization.

Many suggest that Anne was just tremendously shy. (According to British historian Anne Somerset’s book, Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion, one tactic the Queen used to negotiate awkward social situations was to “move only her lips and make as if she said something when in truth no words were uttered.”) In one scene in The Favourite, when backed into a political corner before an address to Parliament, Anne faints rather than give her speech.

2. Queen Anne was also plagued by health problems and tragedy.

Queen Anne was prone to uncontrollable eye-watering—called "defluxion”—and gout, as depicted in The Favourite. Gout eventually rendered her immobile and led to a long struggle with obesity. (After Queen Anne died in 1714, it took 14 people to carry her coffin.)

She was also pregnant at least 17 times, most of which ended in a miscarriage or stillbirth. Four of her children would die before the age of 2, and her longest-living progeny only made it to age 11—leaving her with no heir. In the movie, Queen Anne names 17 pet rabbits after her deceased children. This is fictional.

3. Sarah Churchill and Queen Anne were girlhood friends ...

In the early 1670s, an approximately 13-year-old Sarah Churchill (then Jenyns or Jennings) met an 8-year-old Anne in the court of King Charles II. The two became inseparable. Over time, Anne would award Sarah with a slew of powerful titles: Lady of the Bedchamber, Ranger of Windsor Great Park, Mistress of the Robes, Groom of the Stole, and Keeper of the Privy Purse. With those jobs came incredible access and influence—making Sarah arguably the second most important person in Great Britain. “Sarah, who was essentially acting as the queen’s gatekeeper, decided who could have access to the monarch and wielded her political power accordingly,” Julie Miller wrote for Vanity Fair.

4. ... and Sarah controlled the Queen.

Sarah Churchill (an ancestor of Winston Churchill) was remarkably blunt and refused to flatter Queen Anne, supposedly lobbing comments so hurtful they would reduce the royal to tears. Despite her tendency to bully, Sarah remained Anne’s closest confidante and often gave political advice. According to Cheyney, “While Anne ruled England, it was … Lady Marlborough who ruled the queen.”

Even today, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography notes that “Sarah was an excellent business manager, controlling much of the affairs of the court and dealing with correspondence. Those who wanted access to Anne had to deal with Sarah first.”

5. Abigail Masham did get between them.

Baronessa Abigail Masham
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In the early 1700s, Sarah helped Abigail—a cousin who was down on her luck—land a job as a bedchamber woman in Queen Anne’s court. According to Miller, the job description included “handing the queen clothing in the morning as she dressed; pouring water over her hands; changing her bandages; and bringing her bowls of hot chocolate.” Over the next three years, Abigail grew incredibly close with Queen Anne. Meanwhile, Sarah was unaware of their blossoming relationship. The scene in the movie where Abigail poisons Sarah, however, is fictional.

6. Abigail wielded her influence very discreetly—by using a secret code.

Sarah and Abigail stood on opposite sides of Britain’s political aisle. Abigail was a Tory (essentially, a royalist). Sarah was a Whig (essentially, a parliamentarian). Early on, when Abigail met with her cousin, Robert Harley, the Earl of Oxford, to talk about how to best wield her political influence, she chose to speak in secret code, “pretending they were gossiping about relatives and referring to Anne by [a] code name,” Miller wrote. (Harley and Marsham's familial relation isn't mentioned in the film.) Abigail would prove to be incredibly influential. According to Sarah, Abigail was so convincing that she “could make the queen stand on her head, if she chose to require it.”

7. Sarah’s downfall began because of a secret dowry.

When Abigail married Samuel Masham in 1707, Queen Anne—who was present for the wedding, as shown in The Favourite—secretly gave her a dowry of £2000 from the privy purse. Sarah, Keeper of the Privy Purse, was shocked and offended that the Queen had made such a payment without her knowledge. This sparked a permanent feud that would eventually lead to Sarah's ouster in 1710.

8. Sarah and Queen Anne did not have a sexual relationship—but the letters are real.

In the movie, Sarah and Anne are involved in a closeted sexual relationship—and Sarah has the love letters to prove it. This is half true: Most historians argue that the two women were not romantically involved. (If you recall those 17 pregnancies, Anne was quite busy with—and devoted to—her husband George.) But Sarah did possess letters from the Queen, written in the passionate, flowery style of a love letter. These sorts of notes were common among female friends at the time and weren’t necessarily romantic in nature.

9. The rumors of Queen Anne’s homosexuality were started … by Sarah.

Sensing the decline of her political influence, Sarah tried blackmailing the Queen, threatening to release these embarrassing private letters. “Such things are in my power that if known … might lose a crown,” she said. Sarah even spread rumors that Anne and Abigail were in a sexual relationship—a rumor perpetuated by this saucy poem:

“Her secretary she was not
Because she could not write
But had the conduct and the care
Of some dark deeds at night.”

10. In the end, Abigail took Sarah's job—but only briefly

In the movie, Sarah is exiled and Abigail takes her job as Keeper of the Privy Purse. This is true, though Sarah's exile was largely self-imposed. After being kicked out of the court, Sarah's family lost all funding for the construction of a palace, so they decided to leave England in disgrace and travel among the courts of Europe instead. She would not come back to England until Queen Anne died in 1714, when she returned to continue a life of hobnobbing with (and agitating) royalty. Abigail, on the other hand, would recede from public life and retire to a country house.

10 People Who Have Misplaced Their Oscars

Jeff Bridges accepts the Best Actor Oscar for Crazy Heart during the 82nd Annual Academy Awards in 2010.
Jeff Bridges accepts the Best Actor Oscar for Crazy Heart during the 82nd Annual Academy Awards in 2010.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Winning an Oscar is, for most people, a once-in-a-lifetime achievement. Unless you're Walt Disney, who won 22. Nevertheless, owning a little gold guy is such a rarity that you'd think their owners would be a little more careful with them. Now, not all of these losses are the winners' fault—but some of them certainly are (we're looking at you, Colin Firth).

1. Angelina Jolie

Angelina Jolie with her Oscar in 2000.
HO/AMPAS

At the 2000 Academy Awards ceremony, after Angelina Jolie planted a kiss on her brother and made the world collectively squirm, she went onstage and collected a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Lisa in Girl, Interrupted. She later presented the trophy to her mother, Marcheline Bertrand. The statuette may have been boxed up and put into storage when Marcheline died in 2007, but it hasn't yet surfaced. "I didn't actually lose it," Jolie said, "but nobody knows where it is at the moment."

2. Whoopi Goldberg

Whoopi Goldberg with her Oscar.
Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

In 2002, Whoopi Goldberg sent her Ghost Best Supporting Actress Oscar back to the Academy to have it cleaned and detailed, because apparently you can do that. The Academy then sent the Oscar on to R.S. Owens Co. of Chicago, the company that manufactures the trophies. When it arrived in the Windy City, however, the package was empty. It appeared that someone had opened the UPS package, removed the Oscar, then neatly sealed it all back up and sent it on its way. It was later found in a trash can at an airport in Ontario, California. The Oscar was returned to the Academy, who returned it to Whoopi without cleaning it. "Oscar will never leave my house again," Goldberg said.

3. Olympia Dukakis

Olympia Dukakis with an Oscar statue.
Steven Henry/Getty Images

When Olympia Dukakis's Moonstruck Oscar was stolen from her home in 1989, she called the Academy to see if it could be replaced. "For $78," they said, and she agreed that it seemed like a fair price. It was the only thing taken from the house.

4. Marlon Brando

Marlon Brando in 1957.
Keystone/Getty Images

"I don't know what happened to the Oscar they gave me for On the Waterfront," Marlon Brando wrote in his autobiography. "Somewhere in the passage of time it disappeared." He also didn't know what happened to the Oscar that he had Sacheen Littlefeather accept for him in 1973. "The Motion Picture Academy may have sent it to me, but if it did, I don't know where it is now."

5. Jeff Bridges

Actor Jeff Bridges, winner of Best Actor award for
Jeff Bridges, winner of the Best Actor Oscar for Crazy Heart, poses in the press room at the 82nd Annual Academy Awards on March 7, 2010.
Jason Merritt/Getty Images

In 2010, Hollywood legend Jeff Bridges won his first-ever Oscar for his portrayal of alcoholic country singer Bad Blake in Crazy Heart, but it was already missing by the time next year's ceremony rolled around, when he was nominated yet again for his role in the Coen brothers's True Grit

When asked about his year-old statuette, Bridges admitted that "It's been in a few places since last year but I haven’t seen it for a while now." Finding the MIA Oscar seemed even more urgent when Bridges lost the 2011 Best Actor Oscar to Colin Firth for The King's Speech. "I'm hoping it will turn up, especially now that I haven't won a spare," Bridges said. "But Colin deserves it. I just hope he looks after it better." 

6. Colin Firth

Colin Firth with his Oscar in 2011.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Perhaps Jeff Bridges secretly cursed Colin Firth as he said those aforementioned words, because Firth nearly left his new trophy on a toilet tank the very night he received it. After a night of cocktails at the Oscar after-parties in 2011, Firth allegedly had to be chased down by a bathroom attendant, who had found the eight-pound statuette in the bathroom stall. Notice we said allegedly: Shortly after those reports surfaced, Firth's rep issued a statement saying the "story is completely untrue. Though it did give us a good laugh."

7. Matt Damon

Actor Matt Damon in 1999
Brenda Chase/Hulton Archive

When newbie writers Matt Damon and Ben Affleck took home Oscars for writing Good Will Hunting in 1998, it was one of those amazing Academy Award moments. Now, though, Damon isn't sure where his award went. "I know it ended up at my apartment in New York, but unfortunately, we had a flood when one of the sprinklers went off when my wife and I were out of town and that was the last I saw of it," Damon said in 2007.

8. Margaret O'Brien

Child actress Margaret O'Brien.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1945, 7-year-old Margaret O'Brien was presented with a Juvenile Academy Award for being the outstanding child actress of the year. About 10 years later, the O'Briens' maid took the award home to polish it, as she had done before, but never returned. The missing Oscar was forgotten about when O'Brien's mother died shortly thereafter, and when Margaret finally remembered to call the maid, the number had been disconnected. She ended up receiving a replacement from the Academy.

There's a happy ending to this story, though. In 1995, a couple of guys were picking their way through a flea market when they happened upon the Oscar. They put it up for auction, which is when word got back to the Academy that the missing trophy had resurfaced. The guys who found the Oscar pulled it from auction and presented it, in person, to Margaret O'Brien. "I'll never give it to anyone to polish again," she said.

9. Bing Crosby

Barry Fitzgerald (left) holds his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor while American actor Bing Crosby holds his Oscar for Best Actor, both for their roles in Going My Way; 1945.
Barry Fitzgerald (left) holds his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor while American actor Bing Crosby holds his Oscar for Best Actor, both for their roles in Going My Way; 1945.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

For years, Bing Crosby's Oscar for 1944's Going My Way had been on display at his alma mater, Gonzaga University. In 1972, students walked into the school's library to find that the 13-inch statuette had been replaced with a 3-inch Mickey Mouse figurine instead. A week later, the award was found, unharmed, in the university chapel. "I wanted to make people laugh," the anonymous thief later told the school newspaper.

10. Hattie McDaniel

A publicity still from 1939's Gone with the Wind; at the 1940 Academy Awards, Hattie McDaniel (left) won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and Vivien Leigh (right) won Best Actress. Olivia de Havilland (center) was also nominated for Best Supporting A
A publicity still from 1939's Gone with the Wind; at the 1940 Academy Awards, Hattie McDaniel (left) won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and Vivien Leigh (right) won Best Actress. Olivia de Havilland (center) was also nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

Hattie McDaniel, famous for her Supporting Actress win as Mammy in Gone with the Wind, donated her Best Actress Oscar to Howard University. It was displayed in the fine arts complex for a time, but went missing sometime in the 1960s. No one seems to know exactly when or how, but there are rumors that the Oscar was unceremoniously dumped into the Potomac by students angered by racial stereotypes such as the one she portrayed in the film.

The Most Successful Entertainment Production in History Might Just Surprise You

Goran Jakus Photography/iStock via Getty Images
Goran Jakus Photography/iStock via Getty Images

Last year, Marvel Studios capped off an unprecedented run of success with Avengers: Endgame, a movie promoted as the culmination of over 10 years of storytelling. The film made $2.8 billion, unseating 2009’s Avatar and knocking 1997’s Titanic down to third place. With nearly $3 billion in ticket sales, you would think Endgame would count as the most successful entertainment production of all time—be it a single movie, book, album, or video game.

It isn’t.

While it earned a staggering amount of money, Endgame is hobbled by the fact that theatrical runs last just a few weeks or months. To really roll in the dough, it helps to have a combination of high ticket prices and a show that runs almost in perpetuity. That’s why it’s another Disney production, the Broadway adaption of The Lion King, that can make a credible claim to being the most financially rewarding entertainment effort of all time. Since debuting in 1997, the stage show has grossed $9.1 billion. (The 1994 film, 2019 live action remake, and merchandising aren’t included in that total. If they were, the number rises to $11.6 billion.)

A theater sign for 'The Lion King' is pictured in New York City in March 2003
Mario Tama, Getty Images

The musical, adapted by Julie Taymor, follows the story of the animated original, with lion cub Simba learning to accept his role as king of the Serengeti Plains. It’s estimated the show has been mounted 25 times globally in nine different languages, with more than 100 million people purchasing a ticket to see it.

Does that make Endgame a distant second? Not quite. Another long-running musical, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, has grossed more than $6 billion since its 1988 debut. The 2013 video game Grand Theft Auto 5 cleared $6 billion in 2018. And if one were to account for inflation, 1939’s Gone with the Wind made $3.44 billion.

The Lion King does have one asterisk, however. If inflation is taken into consideration, then 1978’s arcade classic Space Invaders comes out the winner. The popular coin-op game—which was later ported over to the Atari 2600—was a smash hit. By 1983, it had made $3.8 billion. Accounting for inflation, it earned $13.9 billion. What’s even more impressive is that unlike big-ticket movies and stage shows, Space Invaders did it one quarter at a time.

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