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.

11 Fun Facts About Them!

Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Joan Weldon and James Arness star in Them! (1954).
Warner Home Video

In the 1950s, Elvis was king, hula hooping was all the rage, and movie screens across America were overrun with giant arthropods. Back then, Tarantula (1955), The Deadly Mantis (1957), and other “big bug” films starring colossal insects or arachnids enjoyed a surprising amount of popularity. What kicked off this creepy-crawly craze? An eerie blockbuster whose impossible premise reflected widespread anxieties about the emerging atomic age. Grab a Geiger counter and let’s explore 1954's Them!.

1. Them!'s primary scriptwriter once worked for General Douglas MacArthur.

When World War II broke out, the knowledge Ted Sherdeman had gained from his career as a radio producer was put to good use by Uncle Sam, landing him a position as a radio communications advisor to General MacArthur. However, the fiery conclusion of the war left Sherdeman with a lifelong disdain for nuclear weapons. In an interview he revealed that upon hearing about the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima, he “just went over to the curb and started to throw up."

Shifting his focus from radio to motion pictures, Sherdeman later joined Warned Bros. as a staff producer. One day he was given a screenplay that really made his eyes bug out. George Worthing Yates, best known for his work on the Lone Ranger serials, had decided to take a stab at science fiction and penned an original script about giant, irradiated ants attacking New York City. "The idea appealed to me very much,” Sherdeman told Cinefantastique, "because, aside from man, ants are the only creatures in the world that plan to wage war, and nobody trusted the atomic bomb at that time.” (His statement about animal combat is debatable: chimpanzee gangs will also take organized, warlike measures in order to annex their rivals’ territories.)

Although he loved the basic concept, Sherdeman felt that the script needed something more. Screenwriter Russell S. Hughes was asked to punch up the script, but died of a heart attack after completing the first 50 pages. With some help from director Gordon Douglas, Sherdeman took it upon himself to finish the screenplay. Thus, Them! was born.

2. Two main ants were built for the movie.

Them! brought its spineless villains to life using a combination of animatronics and puppetry, courtesy of an effects artist by the name of Dick Smith. He constructed two fully functional mechanical ants for the production, with the first of these being a 12-foot monster filled with gears, levers, motors, and pulleys. Operating the big bug was a job that required a small army of technicians who’d pull sophisticated cables to control the ant’s limbs off-camera. These guys worked in close proximity and often crashed into each other as a result, prompting Douglas to call them “a comedy team.”

The big insect mainly appears in long shots, and for close-ups, Smith built the front three quarters of a second large-scale ant and mounted it onto a camera crane. During scenes that required swarms of ants, smaller, non-motorized models were used. Blowing wind machines moved the little units’ heads around in a lifelike manner.

3. Them! features the Wilhelm Scream.

Fifty-nine minutes in, the ants board a ship and one of them grabs a sailor, who unleashes the so-called "Wilhelm Scream." You can also hear it when James Whitmore’s character is killed, and the sound bite rings out once again during the movie’s climax. Them! was among the first movies to reuse this distinctive holler, which was originally recorded three years earlier for the 1951 western Distant Drums. Since then, it’s become something of an inside joke for sound recording specialists. The scream has appeared in Titanic (1997), Toy Story (1995), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Batman Returns (1992), the Star Wars saga (1977-present), all three The Lord of the Rings movies (2001-2003), and countless other films.

4. Leonard Nimoy makes an appearance.

In one brief scene, future Star Trek star Leonard Nimoy plays an Army man who receives a message about an alleged “ant-shaped UFO” sighting over Texas. He then proceeds to poke fun at the Lone Star State, because, as everybody knows, insectile space vessels are highly illogical.

5. Many different sounds were combined to produce the screeching ant cries.

Throughout the movie, the monsters announce their presence with a haunting wail. Douglas’s team created this unforgettable shriek by mixing assorted noises, including bird whistles, which were artificially pitched up by sound technicians.

6. Sandy Descher had to sniff a mystery liquid during her signature scene.

Like Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, Them! has a deliberate pace and the massive insects don’t make an onscreen appearance until the half hour mark. Douglas took credit for this restrained approach, saying, “I told Ted, let’s tease [the audience] a little bit before you see the ant. Let’s build up to it."

So instead of showing off the big bugs, the opening scene follows a little girl as she wanders through the New Mexican desert, listlessly clutching her favorite doll. That stunning performance was delivered by child actress Sandy Descher. Later, in one of the most effective title drop scenes ever orchestrated, a vial of formic acid is held under her character’s nose. Suddenly recognizing the aroma, the traumatized youngster screams “Them! Them!” Descher never found out what sort of liquid was really sloshing around in that container.

“They used something that did smell quite strange. It wasn’t ammonia, it was something else,” she told an interviewer. Still, the mysterious brew had a beneficial effect on her performance. “They tried to create something different and it helped me a lot with that particular scene,” Descher said.

7. Them! was originally going to be filmed in 3D and in color.

To hear Douglas tell it, the insect models looked a lot scarier in person. “I put green and red soap bubbles in the eyes,” he once stated. “The ants were purple, slimy things. Their bodies were wet down with Vaseline. They scared the bejeezus out of you.” For better or for worse, though, audiences never got the chance to savor the bugs’ color scheme.

At first, Warner Bros. had planned on shooting the movie in color. Furthermore, to help Them! compete with Universal’s brand-new, three-dimensional monster movie, Creature From the Black Lagoon, the studio strongly considered using 3D cameras. But in the end, the higher-ups at Warner Bros. didn’t supply Douglas with the money he’d need to shoot it in this manner. Shortly before production started on Them!, the budget was greatly reduced, forcing the use of two-dimensional, black and white film.

8. The setting of the climactic scene was changes—twice.

Yates envisioned the final battle playing out in New York City’s world-famous subway tunnels. Hughes moved the action westward, conjuring up an epic showdown between human soldiers and the last surviving ants at a Santa Monica amusement park. Finally, for both artistic and budgetary reasons, Sherdeman set the big finale in the sewers of Los Angeles.

9. Warner Bros. encouraged theaters to use Them! as a military recruitment tool.

The film’s official pressbook advised theater managers who were screening Them!& to contact their nearest Armed Forces recruitment offices. “Since civil defense in the face of an emergency figures in the picture, make the most of it by inviting [a] local agency to set up a recruiting booth in the lobby,” the filmmakers advised. Also, the document suggested that movie houses post signs reading: “What would you do if (name of city) were attacked by THEM?! Prepare for any danger by enlisting in Civil Defense today!”

10. The movie was a surprise hit.

Studio head Jack L. Warner predicted that Them!, with its far-fetched plot, wouldn’t fare well at the box office. So imagine his surprise when it raked in more than $2.2 million—enough to make the picture one of the studio's highest-grossing films of 1954.

11. Them! landed Fess Parker the role of TV's Davy Crockett.

When Walt Disney went to see Them!, he had a specific objective in mind: Scout a potential Davy Crockett. At the time, Disney was developing a new television series that would chronicle the life and times of the iconic frontiersman, and James Arness, who plays an FBI agent in Them!, was on the short list of candidates for the role. Yet as the sci-fi thriller unfolded, it was actor Fess Parker who grabbed Disney’s attention. Director Gordon Douglas had hired Parker to portray the pilot who ends up in a psych ward after an aerial encounter with a gargantuan flying ant. And while his character only appears in one scene, the performance impressed Disney so much that the struggling actor was soon cast as Crockett.

By the Texan’s own admission, his good fortune may’ve been the product of bargain hunting. “Walt probably asked, ‘How much would Arness cost?’ and then ‘This fellow [Parker], we ought to be able to get him real economical,” Parker once said.

George R.R. Martin Doesn't Think Game of Thrones Was 'Very Good' For His Writing Process

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

No one seems to have escaped the fan fury over the finals season of Game of Thrones. While likely no one got it quite as bad as showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, even author George R.R. Martin—who wrote A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series upon which the show is based, faced backlash surrounding the HBO hit. The volatile reaction from fans has apparently taken a toll on both Martin's writing and personal life.

In an interview with The Guardian, the acclaimed author said he's sticking with his original plan for the last two books, explaining that the show will not impact them. “You can’t please everybody, so you’ve got to please yourself,” he stated.

He went on to explain how even his personal life has taken a negative turn because of the show. “I can’t go into a bookstore any more, and that used to be my favorite thing to do in the world,” Martin said. “To go in and wander from stack to stack, take down some books, read a little, leave with a big stack of things I’d never heard of when I came in. Now when I go to a bookstore, I get recognized within 10 minutes and there’s a crowd around me. So you gain a lot but you also lose things.”

While fans of the book series are fully aware of the author's struggle to finish the final two installments, The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring, Martin admitted that part of the delay has been a result of the HBO series, and fans' reaction to it.

“I don’t think [the series] was very good for me,” Martin said. “The very thing that should have speeded me up actually slowed me down. Every day I sat down to write and even if I had a good day … I’d feel terrible because I’d be thinking: ‘My God, I have to finish the book. I’ve only written four pages when I should have written 40.'"

Still, Martin has sworn that the books will get finished ... he just won't promise when.

[h/t The Guardian]

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