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Did Viola Davis’ Body Transformation From ‘Ma Rainey’ To ‘Woman King’ Earn Enough Praise?

Viola Davis Body Transformation

As a full-time film fanatic and part-time trivia enthusiast, I am always in awe of the lengths actors go to for their roles. While acting chops are an obvious given, what’s equally laudable is the dramatic transformations actors willingly subject themselves to, to get into the skin of their characters. A recent exhibit of it is Academy Awardee and one of the most impactful actors in Hollywood – Viola Davis. From playing the titular role in Netflix musical Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom to her next The Woman King, Davis underwent a phenomenal body transformation. After gaining close to 200 pounds to step into the shoes of the legendary African-American singer, Davis shared a workout picture of herself on social media, toned in preparation for her upcoming film.

Davis’ weight journey has grabbed eyeballs, not just for its substantial visibility, but also for the 55-year-old’s remarkable dedication to her craft. However, it has led many on social media to wonder whether Davis’ efforts are receiving enough credit or not. A Twitter user raised the subject of alleged “sexism” towards actors of different sexes, saying “nobody talks about” Davis’ labour with as much appreciation as was apparent during Joaquin Phoenix’s weight loss journey for the 2019 film Joker. It has sparked a debate online with regard to the recognition women in films get for the physical labour they put in their craft.

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Davis And Phoenix: Fair To Compare?

Another Twitter user, whose reply to the original tweet was the point of contention, claimed that the accolades awarded to Phoenix were on account of the film’s reach and his popularity, which is over and above that of Davis. They further implored others to “not drag racism or sexism into this.” To begin with, at the outset, the claim that Davis “isn’t as famous” as Phoenix is highly refutable. After all, Davis is the first female African-American actor to have received the coveted ‘Triple Crown of Acting’ – which comprises the three jewels of the Academy, the Emmy, and the Tony Awards. It is impossible to imagine How To Get Away With Murder or The Help without her enrapturing screen presence.

Phoenix, also an Academy Awardee, has time and again featured on reputed global lists of talented artists too. His performance in Joker, though nowhere comparable to Heath Ledger’s in The Dark Knight, was mind-blowing, to say the least, and was all the more chilling courtesy his emaciated figure. The praise is not a stretch, since the 46-year-old received an Oscar for his role. And so, since I regard both Phoenix and Davis as masters of their respective styles of acting, my personal conviction prevents me from placing one above the other.

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Is It Sexism Or Under-Representation?

As far as the issue of women not being given their due in film body transformations is concerned, it may or may not always hold true. It is inarguable that the noise around Davis’ Ma Rainey was far muted in comparison to the delirium around Phoenix’s Joker. Could that count for a reason why Davis’ awe-inspiring weight loss was not the talk of the town? In that case, does sexism fairly play into the discussion? Or does it all simply rely on the tricks of movie marketing? Does it, in essence, at all discount Davis’ toils?

In a surprising turn of events, Bollywood, for once, can claim the higher ground while the transformation debate rages in the West. Here, trends have shown that equal regard is accorded to male and female actors, in case they undergo a noticeable change in physicality for a film. For instance, Bhumi Pednekar for Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Kangana Ranaut for Thalaivi, and most recently, Taapsee Pannu for Rashmi Rocket, have all earned a fair share of praise for either gaining, losing, or toning their weights. As did Aamir Khan for Dangal and Randeep Hooda for Sarbjit. 

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Several in Hollywood are known to take on their characters head-on, without compromise. Christian Bale always figures near the top for his extraordinary transformations in The Machinist and Vice. But he has never been the only one on the list. Women like Charlize Theron and Renee Zellweger need to be mentioned as well. Does the problem then lie in under-appreciation or the lack of powerful characters for women in films?

Davis, no doubt, underwent a transformation that needs more notice, more laurels, and way more acknowledgement than it is currently receiving. But as I see it, this debate, more than rallying for recognition of Davis’ hard work, has eked out the finer point of a need for a better, more powerful range of roles for women actors.

Views expressed are the author’s own.