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Oscars Lookback: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom historic Makeup and Hairstyling win at the 93rd Academy Awards

By February 16, 2022No Comments

In the lead up to the 94th Academy Awards, we are looking back at some of the most incredible and groundbreaking films that have won an Oscar for makeup and hair. In the upcoming weeks we will be featuring movies that demonstrate the transformative power of makeup artistry.

The first film on our list is Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Based on the 1982 play and starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman, this biographical film tells a story of the influential “Mother of Blues” Ma Rainey and explores the power dynamic of race in music and art.

A period drama, the movie was recognized at the 93rd Academy Awards for outstanding work in depicting 1920s Chicago. The movie won two Oscars, one for Costume Design and the other for Makeup and Hairstyling. Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson made Oscars history as the first Black women to win the category, they took the stage along with Davis’s personal makeup artist Sergio Lopez-Rivera and celebrated their win advocating for diversity within the entertainment space.

“I stand here as Jamika and I break this glass ceiling with so much excitement for the future — because I can picture Black trans women standing up here, and Asian sisters, our Latina sisters and Indigenous women. I know one day it won’t be unusual or groundbreaking. It will just be normal.”

– Mia Neal during her acceptance speech for Best Makeup and Hairstyling

With few reference photos to work from, Davis’s transformation to the iconic blues singer was no easy task for the makeup and hair team. Lopez-Rivera and Neal needed to do plenty of research and guesswork to authentically represent Rainey. Taking into consideration trends of the 1920s along with the cosmetic resources and opportunities a woman of colour would have at that time, Lopez-Rivera worked with makeup department head Matiki Anoff to create a bold, theatrical makeup look that helped Davis get into character as the larger-than-life singer.

For Davis’s makeup, Lopez-Rivera said he was inspired by the Vaudeville, stage makeup and often applied Davis’s makeup using his fingers to add texture and to capture the imperfections of makeup application of the times such as a smudged eye makeup and no crisp straight lines. Both he and Davis were excited to do the opposite of glam and claimed that Bette Davis in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” as inspiration to how garish and heavy they wanted the makeup to be. 

“The makeup was hard to do. I had to search for that information: tent shows, makeup like greasepaint melting off her skin. If I go for authenticity, she has her grill, a mouthful of gold teeth, a horsehair wig, a ton of makeup, smeared on during that day. Either go for it or not go for it. I just did what she did given the circumstances. It was all theatrics, eyeliner, I loved it.”

 – Viola Davis on her transformation to Ma Rainey

To fully separate Davis and Rainey, Lopez-Rivera had credited these three things: a set of golden teeth, eyebrows, and sweat. For the eyebrows, he had to follow the trend of the 1920s which were pencil thin. He had blocked Davis’s natural brows for the film and claimed that the eyebrows were the only thing done with precision for makeup application, everything else including a bright berry rouge for both the lipstick and blush was done with intentional haste. Although authentic, the approach of intentional messy application along with profuse sweat that Rainey was known for proved to be a challenge Lopez-Rivera. He said that due to the constant shifts in makeup with the sweat melting the makeup ensuring that the makeup stayed the same for continuity purposes was quite the hassle.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom made history with their win at the 93rd Academy Awards. If you’re interested in reading more about some of the most interesting Best Makeup and Hairstyling winners of the past Oscars make sure to stay tuned to our blog as we will be featuring more in the upcoming weeks including The Grinch and Pan’s Labyrinth.