As the extraordinary life story of Mexican artist Frida Kahlo is made into a movie, Jo Tuckman talks to the main players
The cameras roll for yet another retake in Hollywood's venture into the life of the painter Frida Kahlo. It is 1953, and Mexico City's art world has gathered for the opening of the only solo show of Kahlo's work held during her lifetime in her country; the ailing artist, played by Salma Hayek, is carried into the gallery on her sick-bed.
The scene begins with Alfred Molina, who plays the muralist Diego Rivera, recalling the day he first saw his future wife's work. "There was this skinny kid with one eyebrow shouting up at my studio. She was an artist who tore open her chest and heart to reveal the biological truth of her feelings."
Frida died a year after the show's opening, aged 47, ending a lifetime of illness and leaving a body of tortuous, introspective work. At the time, this work was still overshadowed by Rivera's grandiose glorifications of post-revolutionary Mexico, but it slowly turned her into one of the most famous female painters ever. One of her self-portraits fetched $10 million at auction last year.
She has now been adopted as a feminist icon, adored for her creativity in the face of physical pain and her husband's infidelity, as well as for her audacity in exploring relationships with prominent men and women, notably Leon Trotsky.
By the 1990s she was beginning to be viewed as biopic material, although it has taken a decade to get a project off the ground. Despite the enthusiasm of both Madonna and Jennifer Lopez for the part, it was not easy to get backing for a commercial movie about a woman with one eyebrow and a moustache who was crippled by an accident at the age of 18, and who then plunged headlong into a search for artistic, political, emotional and sexual fulfilment.
"A lot of people have this idea that Frida was a martyr, but she had a fantastic sense of humour and was very passionate for life," says Hayek. "She would get up each day with this hunger for living, and living very true to the way she was, even though nothing she wanted or thought was common for society at the time. It is hard to see someone like that as a martyr. I see it as a success story, with a lot of pain."
Before Miramax's $12 million Frida, now in post-production and due to be released next spring, the only feature film on the artist was a hauntingly atmospheric Mexican movie directed by Paul Leduc in 1983, starring Ofelia Medina. The first attempt at a commercial English-language movie was spearheaded by Madonna, who pronounced herself obsessed with the painter and began shelling out millions of dollars on her paintings. One of these, Self-Portrait With a Monkey, will be part of Tate Modern's Surrealism exhibition later this year. But although Marlon Brando was reportedly lined up to play her Rivera, Madonna's project faded away.
The US television channel HBO revived the idea in 1994, acquiring the rights to Hayden Herrera's biography of the artist that had done much to fuel Fridamania in the 1980s. The rights transferred to Trimark two years later and to Miramax two years after that. Hayek was never far behind, pushing the project until it was finally shot on location in Mexico earlier this year. The final dash was spiced up by Jennifer Lopez's involvement in another Kahlo project due to be produced by Francis Ford Coppola, prompting gleeful articles about the renewed competition of the two Latin ladies.
But Hayek was the most determined, securing access to Kahlo's art from Dolores Olmedo Patino, a former lover and patron of Rivera who administers the rights to much of the couple's work. And it was Hayek who also set about putting together the cast, first approaching Molina while he was performing on Broadway in the play Art in 1998.
"She turned up backstage rather sheepishly and asked if I would like to play Diego," Molina recalls. "But I didn't take it very seriously. It was like a dream, but I read the script and it wasn't very good."
The original script, adapted from Herrera's biography by Gregory Nava, was rewritten for Miramax by Rodrigo García, son of Gabriel García Marquez. It was later overhauled by Walter Salles (director of 1998's foreign- language Oscar winner, the Brazilian film Central Station), who was also expected to direct the movie.
"At one point there were 12 versions of the script kicking around," producer Sarah Green said during a long Sunday shoot in a mansion in the Mexico City suburb of Coyoacan, where Kahlo and Rivera used to hold court.
After Salles pulled out, Julie Taymor was called in and, together with Hayek's boyfriend Edward Norton, rewrote the script again. It was already clear that the film would only get an audience if it focused on the Frida/Diego relationship. But Taymor, best known for her stage version of The Lion King, set about accentuating the visual dimension by intertwining the major events of Kahlo's tempestuous life with her paintings. Norton concentrated on the historical context and added some humour in keeping with Kahlo's taste for crude jokes.
Molina oozes admiration for the new version, particularly for Norton's work. "Ed's a very, very smart guy," he says. "I think he was very interested in the political dimension of these two people. He wanted to bring in the fact that they weren't just hugely talented artists, but also at the forefront of Mexican politics and progressive thinking."
Like the rest of the cast, Molina worked on the film for less than his normal fee, convinced by Hayek's commitment to the project, a commitment that is at odds with her Latino starlet image.
For the 12-week shoot, a curious troupe trundled around Mexico. Hayek was pursued by the paparazzi, who alternately adore her as Mexico's only Hollywood figure and berate her aloofness from her people. Molina, meanwhile, ate two of everything in order to gain the 35 extra pounds needed for the part. They were joined by Geoffrey Rush as an ageing Trotsky, who fell in love with Frida after arriving in Mexico in 1937.
A little extra glamour comes from Antonio Banderas as muralist David Siquieros, whose Stalinist affiliations led him to help organise a first failed assassination attempt on Trotsky, before the pickaxe agent finished the job in 1940. Edward Norton cameos as Nelson Rockefeller, who famously became enraged after Rivera included a portrait of Lenin in a mural commissioned for the Rockefeller Centre in New York.
All this, the producers hope, will help Frida reach out beyond an arthouse crowd. But the biggest burden clearly falls on Hayek, who is better known for her writhing vampire in From Dusk to Dawn than for any serious character role.
"I think a lot of people were dismissive of her in some way, a bit disparaging about what she has done and what she could or couldn't do," says Molina. "But she's actually got much more depth to her than she's been given a chance to show so far, and I think this film is going to change all that."
He at least sounds convinced that Hayek will be able to carry a serious picture about a serious historical figure so dear to serious people's hearts.
No one can argue that Hayek is not prepared. After six years of near-obsession with the project, she has learned how to paint, talked to everybody she can who ever knew the artist, read every biography written, collected every photograph available, and even shaved her upper lip to get the tiniest hint of a moustache.
"I know this character very well," she says. "I have known her for a long time. We've been through a lot together."
© The Irish Times / Guardian service October 2001