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Race Heats Up on Frida Kahlo Film

Competing projects about the Mexican artistís tumultuous life are attracting big names in Hollywood and the Latino filmmaking community.

By LORENZA MU—OZ, Times Staff Writer

The cinematic life of Frida Kahlo has been almost as tortured as that of the painter herself. No Mexican cultural figure has ever been as sought after by Hollywood. For years, filmmakers here have tried to make a movie based on Kahloís gripping and tragic life story, but have found their projects derailed by bickering parties, mediocre scripts, lack of financing and controversy about casting decisions. The latest chapter in the making-of-the-Frida-Kahlo- movie saga is the fierce competition between three biopics rushing to be the first in production. They involve some of the biggest Latino names in filmmaking, ranging from actresses Jennifer Lopez and Salma Hayek to "Central Station" director Walter Salles. Among those interested in backing Kahlo projects are Miramax, Francis Ford Coppola and producer Elie Samaha. The race to get their films into production first is crucial; many in Hollywood agree that the time is ripe for a Kahlo picture, but the consensus is that there is room in the marketplace for only one. Notes Venezuelan director Betty Kaplan, who has been trying to get her Kahlo movie made for the past eight years: "Every time I try to get it off the ground, someone comes up with their own Frida."

Lopez will star in a biopic directed by Luis Valdez ("La Bamba," "Zoot Suit.") Because Lopez is currently one of the hottest stars around, both in films and pop music, her project is generating the most buzz in Hollywood and seems the most likely to be on the fast track. "This is the project Jennifer had her sight set on as soon as she wrapped íAngel Eyes,í " Lopezís manager Benny Medina said Tuesday, referring to her upcoming film. "We look at starting production in December."

Hayek has been struggling to get her Kahlo picture made at Miramax for the past two years. The project has been held up because the studio says it has not found the right director. Hayek said she is ready to start the film once a director is found.

Kaplan has found some financing for her picture and says Edward James Olmos has been cast to play the artist Diego Rivera, Kahloís on-again, off-again husband. But she has not found an actress to play Kahlo.

In recent years, Kahloís reputation as an artist has somewhat eclipsed Riveraís, at least in the U.S. Kahlo even holds the record for the highest price ever paid for a Latin American painting at auction--$3.2 million for her "Self-Portrait With Monkey and Parrot." For years, Valdez has been longing to make a picture about Kahlo. In 1990, New Line Cinema bought the rights to a Martha Zamora biography and hired Valdez to write the screenplay. They cast Raul Julia as Diego Rivera and Laura San Giacomo ("sex, lies & videotape") in the lead role, generating an angry reaction from Latino activists who demanded a Latin actress be cast as the German-Jewish-Mexican painter. But the project finally fell through because of financing. Donald Zuckerman, the producer attached to the picture, even met with Mexican government officials to cover some of the financing. But in the end, the studio balked at the $8-million budget and killed it. Valdez resuscitated the script eight years later. And now, Samahaís Franchise Pictures is set to finance "The Two Fridas" for Warner Bros. Coppola will executive produce the film, and Caldera/De Fanti Entertainment and Payaso Productions will produce it. Though the Rivera role has not been cast, Lopez has agreed to star in the Valdez picture. "Iíve been around the horn on this one," Valdez said Tuesday. "How do you capture a woman as complex as Frida? Iím trying to capture that pain and anguish in some visible way, as she painted herself--she had a split personality. She embodied the contradictions of Mexico itself. And Jennifer will be playing both the mythical Frida and the suffering Frida." When Kahlo was in her late teens, she was in a trolley car accident that shattered her pelvis and for a while left her nearly paralyzed. She endured numerous operations and suffered the effects of the accident all her life. Valdezís film focuses on the love story between Kahlo and Rivera and on her tumultuous life. Medina acknowledged that the role is a "departure" for Lopez and that it doesnít have immediate appeal to the film and music starís core younger audience. "This is the type of project that [Jennifer] needs to be well out front in explaining her passion about," said Medina. "This is a story about a womanís passion and love. It was her life that drove her to pain." Hayek, meanwhile, brought the idea of a Kahlo biopic to Miramax two years ago. A script has been in the works since then, with the latest rewrite done by Rodrigo Garcia ("Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her") and Salles. The script is finally at a point where they could make a movie, Miramax sources say, but they have not found a director. The Miramax film would also revolve around Kahloís relationship with Rivera, which would be told with flashbacks. Initially, Hayek was hoping to work with Mexican director Roberto Sneider, but that fell through. Next came Salles, who, due to scheduling conflicts, could not commit to directing the picture. Then Miramax executives flew to Spain to try to woo Pedro Almodůvar ("All About My Mother") after the director mentioned to Hayek at an Oscar party that he might be interested in the project. Jim Sheridan ("My Left Foot") also briefly flirted with the project, but both directors passed. "We hope to attach a director in the next couple of weeks and aim, if everything works out properly, to start the movie in January," said Miramax executive Mark Gill. Kaplanís picture also focuses mainly on the emotionally tangled love affair between Kahlo and Rivera. Peter Rawley, former head of International Creative Managementís international department and Kaplanís husband, is now trying to raise more funds for the production. But they have yet to cast the role of Kahlo and do not have a distributor.

Capturing the Scope of Kahloís Amazing Life Making a successful mainstream film about Kahlo will be difficult no matter who ends up doing it. Her life doesnít make for a typical Hollywood biopic. She was, among other things, a tormented artist obsessed with her own mortality, bisexual, a communist and involved in a devastatingly abusive relationship with Diego Rivera. She died in 1954 at age 47 after numerous operations, including having her leg amputated, and battling drug and alcohol addictions. The artistís life was the subject of Paul Leducís 1984 Mexican film "Frida," featuring actress Ofelia Medina in the title role. In that film she was portrayed as a near-saint who became a victim of abuse by Rivera and others. Indeed, sheís a kind of feminist icon to Chicana scholars and artists--which also means that any new film about her life will come under scrutiny. Delays in getting a studio film about Kahlo off the ground were also a result of a general lack of interest by the studios in Latino-themed projects. Hollywood is only only now starting to take notice of the large Latino moviegoing audience. And itís taken box-office stars such as Lopez and Hayek to attract financing for a major film. "In general, stories about artists on rare occasions work," said Mike Medavoy, chairman of Phoenix Pictures, who has been following the Kahlo movie saga for nearly a decade. "For the first time there is an interest in Latino subjects because the movie industry suddenly discovered that Latinos go to movies. And now you have Salma and Jennifer--both of whom are good enough to pull the roles off. I think finally itís going to happen." The role of Rivera is tricky as well. Unsympathetic and sometimes abusive, he and Kahlo often fought bitterly. Kahlo herself once said she suffered two great tragedies in her life--the trolley car accident and meeting Diego Rivera. But there is no doubt that their life was interesting. The pair were at the center of Mexicoís bohemian, communist circle in the 1930s. Rivera, with his booming voice, commanding presence and artistic talent became the central character in a multinational group that included photographers Tina Modotti and Edward Weston, painter Pablo OíHiggins, muralist Jean Charlot and composer Silvestre Revueltas. Later on, the couple befriended the exiled Russian leader Leon Trotsky, who was assassinated in Mexico by Stalinís henchmen. Kahlo, who was a shy schoolgirl when she met Rivera, developed into a first-rate artist, both with the help of and despite Riveraís influence. Kahlo eventually created an image for herself, of being fiercely independent, original and decadent. When the couple came to the U.S. in the 1940s, Kahlo took San Francisco and New York by storm with her native Tehuana outfits, heavy jewelry and distinctive uni-brow look. Their lifestyle represented a freedom of sexuality and thought rarely seen in that era--particularly among Mexican women. Kahlo had many lovers--both men and women--and was rarely concerned with the conventions and restrictions of her time. To Kaplan, the relationship between Kahlo and Rivera is at heart a love story, albeit a strange one. "Most love stories show that when people are unfaithful that the relationship ends," said Kaplan. "These two betrayed each other but their love went beyond their physical faithfulness. I see it as íOut of Africaí and íSid and Nancyí rolled up into one."

Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times