Reporter: Anna Moore.
Featured in Night & Day Magazine - March 13, 2001
Special thanks to Adam Scragg for sending in this article!
Forget the legendary Hollywood catfight for the role of Scarlet O'Hara, the biggest battle for a part ever seen has rumbled for more than a decade between the world's most feted actresses. Madonna, Isabella Rossellini and Isabelle Huppert have all vied for it - and failed. Now, the last two contenders standing are the sultry Mexican, Salma Hayek - who has got her nose out in front thanks to sheer, single-minded determination and chutzpah - and Jennifer Lopez.
But the role they have dearly coveted doesn't resemble that of Gone with the Wind's beautiful heroine at all: she is Frida Kahlo, a short, sickly, misshapen Mexican artist, who had ample facial hair but only one eyebrow, and who, in later life, had only one foot.
Madonna, Rossellini and Huppert all wanted to play Kahlo - who died in virtual obscurity about 50 years ago - but the actress Laura San Giacomo (Sex, -Lies and Videotape) came the closest, getting within an inch of landing the part in 1991. But, ten years later, it is the two Latin divas who are in the front running.
For eight years, an obsessed Hayek has been carrying Polaroids of herself dressed in Kahlo-style attire, and making pilgrimages to the artist's birthplace. Now that she has signed a deal with the film company, Mira- max, she has even launched a. Frida website (www. fridamovie.com) in rather quaint support of her bid, headlined: 'Salma Hayek is Frida Kahlo.'
The site lists what she perceives to he the numerous physical similarities: 'Frida and I have the same facial structure,' she says. 'We have the same mouth and eyes. Of course, she had one eyebrow and her hair was different. She also had a different nose and her ears were bigger. Miramax doesn't want me to wear the moustache, though I want to. The similarities are really scary…'
Hayek, 32, left her home in Mexico and a successful career as a soap star to go to Hollywood in 1992, where, hearing that director Luis Valdez (La Bamba) was to film Kahlo's life, she began besieging him with calls. 'Finally,' she says, 'someone got on the phone and said, 'You're too young for the part'.' To which Hayak's swift riposte was that the film had better wait until she was old enough.
From this point, versions of the film have been, at one time or another, in and out of development. The Venezuelan director, Berry Kaplan, was also trying to get a film off the ground, just as Hayek's director put his project on ice.
Trimark Pictures entered the race in 1997 and was persuaded to sign Hayek - whose Hollywood stock had risen in the interim. She was making such films as Desperado (with Antonio Banderas), From Dusk Till Dawn (with George Clooney), and Breaking Up (with Russell Crowe). Hayek then persuaded Miramax to buy the project from Trimark, and Julie Taylor was signed to direct.
Then, even as rival director Kaplan began gearing up, the original would-be director, Valdez, defrosted the script and re-entered the race. Both approached Hayek to star in their movies - but it was too late, she was with Miramax. So Vaidez signed Jennifer Lopez. Hayek, unimpressed, pointed out that Lopez was actually from New York ('Her Spanish is very bad,' she sniped). Francis Ford Coppola, roped in to produce Valdez's film, upped the stakes, however, with talk of including Leonardo DiCaprio, Richard Gere and Madonna in supporting roles. Hayek's Miramax version, on the other hand, will co-star Alfred Molina, Ashley Judd and Edward Norton, and is already well ahead of the field, while Lopez's film is making slow progress, and is still in pre-production.
So what of Kahlo, the focus of all this fuss? Why the sudden appeal of playing a bisexual communist who stood five feet tall and had a hairy upper lip? This was a woman who, after all had spent most of her short life in hospital, being hung from ceiling rings in a n attempt to straighten her twisted spine. When she wasn't in hospital, she wore plaster corsets. And her paintings are full of ripped bodies, wounds, the dying, the miscarried and the murdered.
At least the rather less glamorous, and more fitting, Molina will be playing opposite Hayek as her love interest, the celebrated Rivera was a Mexican, an artist and a communist. But unlike her, he weighed 21 stone, was pop-eyed and had chronically greasy hair (even Kahlo described him as a cross between a Buddha and a frog). Despite this, he was an egocentric womaniser, who painted heroic peasant uprisings, battle scenes and glorious revolutions.
The Kahlo hysteria is made even more remarkable by the fact that, on her death in 1954, her reputation, outside Mexico at least, was dwarfed by Rivera's. Now, in what Newsweek magazine has called 'a highbrow version of the Eivis phenomenon', her images are everywhere - on buttons, bangles, posters and comics. Her letters and diaries have been devoured by millions. There is even a religion, 'Kahloism', in which followers worship Kahlo as a god.
Madonna may be no Kahloist but, in 1990, she revealed that she had been obsessed with the painter for five years. She spent more than £1.5 mil- lion on two Kahlo paintings - including a gruesome birth scene with which she tested house guests (if they so much as grimaced, they could never be close friends). She commissioned a screen- play with herself as the lead and claimed numerous connections with her heroine, such as her Roman Catholic upbringing, her non-conformity, her miscarriages and broken first marriage.'I identify with her pain and her sadness,' she told the world.
So what fuels Kahlo fever? Why are so many drawn to a life of such suffering?
Born in 1907, Kahlo was struck by. polio aged six, then by a tram at 18. The collision snapped her spine, her pelvis, her collarbone and ribs. Her right foot was crushed (and later amputated), and. she was skewered in the groin by an iron rod (she later joked that this was how she lost her virginity).
This was, for her, the end of normal life - and the beginning of an extraordinary career. She spent a month in hospital, where doctors attempted to mould her broken body back together. She then returned to her parents' home in a suburb of Mexico City, where she was confined to bed, unable to sit up. Her education was over, and her plans to he a doctor forgotten.
Instead, Kahlo began to paint. Her photographer father gave her his paint set, and her mother fastened a mirror to her daughter's bed. Her work immediately took on a distinctive style: self-portraits of her gazing impassively, poised or pleading, sometimes with a brutalised body, against backdrops of bare landscapes and stark rooms. She said: 'I paint myself because I am so often alone, because I am the subject I know best.'
As soon as she could walk again, Kahlo raced towards her next catastrophe. (As she was to record: 'I have suffered two grave accidents in my life, one in which a street car ran me over, the other was Diego.') Seven years older than Kahlo, Rivera was an established artist and friend of Picasso. He had married twice by 22, had an illegitimate daughter in Russia and was a serial philanderer. When Kahlo sought him out, he was working on government projects, painting murals on public buildings. She found him in Mexico City's education department, and called him from his scaffold, saying: 'I haven't come to flirt. I just want to show you my pictures. If you find them interesting, tell me.'
Rivera was impressed by her work - and with Kahlo herself, her fire and flamboyance and her peasant clothes (which she wore partly to hide the ravages of her polio).
When they married, in 1928, her parents nicknamed this odd couple 'the elephant and the dove'. In many ways, they couldn't have been more different. Huge, expansive, gregarious Rivera produced paintings on an epic scale. Tiny, intense Kahlo turned out small works (11in by 15in), revealing her inner self, her body and her marriage. Rivera was never faithful. He once said that sex was like urinating, and he couldn't understand why people took it so seriously. He slept with models, students and film stars. He had a long affair with Kahlo's younger sister Cristina, which continued even after Kahlo found out. (He painted Cristina in a mural, with huge, blank, orgasmic eyes, blocking out Kahlo who stood behind her.)
'When I loved a woman, I wanted to hurt her,' he later wrote. 'Frida was the most evident victim of this despicable character trait of mine.'
Nevertheless, Kahlo's love for him never dimmed. At first happy to play the dutiful wife (she loved to bathe him and make up lunch baskets decorated with flowers), she followed him around the US, where his reputation flourished and he became only the second, artist, after Matisse, to have a one-man show at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Kahlo was homesick from the beginning and hated Americans. 'I can't stand gringos,' she wrote to a friend. 'They are boring and have doughy faces like unbaked rolls.'
At 25, while in Detroit, she suffered one of several miscarriages - her accident had left her body unable to sustain a pregnancy. Painted shortly after this, Henry Ford Hospital shows Kahlo, grey-faced and vulnerable, on an enormous bed before a desolate, industrial landscape.
In the following years, her paintings became a painful reflection of her life. When Rivera began seeing Cristina, she painted A Few Little Pricks, in which a man with a dagger stands over a woman's bloody body. In The Heart, she stands with her hair shorn off, her heart wrenched out and bleeding on the ground. In a further reaction to the affair, Kahlo cut off her hair and abandoned the Mexican dresses Rivera so loved.
Her paintings show her hopeless love for her husband. Frequently, his face appears in the middle of her forehead, as her third eye (as in Diego and 1 and Diego in my Thoughts). Sometimes he is a giant infant cradled in her arms, sometimes half his face merges with hers.
Once, on finding a note in Rivera's pocket from a lover, Kahlo wrote to him, saying. 'Why do I have to be so stubborn and obstinate? The problems with skirts are simply jokes. Deep inside, you and I love each other a lot. All this anger has made me understand better that I love you more than my own skin and that, though you don't love me as much, you love me a little anyway - don't you,?'
Ultimately, Kahlo started to gain some independence through having affairs - with men and women. In New York, she became involved with Japanese sculptor Isamu Noguchi - until Rivera threatened him with a pistol ('I don't want to share my toothbrush with anyone,' is how he put it). She also had a brief affair with Leon Trotsky - nearly 30 years her senior. Rivera had helped the influential Russian enter Mexico on his expulsion from the Communist Party. Kahlo dedicated a self-portrait to Trotsky, which hung in his office until his assassination.
On Rivera's suggestion, the pair divorced in 1939 but were reunited the following year, and remarried after Kahlo followed Rivera to San Francisco, where he was working on a mural.
From then on, Kahlo suffered constantly with kidney problems, gangrene, pneumonia and anaemia. She had to have a spinal tap, and, in 1950, she spent a year in hospital, undergoing seven spinal operations.
Kahlo's first and only one-woman show in Mexico took place in 1953, a year before her death. Doctors refused to allow her out of bed, so she attended the gallery on a stretcher and then lay, drugged and feverish, propped up in a four-poster bed, on pillows doused in perfume. 'She hardly said a word, but I said to myself later that she must certainly have realised that this was her farewell in life,' wrote Rivera.
The surgery left her in a deep depression. She lost the will to live, and died in the night of July 12, 1954, seven days before her 47th birthday. The cause of death was recorded as pulmonary thrombosis, though many have since suspected suicide.
As her body was carried to the municipal cemetery for cremation, dressed in Mexican clothes, with bright ribbons woven into her hair, a sea of mourners flung themselves at her coffin. Rivera followed, beside him- self with grief. It was, he said, the most tragic day of his life. 'When her body entered the oven, the heat made it sit up, her hair a blaze of flame. A spasm created what looked like a smile, then the body lay back down.
Kahlo left 150 small paintings, a third of which were self-portraits, and has since become the unofficial patron saint of suffering. Would she have wished to be reborn as Madonna, Lopez - or even Hayek? Given her hatred of gringos, and of American high society, which she found 'terrifying', the answer is probably no. 'I hope death will be easy,' she wrote in the final entry of her diary, 'and I hope I won't come back.'