By Susan Schneider
XOCHIMILCO, Mexico (Reuters) - The Hollywood rebirth of Frida Kahlo may well have been as anguished as the tortured 20th century Mexican painter's life itself.
The seeds of a screen Frida date to 1986, when producer Nancy Hardin, envisioning the artist on TV or in the movies, gained the option to Hayden Herrera's 1983 biography of the crippled, bisexual artist.
Project ideas began swirling in movie circles in earnest in the early 1990s, when Madonna (news - web sites) and other stars began clamoring for a piece of the tale of the quixotic woman, who was married to famed Mexican painter and icon Diego Rivera.
HBO took on an initial cable version of Frida in 1994, but the painter's story then endured some 10 different scripts, dueling projects, a fierce battle among actresses for the part of Frida and a succession of production companies.
But this winter Frida -- down to her famed mustache and unparted eyebrow -- should finally be starring on U.S. screens.
The film "Frida'' was pieced together by Mexican-born actress Salma Hayek, who was reportedly so smitten with the idea of portraying the painter that at parties she would flash photos of herself dressed up as the artist.
Hayek, unlike other would-be Fridas, managed to convert the project into reality with one fateful act: she secured the approval of Dolores Olmedo, a renowned Mexican art collector who oversees the trusts of Frida and Rivera.
"Salma is Mexican and she is even more Mexican than Frida herself was,'' since the painter's parents were European immigrants, said Olmedo in an interview. Olmedo said that Hayek's involvement was a key reason she gave the green light for the couple's paintings and belongings to be reproduced.
HOLLYWOOD FIGURES STEP IN
Hayek also called on boyfriend and actor Edward Norton to help craft the script, and she dialed up friends like actress Ashley Judd to populate a cast of historical figures dating to the decades between the 1920s and the 1950s.
The story of Frida -- who twice married Rivera -- may not be the stuff of a typical Hollywood success. But film distributor Miramax Films is banking on Frida -- and Hayek -- drawing the masses.
"I think this is going to cross over to a huge audience, it will interest all women, feminists, the date crowd,'' said producer Sara Green. "It's a very hot story but it's also a very mature romance.''
Frida's colorful and anguished life, from her marriage to Rivera to her affair with Russia's exiled revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky, all amid her feisty rise to artistic success, long ago spawned a cult following in Mexico and beyond.
Frida cultivated her fierce personality and artistic style well before feminism blossomed in most countries. Her survival of childhood polio and a devastating streetcar accident helped round out her legend, providing the trials that underpinned her later art.
She died in Mexico, age 47, in 1954 of complications from an operation to amputate her leg that was at risk of gangrene.
By all appearances, the film's creators -- who wrapped up three months of shooting on the same late day last month that the United States said it would issue a Frida stamp -- have tried to etch an authentic Frida, down to the tiniest details.
SCENES OF MEXICO
The scenes were shot almost solely in Frida's homeland and include footage of the reedy canals outside Mexico City where she and Rivera honeymooned, as well as the massive pre-Hispanic pyramids in Teotihuacan where Frida's affair with Trotsky flowered.
Location scouts had to battle the government for months for approval to use the mighty pyramids just north of the capital. Access was ultimately granted, but only on the grounds that filming was conducted around the site's tourists.
"We wanted to respect that as part of the story,'' even though the hundreds of tourists at the site made camera work exceedingly difficult, said location manager Fernando "Boogie' Uriegas.
Frida's birthplace, the famous Blue House in the colonial-era village of Coyoacan on Mexico's City's outskirts, was also rebuilt in a studio because the existing structure underwent too many renovations for filmmakers to capture its original essence.
"Frida's'' hundreds of extras were largely Mexican, many of whom were found in the nation's far reaches and bused to the filming. Costumes, too, were stitched with some material from indigenous areas, an inspiration for Frida's Indian dress as well as her folk art.
Even the art of Frida and Rivera was repainted from scratch from the originals by two separate teams -- one per artist -- that never crossed paths. The grand sum of these Mexican influences, say the movie's makers, is a film that is authentically Frida and decidedly un-Hollywood.
"I don't feel like it's an American production. It's not Hollywood, there are only two Americans in the cast,'' said actress Mia Maestro, who plays Frida's sister Cristina.
Still, in a nation that is fiercely proud of Frida's role in its rich heritage, some are not convinced that Salma's Frida is the Frida Mexico knows.
"I feel like Frida was much stronger, cruder'' than Hayek's portrayal of her, said one of the film's extras. "There are things that are very 'light.' It's all too pretty and stylized.''