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Blood, paint and tears

© Christopher Goodwin / The Sunday Times

She had to fight off Jennifer Lopez and the unlikely alliance of Madonna and Marlon Brando, but Salma Hayek is bringing the strange, troubled life of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo to the big screen. Christopher Goodwin discovers how

"I hope that death will be easy and I hope I won't be coming back." Those were the last words that Frida Kahlo, the Mexican painter, wrote in her diary before she died in July 1954. She was just 47. So it is disconcerting, nearly half a century later, to see an apparently reincarnated, if unnaturally robust, Frida Kahlo in Mexico City, heartily eating tacos and telling vulgar jokes. Or, as the trailers will no doubt say, when the movie is released some time next year: "Salma Hayek is Frida Kahlo."

Indeed she is: the trademark monobrow, a hint of a moustache, the black hair plaited and woven with flowers, the ethnic embroidered Tijuana smock and long peasant skirt, the stern, unflinching eyes, the voice gravelly from chain-smoking. Hayek has even taken up cigarettes for the film. "It gives me a bit of a high and gets me into Fridaland," she says.

Hayek, like many others, has been trying to get into Fridaland for years. Desperate to make a film about the artist's life, she searched around for backing, but there seemed to be little interest from the studios. "Who's gonna wanna see a movie about a Mexican lesbian in a wheelchair?" one executive snarled. But in the past few years, Kahlo's reputation has undergone such an astonishing transformation that even Hollywood has had to sit up and take note. From being virtually unknown outside Mexico, she has become the most sought-after female artist in history. Her paintings now consistently break auction records, selling for more than £3m.

It is an astonishing postscript to a life that, while infinitely colourful, was seldom filled with contentment. Afflicted with polio from the age of six, Kahlo was left with a withered right leg that was eventually amputated below the knee. Then, at the age of 18, she was horribly injured in a bus accident that mangled her spine, her ribs, her foot and her pelvis and left her virtually crippled, frequently bed- ridden and unable to bear children. She had 35 serious operations during her life and three traumatic miscarriages. And yet despite, or perhaps because of, these traumatic physical handicaps, she poured impossible reserves of energy into her work, documenting in harrowing detail her pain and suffering in a series of brutally honest self-portraits.

This remarkable talent was matched by a voracious sexual appetite that encompassed a string of affairs with both men and women, including the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who lived in exile, and was eventually assassinated, in Mexico City.

It was, however, her tempestuous, complicated, passion-filled marriage to the most prominent Mexican artist of the day, Diego Rivera, that became the defining relationship of Kahlo's life, and which provides the dramatic focus for Hayek's forthcoming film. More than that, it was a relationship that laid the foundation for the almost cultish following that Kahlo has now attracted.

With her obsessive focus on her body, her sexuality, and the suffering that came from both, Kahlo has become feminism's premiere art icon - a Sylvia Plath of the canvas. In this context, it is easier to understand how her story has drawn to it many of Hollywood's most prominent female names. Jennifer Lopez was hoping to star in a project called The Two Fridas, after one of Kahlo's most famous works, with Francis Ford Coppola producing.

Then there was Madonna, who appears to be enjoying something of a posthumous love affair with the painter. A keen collector of Kahlo's work (she is loaning a painting to Tate Modern's forthcoming surrealist show), she even said of another Kahlo work that hangs in the lobby of her home, the graphic and gruesome My Birth (1932): "If someone doesn't like this painting, then I know they can't be my friend." Keen to take on the Kahlo role herself, she had Marlon Brando lined up for her Rivera. But, ultimately, it was Hayek whose passionate belief in Kahlo's story eventually convinced the sceptics from the studios.

Meeting Hayek in the flesh, it is immediately evident that here is a woman used to getting her own way. A former soap- opera actress who got her first break in the Tarantino-scripted From Dusk Till Dawn, she has had to overcome inevitable doubts that she has the ability to play a complicated artist, who must age from her mid-teens to her mid- forties. But late last year, Harvey Weinstein, the notoriously tough-minded head of Miramax Films, could no longer resist Hayek's siren calls, and agreed to put up the $11m (about £8m) needed to make the film, which has a script co-written by Rodrigo Garcia, the son of the Nobel prize-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Even then, there were problems. Both Pedro Almodóvar and Walter Salles dropped out of the running as director, and the project looked in doubt until Julie Taymor, who had directed Anthony Hopkins in the big-screen version of Titus Andronicus, and is best known for her stage show of The Lion King, came on board.

Now, as co-producer and star, nobody can doubt Hayek's tenacity in getting the film moving. She even persuaded Vicente Fox, the new Mexican president, to grant permission to shoot some scenes at the famous Teotihuacan pyramids, just outside Mexico City.

So what was it that attracted her to Kahlo's story. "When I first saw her work, I was repulsed by it, but drawn to her at the same time," says Hayek, in her perfumed English, over lunch under a canopy at the back of the studios. "Gradually I became enchanted, bewitched by her," she adds. "She has a level of honesty that is too harsh for a lot of people. It makes you very uncomfortable when someone rips herself open and exposes very intimate things with such courage."

The movie, which is now in its last week of shooting, features Alfred Molina as the larger-than-life Diego Rivera, and the film's success or failure will largely depend on capturing the peculiar spirit of the relationship between the two great artists. As Kahlo once confessed to a friend, with her trademark black humour: "I have suffered two grave accidents in my life: the one in which a streetcar ran me over, the other was Diego." Rivera in turn recalled the intensity of the couple's first meeting. "I did not know it then, but Frida had already become the most important fact in my life," he wrote. "And she would continue to be, up to the moment she died, 26 years later."

Grossly overweight, with protruding eyes, droopy lips and greasy, wiry hair, Rivera had already been married twice when Kahlo entered his life. Kahlo's family were appalled when the couple announced their engagement. "They said it was like a marriage between an elephant and a dove," she later wrote.

Their fears were justified. Described by Kahlo's biographer as "a frog prince, an extraordinary man, full of brilliant humour, vitality and charm", Rivera was regularly unfaithful, and while tolerant of his wife's affairs with women, he was bitter and resentful of her liaisons with other men. Unsurprisingly, history has cast him as the misogynist bully to Kahlo's long-suffering victim. As Rivera himself later admitted: "When I loved a woman, I wanted to hurt her the more I loved her." It is perhaps surprising, then, that although he and Kahlo divorced in 1940, they remarried shortly afterwards and, in their own fallible ways, loved each other deeply for the rest of their lives. "Love beyond fidelity," is how Taymor describes it.

Yet today, what is most extraordinary about the lives of these two great painters is how much is still vivid in the buildings and on the walls of modern Mexico City. The Casa Azul, where Kahlo and Rivera lived from 1941, is now a museum and, for many, a place of pilgrimage. It is full of artefacts from their lives, including paintings, pages from her diary, her crutches, his hat, one of her plaster corsets that sits on her tiny bed, her pillow embroidered with the words "No me olvides amor mio" ("Don't forget me my love").

In her studio, her wheelchair sits before an unfinished painting of Stalin. A few streets away is the house in which Trotsky (played by Geoffrey Rush in the film) lived and died. Even the traumatic affair Rivera had with Kahlo's younger sister Cristina can still be seen on the walls of the National Palace, where a panel from Rivera's Epic of the Mexican People shows Cristina looking more beautiful than Frida and clearly obscuring her.

For Kahlo, being overlooked was nothing new. Despite friendships with some of the greatest talents of the day, such as Pablo Picasso and André Breton, who called her work "a coloured ribbon round a bomb", in her lifetime, her talent seemed to count for little when compared to her husband's. Now, of course, that has changed. Yet ironically, Hayek's film may help restore Rivera's tarnished reputation. "I think Rivera has been made into a cartoon," says Taymor. "You know, with his monstrous appetite for women and his cruelty to Frida. But she was too smart a woman to have stayed with him if he were that cruel."

"She was not a martyr," agrees Hayek. "Despite all her suffering, she would wake up every day and celebrate life in every possible way, from dressing up to painting and cooking and drinking and f***ing. How can anyone so in love with life be a martyr?"

In the end, however, it is Rivera himself who must have the last say. "Frida is the only example in the history of art of an artist who tore open her chest and heart to reveal the biological truth of her feelings." Can Hayek capture that essence on film when it has eluded so many others?