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She ought to be in pictures

© Rachel Campbell-Johnston / The Times / June 20, 2001

Artist Frida Kahlo is perfect for a Hollywood biopic

Frida Kahlo ended as she meant to go on. A friend who witnessed her cremation told a telling tale: “Everyone was hanging on to her hands when the cart began to pull her body towards the oven’s entrance,” she said. “They threw themselves on top of her, yanked at her fingers to take off her rings, because they wanted to have something that belonged to her.”

Frida Kahlo is still up for grabs, even now, nearly 50 years after her death — and not least in Hollywood, for, despite a couple of documentaries and a feature-length film, no one has captured the essence of the exotic life of this Mexican artist on screen.

The drama of her story, and the Frida Kahlo cult that it has spawned, has served only to whet further the ambitions of stars — notably Madonna, the owner of two Kahlo paintings. She commissioned a screenplay to serve as a vehicle for her talents. But somehow neither this, nor any other mooted projects, have yet made it into production.

Or at least, they haven’t until now. It has finally been confirmed that Salma Hayek (she’s half Lebanese) has stolen a march on Jennifer Lopez, her Puerto Rican rival, and is to don the traditional embroidered costumes of Kahlo. She is to play the woman whose proprietorial country declared her posthumously to be a national treasure.

But how has the swarthy, moustachioed woman who stares unsmiling from self-portraits become such a cult figure? How has a small fierce, intellectually complex cripple with an unbroken eyebrow become an icon? It happened partly by accident. As a bright, tomboyish teenager, Kahlo was trapped in the collision of a trolley car and a bus. Her spinal column was smashed, her ribs, collarbone and pelvis broken, her right leg shattered, its foot dislocated and crushed. “A steel handrail,” writes her biographer, “literally skewered her body at the level of the abdomen; entering on the left side, it came out through the vagina.”

“I lost my virginity,” Kahlo quipped. The retrospective joke reveals her instinct for subverting disaster, turning it around to serve to her own advantage. After the accident, her body had to be put back together like a photomontage. But at the same time, Kahlo reassembled her character in a similar way. She created an image which she could inhabit like a shell — like one of the plaster corsets that would be set around her torso and that, immobile for months, she would paint and make beautiful.

It was the enforced immobility which made Kahlo an artist. She took up a paintbrush to alleviate her bed-bound boredom at first. But it was because she became a painter that she got involved with the extravagant Rabelasian Mexican muralist Diego Rivera. She took him her earliest artistic experiments, asked him if it was worth continuing on this course.

Rivera, world-famous and fantastically fat, was a colourful part of the Kahlo story. She became his third wife when he was 42 and she was little more than half that. It was a tempestuous passion. He was a renowned philanderer. It was said that, to star-struck North American women, a tryst with Rivera was as much of a “must do” on a visit to Mexico as a trip to the pyramids.

The deeply adoring but savagely individualistic Kahlo was enraged, pained (especially by his affair with one of her sisters) and ultimately (after Rivera had divorced and then remarried her a year later) accepting. Besides, she herself was far from faithful. She indulged in a string of affairs with both men and women, and most famously with Leon Trotsky when he had sought political asylum in Mexico.

But it was thanks to Rivera’s mania for publicity that their marriage became part of the public domain. Their every squabble, separation or reunion reported in lurid detail by an avid local press.

Kahlo’s life from her birth (the date of which she lied about so that she could present herself as a child of the Mexican revolution that she so ardently believed in) to her death at the age of 47 in 1954 (surrounded as it was by dark hints of suicide) reads like a Hollywood film script.

Intelligent, caustic, impulsive and flamboyant, she overcompensated for her sickness by creating for herself a larger-than-life character. She may have cooked and kept home for her much beloved husband. But she also drank tequila like a mariachi, smoked and swore in a gutter vocabulary that was intended to shock, not least when she found herself in elite North American society, hobnobbing with the Rockefellers and Fords.

Kahlo was unflinching. Guffawing in the face of death, she would dress cardboard skeletons in her own clothes, eat sugar skulls with her name iced upon them. She was the ultimate drama queen. Little wonder that so many movie stars have vied to take her role.

But perhaps more subtly fascinating than the outer mask is the way that Kahlo used this mask, becoming the painterly version of the modern screen siren presenting always an adroitly stage-managed front. But where the movie star has a publicity machine, Kahlo had her paintings, the effigies in her self-portraits.

Through these she transformed herself literally into an icon. Kahlo made herself the heroine of her own life story, a martyr to her own pain, showing herself weeping, pierced, bleeding, cracked open with a simplicity and starkness that are tempered by fantasy and flashes of teasing and humour.

In her life she used this suffering, this martyr’s role that she created, to keep Rivera close to her. At the time to outsiders it must have seemed shocking, “slightly revolting and too personal, embarrassing” Hayden Herrera, the biographer who has most popularised Kahlo, suggests. But now, in a confessional culture, when revelatory insights are welcomed and admissions of vulnerability are a closet sign of strength, Kahlo is more than ever heralded as a heroine. Certainly, on a political level, she made herself an icon to almost every politically correct train of thought in the United States from those who campaign for native American rights to feminists to the disabled to the homosexual to the socially aware.

More than that, on a personal level, she makes her appeal to almost anyone who has felt pain or betrayal or loss — which, let’s face it, is potentially everyone.

No wonder then that Salma Hayek is so triumphant about landing the role. She must hope, in the movie, that for millions she can become the real Frida Kahlo. But can anyone ever know who the real Frida Kahlo was? When her body was finally, after four hours, drawn out of the crematorium fires, her biographer tells us, the ashes retained the silvery shape of her skeleton for a few moments. And then they were dispersed into innumerable, all but intangible, pieces by currents of air.