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Viva Frida

Scans by Alberto Motolinia

Salma Hayek felt destined to play Frida Kahlo. Thanks to the actress's dedication, the ultimate movie about the Mexican artist's extraordinary life is now being made.

By Sarah Kerr

Click here for Spanish text!

Piercing a hard-won silence, a cell phone is ringing on top of the Pyramid of the Moon. Without complaint, Salma Hayek and Geoffrey Rush stop climbing and return to their marks halfway up the ancient stone stairs. They and their director, Julie Taymor, are trying to wrap a quick scene from Frida in which the painter Frida Kahlo and the dissident Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky and a few friends take a leisurely day trip to Teotihuacán, the seat of Mexico's most awesome pre-Columbian empire. The British actor Alfred Molina, wearing stomach pads and a subtle prosthetic nose to play Kahlo's husband, the fabled muralist Diego Rivera, awaits them on the gravel path below.

Filming today is a challenge—the brisk morning air has heated up under a frying sun, and the crew must work around a growing flow of tourists, who by government order can't be denied their right to visit the Mexican patrimony. Even on a normal day, getting up these skinny Neolithic steps takes courage and steady legs. Hayek carries two added burdens: a long, dazzling scarlet dress and a stomach bug. In between takes she lies back and hugs her shoulders as if she's got the chills.

That the Mexican government has permitted any shooting here at all is a sign of how important it considers the film's subject. It is also a testament to the persuasive powers—and the sleeve-rolling capacity for hard work—of Hayek, who has met with countless form-signers and permission-granters over the years in her long quest to get Frida made. It was Hayek who met with Dolores Olmedo, Rivera's last mistress, who controls access to much of his work, and it was Hayek who teamed up with Miramax when earlier deals fell through. She visited Molina backstage in 1998 when he was starring on Broadway and took along a script. A few years ago, she mentioned the project to Rush when they happened to share a Learjet. Last Fall, Hayek was leaving L.A. on a trip when she heard that Taymor had received the Frida script and was intrigued. "She turned around in her cab, and she came to me," Taymor tells me later. "And for two hours she spoke about Frida with such intelligence and passion and knowledge. I thought, If I can get an ounce of the way she entertained me for two hours, I can certainly get that on-screen."

Frida is one of those anticipated pressure-cooker projects that, when it comes out in the Spring, will inevitably be seen as a test. Can Hollywood touch a story like Kahlo's without fatally watering it down? Can the fetchingly lovely Hayek fully inhabit such a raw, out-there role? Can Taymor, who spun gold with The Lion King but lost momentum with her daring and underappreciated Titus, prove that in addition to being a visual genius, she knows how to work with actors? Finally, can a wider American public embrace Kahlo, the eccentric pioneer whom Rush jokingly calls "that cool chick with the joined eyebrow"? Even Hayek admits that her respect for the painter was preceded by repulsion. When she was 13 or 14, Hayek tells me, she had a friend who loved Frida's art. Hayek would go to her house and look at reproductions. "And I went, Blech! That's disgusting. Horrible, gory, ugly, blech! And then I would go back and say, Hey, show me that picture by that artist who is so horrible." She mimics herself as a teenager, studying a painting intently. "I was intrigued, and little by little I was enchanted, to the point where I absolutely loved her art. It started then."

Kahlo's reputation has run up against hurdles before—and made a habit of clearing them. Though she died in 1954, Kahlo's American fame really took off in 1983 with the publication of Frida, Hayden Herrera's definitive (if too soft-focus) biography. Herrera had a rip-roaring highbrow soap opera to relate: The wife of one of the century's great painters turned out to have lived life more rivetingly than he did, enduring hellish physical pain, conducting randy affairs, leaving behind a small but fierce body of work whose malleable, theatrical sense of self and almost talk-showy tendency to confession and confrontation seemed more relevant to the way we live now than her husband's sprawling, socially minded murals.

After Herrera's book appeared, Kahlo's reputation grew—so quickly it started to seem like a boom that would have to go bust. By the late '80s, Kahlo's work may have been too available to multicultural noisemakers, who saw her as a symbol of sexism and injustice: the creative woman held back by the towering great man. This in turn made it too easy for others to dismiss Kahlo as a whiner's fad. Besides, Madonna had famously become a leading collector. Would Frida's paintings soon seem like a fashion that was in for just a season, like that pointy bustier?

"What one would see from a distance was the cult figure," Taymor recalls of early Kahlo worship, and the impression left by her unsparing depictions of pain. "The idea that she's a martyr—you know, with the paintings that were very religious, the little deer with the arrows. But I didn't want to do another painter-angst movie. Pain is there—but pleasure is equally there." Hayek, too, hopes to show that Kahlo excelled at other things besides suffering. "She had a sense of humor, which I don't think a lot of people know about. And I cannot think of a martyr who had such a passion for life and such a strong spirit."

Which, goodness knows, she needed. Magdalena Carmen Frida Kahlo y Calderón was born in 1907. With her long, Indian-inspired dresses and tropical self-portraits, Kahlo has become such a representative Mexican figure that it's easy to forget her father was, in fact, an immigrant—a German-Hungarian Jew. (An interesting parallel in this regard is that Hayek, one of today's most recognizable Mexican faces, is part Lebanese.) An official government photographer, he spotted his daughter's gifts, trained her scientist's eye, and encouraged her to read—brilliant, manipulative Catherine de' Medici, great patroness of the arts, was a favorite subject. Indeed, as Frida grew up she was often stimulated to creativity and doted on by men. And this future icon of injured womanhood adored being one of the boys. At school, where she hoped to be a doctor, she fell in with the Cachucas, a brainy and prankish clique of budding artists and scholars (Mexico's revolution had just ended, and a generation of badly needed geniuses appeared all at once to help lead the country forward), and fell deeply in love with the group's charismatic leader.

But her idyll was interrupted by a bout with horror. On September 17th, 1925, after a lovely afternoon celebrating Mexican independence, Frida and her novio boarded a bus home. It collided with a trolley and burst into shards, and a handrail shook loose and pierced her pelvis. The variety and depth of her injuries was ghoulish: leg bones, pelvis, ribs and spine crushed, severed, dislocated; childbearing potential painfully compromised; despair born.

For a while, it was not a question of whether Frida would walk again but whether she would live. When she lived, a question that never went away was whether she might one day decide not to. "Not very long ago," she wrote to her young love, "I was a girl going her way through a world of precise and tangible colors and forms. Everything was mysterious, and something was always hidden. If only I had known how hard it is to gain knowledge so suddenly, as though the Earth had been elucidated by a single ray of light." The stark poetry of her letters suggests she could have been a powerful writer.

But Frida lived, donning the first of many casts and corsets to stabilize her spine. She refused to let these loathed objects imprison her, and drew them into her orbit by decorating them with scribbles and drawings. Later she liked to pretend she hadn't much painted before the accident. She had, in fact, but now the hobby turned into a tool for survival, and she pursued it feverishly. In Kahlo, a new book of essays, noted Frida scholar Luis-Martín Lozano reminds us that her reputation as untrained just doesn't wash. She may have arrived at certain techniques on her own, but she read obsessively about art, and the self-portraits she began to execute reveal a thorough steeping in Da Vinci, El Greco, Botticelli and Dürer.

There are competing legends about how a convalescing Kahlo met Mexico's new star painter, Diego Rivera, who had returned from a long apprenticeship in Europe to find his calling as the people's artist. She may have visited him while he was at work on an important public commission, demanding that he come down off the scaffolding and critique her art. Most likely, she encountered him at an intellectual salon hosted by Tina Modotti, an Italian-born photographer of legendary earth-mother beauty. (Ashley Judd plays her in the movie.) Modotti is lucky that she was stunning, for her later record—embracing Stalin with a ruthless fundamentalism, assisting a murderous spy—is noxious. Diego was a bug-eyed giant who packed a pistol and at 42 had a hopelessly consistent history of walking out on his lovers; Frida was this close to being an invalid. But they were drawn to each other's genius. A picture from their wedding day in 1929 shows them looking a little like King Kong with his brunette Fay Wray.

Rivera was at his monstrously productive peak, and their early years together revolved wholly around his work. Kahlo followed him to jobs in San Francisco and Detroit, and later to New York, where his refusal to eliminate Lenin from a Rockefeller Center mural led to its being destroyed—damaging the couple's finances but greatly multiplying their fame. Yet it was during this overshadowed, second-fiddle period in gringolandia that Frida began to assemble the many-sided persona we recognize today as Frida Kahlo. As a woman, she endured a series of miscarriages that were to become an excruciatingly sad motif in her art. As an artist, she got advice and encouragement from Rivera, who loved women not just physically but intellectually. ("History shows that the first progress was made by women," he used to say. "Men preferred to remain brutes who fought and hunted. Women remained at home and cultivated the arts.")

She adapted Rivera's synthesis of European and indigenous approaches to color, creating bold but never synthetic-looking effects such as a lime that you could use to light your way in the dark, and an orange like the core of a burning coal. Half ironically she began to appropriate elements of naive folk art, smuggling brilliance into work that at first glance looked amateur. And she hit upon her unforgettable personal aesthetic, centered on the long, ruffled Indian dresses of the Tehuana women Rivera loved to paint. With her severe, feminine braided updo and imposing long earrings, Kahlo's look was almost Elizabethan in its formality—but in that costume she smoked like a fiend and never forgot to be outrageous. Almost religious in her anti-snobbery, she adored needling the rich and famous. One evening at Henry Ford's, she turned to her host, whom she knew to be an anti-Semite, and asked—loudly, during a lull at the dinner table—"Mr. Ford, are you Jewish?"

Hayek and Taymor both tell me they want Frida to show Americans sides of Mexico that they don't often get to see. If the film does this job well, Americans are bound to discover that the country is far less exotic than we might think. Mexico City is a world-class metropolis, which in its fraught but gloried heyday from the '20s through the late '40s hosted one of the great bohemias of the 20th century, inspiring such far-flung visitors as photographer Edward Weston, novelist Malcolm Lowry and avant-garde director Sergei Eisenstein to brilliant work. And Mexico City was a favorite destination for the smarter denizens of Hollywood, like Charlie Chaplin's beautiful ex-wife Paulette Goddard (one of Rivera's lovers) and the character actor Edward G. Robinson, who was a Kahlo fan and an early collector.

Americans should also discover that Mexico is much more exotic than they think. It is a place of courtly, life-affirming politeness but also uniquely morbid traditions, like an abiding fascination with skulls and skeletons. Simply walking down the street in the capital one sees a humbling parade of cultures that have come and gone—pre-Columbian ruins next to ghostly Spanish colonial palaces—that make the so-called New World feel very old. The effect is to provoke a kind of giddy historical vertigo, as if this were the Florence or Jerusalem of the Western Hemisphere.

Several weeks after shooting has wrapped, I travel an hour north of New York to an old clapboard house that Taymor has rented from a friend and set up as a bucolic editing room. Outside, the house presents its charming, placid, Federal-era facade. Inside, Taymor and Frida's veteran French editor, Françoise Bonnot, are timing a volatile scene in which Kahlo, devastated by the news that Rivera has slept with her sister Cristina, guzzles tequila and lops off her thick, long hair. The two work together with an easy collegiality, reminiscent of the relaxed, teamwork attitude I had noticed on Frida's Mexico set. (Is this what it's like when the powerful players are women?) Hayek's scissors-clipping motions have to be timed to a swooning ballad performed by a masterly old singer named Chavela Vargas—a great, throaty wonder from the '50s who is still alive and has been rediscovered in her old age by arbiters of cool like Pedro Almodóvar. (In a karmic coincidence, Vargas also says she was one of Kahlo's later lovers.)

The version of Frida's script that I have seen—the last major rewrite, by Hayek's boyfriend actor Edward Norton, with suggestions from Taymor—indicates a straightforward biopic, with plenty of expository, often rather earnest dialogue to help the audience keep its bearings. But every so often, at Taymor's behest, experimental interludes will veer off on a creative tangent. At certain points we will see the doodles and slangy jottings in Kahlo's entertaining diary come vividly to life. Taymor also wants to dramatize some visionary instances when Kahlo transposed real experiences into surreal art. Octavio Paz once wrote of the artist's stylized confessions that "her visual images were almost always real explosions of the psychic subsoil. Standing before her paintings we can almost always say: This is true; this has been lived, suffered, and re-created." Taymor's aim is to re-create these explosions: so, for example, after the scissors scene Hayek will sit down in a chair, and highlights and lowlights will literally be painted over the frame to form a kind of living, quivering tableau of Kahlo's Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair.

The film fudges the timeline slightly for poetic effect: Rivera's affair with Cristina occurred in1934, but Kahlo finished this particular self-portrait in 1939, a difficult year that may also have seen her at her best. At first consoling herself for Rivera's faithlessness by embarking on her own love affairs (which inflamed his macho double standard), she had by now learned to enjoy her sexual freedom. She had mastered her artistic theme of wit dueling with painful confession, and discovered most of her characteristic symbols: roots reaching into the ground, empty dresses, bleeding wounds, delightful monkeys. After a solo exhibit in New York, she set sail for the thrilling honor of a show in Paris. When she got there she was enraged to find out that André Breton had dropped the ball in arranging it. But Marcel Duchamp gallantly came through, and Elsa Schiaparelli famously created a dress, "La Robe Madame Rivera," in her honor; she posed for French Vogue, wearing a yellow brocade vest with embroidered flowers, and jewelry on practically every finger.

But it was also around now that Kahlo's body fast started to deteriorate. She drank to medicate her pain, and after multiple surgeries and infections her pain was spreading. Though the 40s and early 50s saw some of Kahlo's most iconic, best-remembered paintings, it is also a time when contradictions began to shade over her bright youthful energy. Her art sounded the martyrdom theme more often, and late in life she made the humorless mistake of wanting it to serve increasingly rigid and discredited politics. Taymor tells me she expects audiences to be surprised at how bold and exposed Hayek allows herself to be in this film, in much the same way we were surprised back in the '80s when the sweetly pretty Jessica Lange graduated to harrowing drama. Perhaps predictably, some critics feel Hayek's Hollywood-ready looks should disqualify her from playing someone as challenging and untamed as Kahlo. It's true that Hayek's eyes are bigger than the icon's, and her skin, far from being besieged by facial hair, is flawless. On the other hand, she is appropriately tiny and speaks with a winningly hoarse rasp, like Frida. To her mother's horror, Hayek took up smoking to play Kahlo, and now she's having trouble shaking the habit. To Hayek's own astonishment, when preparing for the role she found out—this is not, apparently, bragging, but confirmed by colleagues—that she can paint.

Hayek tells me all this a month after returning from Mexico, in New York, over lunch at Nobu, where she eats often enough to order expertly for two, without consulting the menu. She wears a plain, elegant sleeveless top of black layered over white, and tiny diamond earrings. Her hair is loose when she arrives, but I notice her absentmindedly pinning it up and shaking it down again as we talk. Is she grieving after putting her dream to bed? On the contrary. Hayek confesses that for a long time her living room has been arranged as a kind of Frida shrine and that looking at it used to make her feel anxious. Now, she says, "I look at all these things, and I feel a sense of peacefulness. And accomplishment."

While I was in Mexico, I noticed the press complaining that Hayek was a spoiled diva, because she usually turns down requests for an interview while working. But in person she gives a very different impression of unpretentious, goal-oriented focus. On set, Alfred Molina admired her calm under pressure. "I'm sure she feels it keenly, but what makes her such a wonderful person to work with is that she wears that mantle very, very lightly—and she doesn't expect you to share any of the weight. She says, 'I'm responsible. I'm the reason you're all here.' And that's an amazing attitude to have. What she's done with this project—if she were a white man in America, she'd be as big as Harvey Weinstein by now. Because she's got the balls; she's got the energy; she's got the taste."

Indeed, there is a strange sense of fated inevitability about Hayek's attachment to this role. She tells me a story from the early '90s, when she had just moved to L.A. and barely spoke English. She heard about plans to film Kahlo's story and submitted her photo and a tape. The producers told her she was just too young—which she now realizes, of course, to be the truth. "But I was so upset, and in my anger and naiveté I told them, 'Well, this film isn't going to happen until I'm ready to play her.'"

Hayek turned out to be prescient about the timing—but perhaps she wasn't the only one who needed to be ready. It doesn't seem a coincidence that the English-language film version of Kahlo's life, which has been in the works in one form or another since Herrera's biography first appeared 18 years ago, is finally coming to fruition at this moment. (There was already a fine Mexican film, starring Ofelia Medina, in 1984.) Mexico has just tossed aside the repressive party that ruled without interruption since its revolution. The United States is just beginning to embrace its skyrocketing Latin population. The two countries are opening up to each other, belatedly, but at an unstoppable pace.

On my last night in Mexico, one of Frida's producers and I attend the world premiere of Y Tu Mamá También, the latest movie by Hayek's old friend Alfonso Cuaron, one of Mexico's leading filmmakers (it opens here in March). We meet up with Hayek at the party afterward; the whole thing has an extravagantly hip, multinational feel. Two of Frank Zappa's daughters are said to be wandering through the crowd downstairs. A watchful contingent of Hollywood agents and managers hovers territorially around the Mexican talent. Requiem for a Dream director Darren Aronofsky, in town to finish up his anticipated new script, has stopped by. And crammed around a table are the actors from Team Frida, who could form a small U.N. subcommittee: besides Hayek and the Australian, chain-smoking Rush, there is the English Saffron Burrows, the Argentine Mía Maestro and the Italian Valeria Golino.

This scene is no longer a nexus of art and politics, as it was in Frida Kahlo's time, but a place where entertainment meets global commerce. For perhaps the first time since Frida's day, Mexico has become a magnet for international talent, and Kahlo herself has played no small role. Her image lives on, even as it seems to splinter and march down contradictory paths. Ever fertile ground for interpretation, she has enough complicated sides to her that some of them might fall away when we look up close.

As we assimilate the insights of feminism, we may be interested less in how she was injured by men and look to the places where she worked fruitfully alongside them. I'm not sure that Hollywood can do thorough justice to the political drama of Frida's times and sort out her bravery and mistakes. But Taymor suggests a more promising theme: Amid the disappointments and betrayal, we may be able to find in Frida and Diego's story a mightily flawed but poignant working definition of love—it's the mutual support that endures when lust and romance and even faithfulness have departed. "The crux of the story is the conflict between fidelity and loyalty, and that's right there in the script," Taymor says. "'I can't be faithful—but I can be loyal.' Love does not necessarily have to do with fidelity. Love has to do with love. And these two people love each other to the end." Frida Kahlo, a role model of love? It sounds strange, but then again, this is her power. Like few artists, Frida has proved able to stand for whatever it is we need.

© Vogue, December 2001