Salma Hayek is Frida - The Two Fridas
By Stephen Farber
In a famous self-portrait, Mexican artist Frida Kahlo
stands alongside her famous husband, Diego Rivera.
He towers over her; she looks almost like a child
trapped in the grip of a huge, bearish figure. But that
image is deceptive, because Frida has proved to have
a power that belies her diminutive stature. Although
she painted in obscurity during much of her life, in
recent years her reputation has grown and now
equals that of her celebrated husband. Her striking
self-portraits of a damaged but defiant woman clad in
colorful Mexican garb have caught the imagination of
the entire world. Kahlo has become a feminist
icon--the epitome of the woman overpowered and
victimized by a potent man but gradually emerging
from his shadow. She now stands as one of the most
revered women artists of all time.
The saga of the film project based on Kahlo's life is
strangely analogous to Frida's own life story. This film
has become the driving passion of several women
who lack the clout of their male counterparts in
Hollywood but have persevered in pursuit of their
dream. "Anyone else would have given up by now,"
says Salma Hayek, the actress who is determined to
play Frida. "But I've been obsessed with this project
for eight years, and I know it will be made." If Frida
Kahlo's personal journey encompassed an unlikely
triumph against adversity, the women behind the
movie have survived some heroic struggles of their
The first champion of the movie was Nancy Hardin,
who had spent a decade as a New York book editor,
a literary agent in Hollywood, then one of the first
important female studio executives. In the mid-80s,
Hardin was looking to make the transition to
independent producing, and she learned about a new
biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera. Kahlo,
who had died 30 years earlier, was at that point
virtually unknown. But after a dinner with Herrera's
agent, Hardin perused the biography and found
herself compelled by Kahlo's amazing life story. As a
child Frida Kahlo spent a year afflicted with polio. At
the age of 18, she was struck by a streetcar, and her
spine was broken in several places. The accident
damaged her reproductive organs, and the theme of
impaired maternity became one of the most potent
motifs in her art.
As a result of her injuries, she also had to undergo several more
operations later in life. Two years after the accident, Frida went to
show her early work to Diego Rivera, who was already Mexico's
leading artist. He left his wife to marry her, and the two became
involved in a complicated, tempestuous love affair that lasted until
Kahlo's untimely death at the age of 47. "They both had generosity
of spirit," Hardin says. "As difficult as Rivera was, he was always
encouraging toward her art. There was no envy on his part. On the
contrary, he always said that she was a greater artist than he was."
Rivera was, however, incapable of monogamy, and Kahlo was hurt by
his infidelities, especially when he began a furtive liaison with her
younger sister. She divorced him but then remarried him a year
later. She had her own extramarital affairs, including one with
socialist leader Leon Trotsky, and she also dallied with several
women. Hardin came to see Frida's story as an emblematic tale for
women torn between marriage and career. "I thought her dilemma
was very contemporary," Hardin says. "Although she was very
passionate about her relationship, it did not interfere with her work.
She was determined to live fully in every area of her life."
After she optioned the rights to Herrera's book in 1988, Hardin tried
to sell it as an epic love story in the tradition of Out of Africa.
"Mexico in the 30s was like Paris in the 20s," Hardin says. "It was a
period of tremendous cultural and political ferment." Hardin
contacted the hottest actresses of the period, including Meryl Streep
and Jessica Lange, and although they expressed interest, they were
reluctant to make a commitment before a studio had officially
purchased the project. "But nobody at the studios had heard of Frida
at that time, and there was no interest in Latin America," Hardin
recalls. For the next couple of years, she sent the project to every
studio in town, but every single one rejected it.
Gradually, however, the interest in Latin culture began to blossom,
and Kahlo's art came tobe revered in feminist circles. In May of 1990
one of Kahlo's self-portraits sold at Sotheby's for $1.5 million, the
highest price ever paid at auction for a Latin American painting.
Around the same time, Madonna bought two Kahlo paintings and
announced her plans to star in a film based on Frida's life. Other
producers jumped on the bandwagon. Robert De Niro's Tribeca
Productions envisioned a joint biography of Rivera and Kahlo.
Director Luis Valdez, best known for his film of La Bamba, sold a
project to New Line and rushed to put his film into production in the
spring of 1991. But protestors objected to the casting of non-Latina
Laura San Giacamo as Frida, and New Line bowed to the controversy
and dropped the film. Within a few years Hollywood had gone from
complete ignorance of Frida Kahlo to an insane feeding frenzy.
"When I first tried to sell the project," Nancy Hardin says, "there was
no interest because nobody had heard of Frida. A few years later, I
heard the exact opposite--that there were too many Frida projects in
development, and nobody wanted mine."
Nevertheless, Hardin persisted. Eventually she persuaded HBO to
option Herrera's biography for a cable TV movie. At HBO Hardin
partnered with Lizz Speed, a rising young development executive
and producer. Speed had gotten her start in Hollywood by working as
an assistant to one of the town's most powerful women, Sherry
Lansing. A few years later she joined director Brian Gibson, who had
just completed What's Love Got to Do With It, the story of Tina
Turner, another woman subsumed by a powerful man. Gibson had
also directed The Josephine Baker Story for HBO, and the network
hoped he might sign on to helm Frida. But the movie was difficult to
cast, because there were no Latin actresses with box office clout in
the early 90s. Although the project languished at HBO, it developed
another powerful advocate in Speed, who became inflamed by the
cinematic possibilities of the Kahlo biography.
"I was attracted by her will to persist, her refusal to settle for
mediocrity," Speed says. "She had such an insatiable appetite for
life. To me her art was secondary to the strength of her spirit.
Besides that, Frida's story raises questions about how two
larger-than-life people stay married. Rivera was incredibly
promiscuous, but he never tried to hide it. I saw him as an honest
dog. Through it all, he and Frida were always respectful of each
other. They grew together and ultimately had a strong marriage."
Speed's passion for the project helped it through its next difficult
transition. After four years in development, it became obvious that
HBO had grown hesitant to make the movie. Speed and Hardin
managed to get it away from HBO and sell it to Trimark, a small
distribution company that was looking to change its image and cash
in on the booming indie film movement. "They were shifting from
exploitation pictures to classier films like Eve's Bayou," Hardin says.
"They liked Frida because it would give them arthouse cachet along
with a hot, sexy actress."
That actress was Salma Hayek, who became attached to the project
when it moved to Trimark. A few years earlier Hayek's name had
been mentioned as a possible candidate to play Frida, but at that
point, she was an unknown commodity. By the mid 90s, however,
she had starred in a few moderate hits--Desperado, From Dusk Till
Dawn, and Fools Rush In--and Trimark wanted to be in business with
her. Hayek had been fascinated by Kahlo's work from the time she
was 13 or 14. "At that age I did not like her work," Hayek says. "I
found it ugly and grotesque. But something intrigued me, and the
more I learned, the more I started to appreciate her work. There was
a lot of passion and depth. Some people see only pain, but I also
see irony and humor. I think what draws me to her is what Diego saw
in her. She was a fighter. Many things could have diminished her
spirit, like the accident or Diego's infidelities. But she wasn't crushed
by anything." Hayek had heard about the other Frida projects, but
she resolved that no other actress would play the part. "This movie
should be played by a Mexican," she insists. "In a way Frida was like
Mexico--her body was broken, but she had a strong spirit."
Just when the project finally seemed close to production, it hit
another roadblock. The Trimark executive who championed it, Jay
Polstein, left the company, so Frida lost its strongest executive ally.
Hayek was frustrated and secretly took the project to Harvey
Weinstein at Miramax. Weinstein liked to nurture young actors, and
Hayek was one of the rising stars in the Miramax stable; the
company had financed many of her early pictures. Miramax was of
course the premier house for venturesome independent films, and
Weinstein immediately responded to the idea of actually producing
the Frida Kahlo project that had been the talk of Hollywood for a
solid decade. Miramax bought it from Trimark and hired Hayek,
Hardin, and Speed, along with Jay Polstein, to produce the picture.
"It cost Miramax a huge amount of money to secure the rights,"
Hardin says gratefully. "But it was Salma who pushed it through."
"Sometimes producers are wary of working with actors," Speed adds.
"But it's been great with Salma because each of us can take turns
being the cheerleader for the project. When one of us gets drained,
one of the others can take over and push for it."
"To me this is not just another movie," Hayek says. "I want to tell
this story about my country and my people. For a couple of decades,
Mexico was an important center where great people from the arts and
politics gravitated. I want to remind the world of that."
Weinstein approached Walter Salles, the director of the Academy
Award-nominated hit, Central Station, to direct Frida. But a prior
commitment prevented Salles from taking the assignment. "Losing
Walter was another blow," Speed sighs. But the producers have
refused to lose hope. Miramax is still enthusiastic about the movie
and has sent the script out to several high-profile directors. "Frankly,
Miramax has too much money invested in it now to give up on it,"
Hayek says. "I know this film will be made." Kahlo, who was famously
cynical and self-deprecating, probably would have been bemused by
all the Hollywood intrigue surrounding her name, but she also might
have been secretly tickled. After all, it is only fitting that her turbulent
life would serve as the backdrop for one of the most wrenching
Hollywood struggles of the last decade. When Kahlo's story finally
does reach the screen, it may be the ultimate revenge of the little
woman who lurked in the shadow of several towering men and finally
overpowered them all.