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 own.
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
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
Hayek had been fascinated by Kahlo's work from the
time she was 13 or 14. "At that age I did notlike 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.