Feeling Frida's Pain

Dana Calvo is a Times staff writer

'Seated in the path of a sunbeam in her otherwise dark bedroom, Dolores Olmedo Patino looks like a woman who expects flattery. She wears thick makeup, fire-engine red lipstick, false eyelashes and two diamond rings the size of gum balls. She is believed to be about 90, but when a visitor asks her the year of her birth, she looks away in disgust.

Beyond the dim room, over Olmedo's shoulder, her estate gleams in the background. In the distance, a group of schoolchildren waits for entry into the Dolores Olmedo Patino Museum, where they will find works by the great Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.

Some of the paintings and sketches bear personal notes he wrote to Olmedo--his model, love and wealthy patron. But that was 70 years ago, before Rivera fell madly in love with a young artist named Frida Kahlo. Only after Kahlo's death did Rivera return to Olmedo. He asked her to purchase the rights to his and Kahlo's art because he couldn't afford it himself.

And that's how a very old and very proud Mexican woman became a source of great interest to Hollywood--and, in particular, to the Latino starlet Salma Hayek.

Hayek and Miramax Films had long been interested in a biopic about the tempestuous life of Kahlo. But to make their movie, "Frida," they needed permission to film her art (or replicas). Other stars were also interested in Kahlo's life and art for rival film projects--Madonna for one, Jennifer Lopez for another. But despite rumors about other visits, Olmedo says only Hayek showed up at her estate to talk about the rights to Kahlo's work.

She said there were several encounters over the course of one year, but Hayek remembers just one meeting--and she still feels a bit uneasy about it.

"I don't think she really liked me," Hayek said, describing a visit in which Olmedo took out a bottle of champagne, and the two women spent several hours drinking and talking. Finally, Hayek asked for permission to use the paintings or their likenesses.

By both accounts, it was a delicate moment.

Olmedo leveled a stare at her.

"For how long do you want the rights?" Olmedo asked.

Hayek said she would need them for two years.

"You're being stupid," Olmedo said.

"She told me to ask for five years, because," Hayek recalled, "she said, 'You never know what's going to happen."'

That was three years ago.

With a lighted cigarette dangling from her hand and one long fake eyebrow striped across her face, Hayek fidgets while a cameraman measures the balcony for a party scene. She's on the set of "Frida," finally playing the role of Kahlo, the free-spirited woman whose life had more than its share of suffering and sex.

Kahlo's husband, Rivera, was equal parts genius and womanizer, but Kahlo had her own passions. Among the men and women with whom she carried on affairs was Leon Trotsky, the Russian Communist who sought refuge in Mexico City in 1937. Kahlo also endured chronic physical pain as a result of a near-fatal trolley accident when she was a teenager.

Her past and her artwork made her an international icon. But will the public pay $8 apiece to see if Hayek, a former soap opera actress, can play a convincing disabled, bisexual painter?

"It's a very difficult movie to get done because it's a film about an artist," Hayek said recently at the end of a long day of filming in the southern section of this capital city. "And name me one movie about an artist that has made money. And she's unusual. You'd think [the studios] would have jumped at something fresh, but because it wasn't part of the formula, it took more time."

The idea of "Frida" was hatched six years ago. Three years ago, Hayek sought Olmedo's blessing, and in April the cameras started rolling for the Miramax production. It also took about eight screenwriters, three production deals, a handful of producers and $12 million. "Frida" is a low-budget, high-profile project. The cast includes such names as Hayek, Ashley Judd, Alfred Molina, Geoffrey Rush, Edward Norton and Antonio Banderas. It's being directed by Julie Taymor (the stage version of "The Lion King," the film "Titus"), one of the most creative and coveted directors around.

The screenplay, which needed work last winter even though Hayek ran out of money, was tightened and clarified by Hayek's boyfriend, Norton. And just days before "Frida" began filming, Lopez walked away from her own Kahlo film, which would have been produced by Francis Ford Coppola and directed by Luis Valdez.

A few miles from Olmedo's home lies one of the film's sets. On a recent Saturday morning, a street performer in white face swallowed fire and twirled lighted batons. Outside the enormous home where filming was underway, rickshaw drivers pedaled their canvas-covered carts past a long line of trailers for the actors. By 11 a.m., the strong lights had already cranked up the temperature inside.

After nine weeks of 16-hour days, everyone was exhausted. Taymor slammed her leg into a piece of equipment, and agreed to get it bandaged after she began to feel lightheaded. Hayek seemed distracted both in front of the camera and on the set when she was merely passing time. A Times reporter who had waited eight hours to speak with her was given only 10 minutes on the set. She got up three times to do takes of a scene, then returned to elaborate on Kahlo's famous eyebrow.

"It's someone else's hair," Hayek explained, pointing at the space between her eyes. In every self-portrait, Kahlo embellished her eyebrow so it sat like a heavy lid above a poised, determined-looking face. On the jittery Hayek, it looks like a lost caterpillar.

Wearing a traditional, long green skirt and boxy shirt, Hayek absent-mindedly touches her black tresses, which are pulled back into braids tied on top of her head in a green ribbon. If she seems nervous, it's easy to see why. "Frida" has 200 scenes, and Hayek is in 199 of them. The movie rests almost entirely on her shoulders.

The role spans most of Kahlo's life, from age 16 to her death at 47 in 1954. It is by far Hayek's most challenging role, which isn't saying much considering she has spent the past decade appearing in undemanding fare such as "Wild Wild West" (1999), "Fools Rush In" (1997) and "From Dusk Till Dawn," (1996). Miramax was worried enough to send an acting coach to the set, although Hayek said Taymor was the only person who helped her with her acting.

"Julie is very open. She listens," Hayek said. "She doesn't overwhelm you with information."

For Kahlo to be portrayed with credibility, Hayek must slip into the artist's tormented soul. Hayek said she researched Kahlo's life in an effort to feel more connected to the role. She spoke with a handful of people who knew Kahlo well, including Trotsky's grandson, who met Kahlo several times when he was a young boy. She was struck by how many people talked about the artist with warmth and affection.

"Frida was capable of unconditional love and capable of teaching a man who didn't know how to love," Hayek said.

To get a better sense of Kahlo's personal development, Hayek collected and archived as many photographs as she could find. "I had every picture of Frida smoking--which she only did with her left hand, even though she painted with her right hand."

Hayek must inhabit a character who relied on her paintings as a catharsis for chronic physical pain. As she dug deeper into the character, Hayek discovered a mirrored image in Kahlo's self-portraits.

"She shows her left leg as the injured one, but her injured leg was actually her right one," Hayek said triumphantly. "At first, I though it was because she was painting as she looked in the mirror, but now my theory is that she understood physical pain but made her left leg symbolic of emotional pain. In paintings where her left leg is the injured one, she was going through very painful times."

On the set this day, the mood was especially manic because Miramax co-chief Harvey Weinstein had arrived. At a picnic table behind the house, Taymor sat next to him for lunch. Across from them sat co-producer Sarah Green and Hayek, who peeled shrimp from her paella and ate it ravenously. Weinstein said he had just seen the early footage and would give them four more days of production. His decision brought filming time to 11 weeks, a long shoot for a low-budget movie.

That night, Taymor was ecstatic, describing how time-consuming it was to perfectly compose each scene on celluloid. She has had input on everything in the film, from the soft patina of Hayek's cotton shirts to the five Kahlo paintings used as scene openers.

Kahlo used influences from the indigenous people of Mexico as well as her own anguish to create vivid works of emotional isolation. They are not subtle, and Taymor is using one of the most wrenching images, "The Broken Column" (1944), which is also Olmedo's favorite self-portrait.

In the painting, Kahlo's naked torso is ripped down the middle to reveal a spine of cracked marble. Her body is held together by straps, and her skin is pierced with long, sharp tacks that stand straight up. Taymor refers to works like this as "pain-tings."

"She made no attempt to pretty her art," Taymor said of Kahlo's work, "and that's how she survived. She transformed horror and adversity into art. It's an exorcism."

For many people, these images contain an honesty and a brutality that are unmatched. Kahlo is beloved by people from almost every stratum even though she was an advocate of the working class. And her reputation (and value) in the art world has grown over the year: In May 1990, one of her self-portraits commanded nearly $1.5 million at Sotheby's, making it the priciest piece of Latin American artwork ever sold at auction. (And this month the U.S. Postal Service issued a Frida Kahlo stamp.)

Relying on the power of Kahlo's art, Taymor takes long shots of actors holding poses of selected works until the camera gets close enough for them to break out of repose and emerge into flesh and blood. Taymor opens the wedding scene of 1929 with a portrait of Kahlo standing next to Rivera. He holds a palette of paints, and they both look placidly at the viewer. But this is Taymor's surreal world, so the palette is made of cookie dough, and Rivera's appetite cannot be suppressed. After a few seconds, he breaks out of position and takes a hearty bite of the palette. Behind the couple, a group of wedding guests begins to dance.

"The film is about infidelity and loyalty, and it deals with a woman who loves a man with the ups and downs," Taymor said. "I hope we never see her as a martyr. We know right on who he is, and she goes full blast into that relationship."

Taymor thinks "Frida" can do what only a few movies have been able to do: tell a story about an artist that appeals to moviegoers who aren't necessarily familiar with the artist or her work.

"I hope this is not an art-house film," Taymor said. "I hope it goes beyond that."

The cast is made up of many of Hayek's friends and actors she has worked with. As the crew lighted a scene, Hayek helped Judd select Mexican tile for the bathroom and kitchen of her Tennessee home. Judd's decision to play Italian photographer Tina Modotti, an openly bisexual communist, was a sign of devotion to Hayek. Judd had never heard of Modotti, but she told Hayek she would do whatever was necessary to help the "Frida" project. That meant, among other things, working with a dialect coach to make sure her Italian-accented English sounded true.

Mia Maestro, an Argentine actress who starred in last year's HBO original movie "For Love or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story," has worked with Hayek on four projects in the past few years and was cast to play Kahlo's sister, Cristina. "I didn't have to audition," Maestro said, smiling. "Salma was the casting director."

Norton was cast as Nelson Rockefeller, the millionaire who hired Rivera to paint a mural in New York City and then became enraged when it glorified communism. Norton, known for his controlling temperament, barred a Times reporter from the set one day.

Others were less testy. Molina, who plays Rivera, was positively energetic at the end of a day of filming. Hayek first approached Molina in 1998, when she went backstage after his performance in "Art" on Broadway to give him a script. She told him that "Frida" would soon be on track, and that he was perfect for the role of Rivera. Molina, who had heard about the project, committed the next summer to star in it with her.

Beginning in January, Molina ate "two of everything" to hit his target weight of 230 pounds for the burly Rivera. He also shaved back his hairline more than an inch and was fitted for a prosthetic nose. By the end of a hot day, it had started to melt and was drooping.

"You wouldn't cast Tom Cruise in this role," Molina said, pointing out that Rivera is an antihero he won't try to redeem. "His faithfulness was very hard to prove. It was almost nonexistent, but even after they got divorced, he came back to her. . . . At the end of her life, when she was in her 40s and severely crippled and he was in his 70s, there was still a physical dimension. That passion was very evident.

"The biggest challenge is making outrageous people plausible."

Hayek's casting efforts were tireless, even when she was working on another movie. During the first day of filming in Venice for Mike Figgis' "Timecode," Hayek saw Valeria Golino, the Italian actress best known in the U.S. for her supporting role in "Rain Man." Hayek told Golino she should take the role of Lupe, one of Rivera's ex-wives.

Within a few days, Miramax executives received a homemade videotape shot at 5 a.m. of Golino sitting in her Venetian hotel room reading a few lines from the script Hayek had brought with her.The "Frida" project first started at HBO in 1994, with Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Gregory Nava ("El Norte") writing a script. The project stalled, although Hayek's audition for the lead role took on a life of its own. "Frida" was acquired in July 1996 by Trimark, where a stream of hired writers shaved down and built back up the script for a feature-length film.

At one point, Trimark told Hayek they would consider laying out $2 million to make the movie, a figure she said was devastatingly low.

"They were passionate about it, but we could never have made this movie for that amount. Then they said about $4 million, but it still wasn't enough," Hayek recalled the day after the movie had been wrapped. "I was afraid that it wasn't going to be like the movie I knew it could be. I said, 'If I'm going to star in it, I'd like to be a producer as well. . . . I just want to make sure it gets made right.' But they never imagined how involved I would be in the process."

By spring 1998, "Frida" had bounced to Miramax, which ordered a script overhaul from Rodrigo Garcia, son of Colombian Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel Garcia Marquez. After Garcia, the script was given to two more writers, including Walter Salles, who had been asked to direct. (Salles directed "Central Station," which was nominated for best foreign-language Oscar in 1999.)

But by the end of last summer, only a few of the parts in "Frida" had been cast. Mark Gill, president of Miramax L.A., said the script was only "80% there." Salles was running into scheduling conflicts with another movie he was working on, so once again, "Frida" was a work in progress.

Only as the threat of possible writers' and actors' strikes spread last fall did Miramax find itself on the receiving end of quick-moving deals. Taymor called the day after she read the script and agreed to take Salles' place. Several of Hayek's friends, such as Judd, Banderas and Norton, agreed to act in the film for scale.

Norton volunteered to rewrite the script at night for free, and Gill said he transformed it, bringing in an irreverent sense of humor. "You don't have the turgid drama problem," Gill said, tapping the script, "which is a huge relief."

If it weren't for its famous cast, "Frida" could be considered an art-house film. But Miramax is hoping to help it cross over after an initial release next spring in Los Angeles and New York. Gill used as examples of successful marketing campaigns other Miramax films such as "Il Postino" and "Like Water for Chocolate."

Miramax is optimistic that the movie will fare well overseas, especially in Japan, which Gill said has "Fridamania." (Miramax already sold "Frida" to numerous foreign distributors at this year's Cannes Film Festival.)

"Will everyone in the world go see it?" Gill asked. "No. But will enough people go see it to make it worth our while? Yes....We at Miramax have done enormously well with movies in the top 20 U.S. cities."

The key, Gill said, will be to sell "Frida" as a heroic love story between Rivera and Kahlo.

"There's something about those lives that are so instructive and alluring and engaging that--even if others might call it a train wreck--it's a really fascinating double biography or love story," Gill said. "I think any initial trepidations you might have about the subject matter are overwhelmed by what these people did with what they were given, which, of course, is an incredibly American notion."

But for the aging, sometimes resentful Dolores Olmedo Patino, "Frida" is a love story that will not leave her alone.

She is left to stare out at the 92 peacocks that roam her grounds and answer questions about her famous rival. Asked if Kahlo would have become famous if Rivera hadn't fallen in love with her, Olmedo looked up with exasperation.

"No. And nor would she have been famous without me," she said in a husky voice. "In the future, Kahlo will fade away. Frida is in style now."

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