At long last, a portrait of Frida

Times Staff Writer

Julie Taymor sits in the darkened editing room with a cup of coffee at her side, reading glasses perched loosely on the tip of her thin nose. Her latest movie, “Frida,” proceeds in slow motion on the screen. And she seems resigned to the task at hand -- picking stills for publicity.

Her instincts are running contrary to what the studio publicist, sitting beside her, believes will sell the movie to magazines. But her afternoon with the publicist is a breezy formality compared with “Frida’s” arduous journey to the screen.

After an eight-year odyssey involving a dozen screenwriters, half a dozen directors, seven producers, two studios and one cable network, the story of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo finally will reach theaters Oct. 25. On the editing room screen this day, pain contorts actress Salma Hayek’s face after Kahlo suffers a brutal trolley car accident. Her agony is so literal, so close to death, that tiny yellow skulls are reflected in Hayek’s light brown eyes.


Taymor adores this image. The publicist hates it.

In another scene, Hayek as Frida puffs sensually on a filterless cigarette. The smoke surrounds her in a luminous white cloud, contrasting with her dark hair and coloring. Again, Taymor gets excited -- the lighting is so serene and Hayek’s profile so sculptured.

The publicist immediately torpedoes that image. Beautiful it may be, but the last time Miramax, the distributor, showed a character smoking (Sissy Spacek as the grieving mother in “In the Bedroom”), anti-smoking crusaders excoriated the studio.

“I know what the glamour shots are,” Taymor gently tells the publicist. “I just happen to love some of the more scary, traumatic shots.”

“Traumatic” might describe Taymor’s experience finishing the movie. The shoot in Mexico went smoothly, ended on time and within its $13-million budget (Mexico’s Puebla doubled for Paris and collages were used to suggest New York City). Then came trouble.

A tussle over the film’s length

She and Miramax studio chief Harvey Weinstein publicly went at each other’s throats at a springtime screening of “Frida” in New York. Weinstein, derided by some as Harvey Scissorhands for his unsentimental cutting of films, and Taymor were at odds over the film’s length. Weinstein wanted to cut 10 minutes from the two-hour movie; Taymor refused.

“He was pretty rough on her about why she was wrong, and she was pretty rough right back,” said a source who was at the screening. “And then the Mexican standoff, so to speak, began.”


Weinstein peppered Taymor with unsavory language. Taymor threatened to take her name off the film, according to numerous sources.

When it was accepted into the Venice Film Festival in August, they compromised. Taymor cut three minutes.

Today, both are publicly upbeat. The director says there is nothing to gain in rehashing the incident. Still, one gets the sense she is biting her tongue.

Over dinner at a Santa Monica restaurant, her publicity instinct triumphs. “What you are seeing is my cut, but he is happy with it,” she says. “He’s got talent ..., but he has to trust the director.”

Weinstein said through a spokesman, “Julie is really talented, but she needed to learn to trust me. Ultimately we both ended up trusting each other and ended up with a great film.”

The woman who wowed Broadway with her vibrant adaptation of “The Lion King” has successfully crossed over to Hollywood on a creative level. Who, other than Taymor, could have persuaded someone to finance a feature film based on Shakespeare’s obscure tragedy “Titus Andronicus”? The grim “Titus” was released by Fox Searchlight in 1999 to mixed reviews and did not perform well at the box office.


It was the distinctive visual style of “Titus” combined with the humanity of “The Lion King” that made her a seemingly ideal choice for “Frida.”

“Frida,” the movie, like the painter, suffered many near-deaths. Producer Jay Polstein, who shepherded the project since its days at now-defunct Trimark Pictures in 1994 when it came from HBO, said he saw Kahlo’s big-screen potential.

“I thought we could turn what was essentially a cable movie into a feature film,” said Polstein, currently with Maverick Entertainment. “We wanted to get to the hippie art-house crowd and the Latino market, and this seemed like the perfect project for that.”

When Trimark was absorbed by Lions Gate Entertainment, Polstein and Hayek brought the film to Miramax, where it languished. The movie finally went into production when Taymor agreed to direct.

If an American had to helm the film about Mexico’s first modern feminist painter, Taymor -- a female artist who has traveled often to Mexico -- would seem a reasonable candidate. But she wasn’t on the studio’s first list of directors.

Mark Gill, head of the Miramax office in Los Angeles, happened to run into her at a PBS conference two years ago and suggested she read the script. Directors Walter Salles (“Central Station”) and Pedro Almodovar (“All About My Mother”) flirted briefly with the film but backed out because of scheduling conflicts. Some of the script’s rewriters included Salles, Rodrigo Garcia (“Things You Can Tell Just by Looking at Her”) and a polish by Edward Norton, Hayek’s boyfriend. Taymor quickly impressed Gill with insightful critiques and solutions to problems that had stumped the writers.


“She was very fast to come up with really interesting ideas,” said Gill.

Taymor, who usually prefers to initiate her own projects, said “Frida” was the first worthwhile script she had read in years. It was Hayek’s moving appeal, however, that sealed the deal. Hayek (who told one producer she believed she was Frida Kahlo reincarnated) had been obsessed with making the movie for more than a decade. All her passion came flowing out on Taymor’s couch one September afternoon in New York.

“She sits down on the couch in my living room and proceeds to entrance me with incredible stories of Frida, Mexico and her saga of trying to make this movie,” said Taymor, a trim 49-year-old with sandy brown hair and penetrating brown eyes. “I, like everyone else in this country, only know Salma from ‘Desperado,’ ‘Wild Wild West’

On the topic of Hayek -- who has been maligned as a mere soap opera actress known more for her Jessica Rabbit figure than for making good movies -- Taymor is like a lioness defending her young. At the suggestion that Hayek used an acting coach, Taymor bristles.

There was a coach, she concedes, but “the woman came down and never touched Salma. Salma should be alleviated from that because she didn’t need a coach. What she needed was a good part, a company that believed in her and a director that could work with her.”

Apart from coaxing good performances from her actors and wrestling with Weinstein, Taymor’s struggle was primarily in condensing Kahlo’s life into a two-hour movie.

Taymor, the unyielding artist, had to find a middle ground with Taymor, the pragmatic director. The movie had to be somewhat commercial, but not at the expense of its authenticity.


Kahlo’s life became a coming-of-age tale about a feisty, young woman who survives a terrible accident, falls in love with a philanderer and finds a voice to express her pain through art.

Although Kahlo suffered lifelong pain from the accident (her pelvis was impaled) and prolonged complications (including, eventually, a traumatic miscarriage), the movie is surprisingly cheery. Taymor says she didn’t see Kahlo as a “dark San Sebastian victim of infidelity and physical abuse.” She was, instead, “a complex, funny, foulmouthed, erotic person. Her story is about transcendence.” The film is something of a Reader’s Digest guide to some of Kahlo’s most noted paintings, including a depiction of her miscarriage in “Henry Ford Hospital,” Kahlo’s dueling personalities in “The Two Fridas” and the couple’s union in “Frida With Diego.”

The story focuses more on the unorthodox love between Frida and Diego Rivera, her husband (played by Alfred Molina), than the politics and social issues of the time. But much of the pain Rivera exacted on Kahlo is muted. The movie gives one the sense that he is just a charming, serial womanizer.

On this topic Taymor is defensive. She suggests that no one -- other than the artists themselves -- knows what really happened in their relationship.

“A lot of people say they are horrible -- sacred monsters,” she said. “Others say they were the most lovely, generous people. I don’t think you have a right to tear down a man’s life if you were not there, or if it wasn’t your story and it didn’t happen to you personally.”

Taymor says she is more nervous about the film’s reception in Mexico than in the U.S. She is hoping the movie will be received as authentic. Taymor says she has always been attracted to stories set in mythic or foreign lands. “I don’t make movies in New York City. I don’t make art about New Yorkers. I don’t identify. I watch ‘Sex and the City’ and go, ‘What foreign country is that?’ I feel much more connected in Oaxaca.”