Today marks what would have been Frida Kahlo’s 109th birthday. Pulling from the tragedy and beauty of her life, the Mexican painter created a series of self-portraits that have become iconic, and made her an inspiration to artists and women in struggle. Hers is a remarkable story of pain, passion and perseverance that demanded to be brought to the big screen. And it took the passion and perseverance of three bold women to make it happen: producer Nancy Hardin, producer/actress Salma Hayek, and director Julie Taymor.
Frida traces Kahlo’s time from her hot-blooded youth to her complicated marriage to muralist Diego Rivera, her rise to fame, and carving out of her own fragile happiness. Just as it took time for Kahlo’s work to gain acclaim, it took 14 years for her biopic to be completed. The journey began in 1988 with Nancy Hardin, a rare female Hollywood exec, who believed Kahlo’s story was “an emblematic tale for women torn between marriage and career.” Hardin bought the rights to the Hayden Herrera penned Kahlo biography in 1988, but struggled to find financing as the artist’s name was not well-known enough to inspire box office confidence.
In 1990, one of Kahlo’s pieces sold for $1.5 million, breaking the record for the highest price paid at auction for a Latin American painting. This sparked a renewed interest in Kahlo and her work, as well as the brewing of rival biopic projects. Madonna threatened to star in one. Then, New Line geared up for a Luis Valdez-helmed film that was to star non-Hispanic actress Laura San Giacomo as Kahlo. Cries of white-washing derailed Valdez’s version for a time. Ironically, the then unknown Hayek had earnestly pitched herself to the La Bamba helmer, but Valdez decided the 25-year-old actress was too young for the role of Kahlo.
Determined to portray the woman whose art so influenced her youth, Hayek later joined forces with Hardin, setting herself to front Frida. Over the course of six years, she reached out to surviving friends of Kahlo and Rivera, and helped build her supporting cast. Hayek surprised Alfred Molina backstage of his Broadway production of Art to convince him to play her onscreen husband. And it was Hayek who approached Harvey Weinstein of Miramax to fund the ambitious production that would have the actress playing Kahlo from ages 18 to 47. (Frustratingly, by the time the film came out, some accused Hayek of being too old to play “young Frida.”) While Valdez attempted (and failed) to resurrect his Frida biopic by proposing Jennifer Lopez in the lead, Miramax chose an on-the-rise auteur to helm Frida.
Julie Taymor was hot off the critical acclaim of her directorial debut, Titus, an ultra-violent and stylish adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. With that beautiful and barbaric film, Taymor proved she could tell a story where pain and beauty are breathtakingly intertwined. As Kahlo’s life forever changed on a day where a fateful bus accident irrevocably marred her body, but coated her in gold paint, Taymor seemed the perfect pick to helm.
Taymor believed being a woman was key to getting Frida right. She told the BBC, “I’ve been directing for 35 years for theatre and finally some film, but this is the first time where I felt being a woman was an asset, where it made a difference. Directing Salma in something as personal as this, it’s really dealing with female issues. What is it not to have a child? What kind of nudity would we do?”
Taymor also contributed to the screenplay, folding in graphic elements like propaganda art, stop motion animation, black and white film stock, and allusions to King Kong to bring Kahlo’s paintings to life within the context of her life story. Still, the low budget of $12 million was a challenge. One that these tenacious female filmmakers met by shooting fast, furious, and in Mexico. All actors agreed to accept the SAG minimum. And the film was shot “in ten weeks - six-day weeks, 15-20 hours a day.”
Though rushed, the result is a biopic vibrant in color, bold in concept, rich in emotion, and complicated in character. Frida explores the artist’s lust for life through the love of her family, her flirtations (with men and women), her tumultuous relationship with Rivera, her non-binary fashion sense, and how her work was a solace and savior in her darkest moments. It’s little wonder the film was met with rousing praise.
Frida earned the prestigious honor of opening selection of the 2002 Venice Film Festival. It became a box office success for Miramax, was well-regarded by critics, and earned six Academy Award nominations, including Best Actress for Hayek. And perhaps most crucial of all, it introduced a whole new audience to the wonders found in Kahlo’s captivating and challenging self-portraits.
You can watch Frida on Netflix.