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'A lot of life to tell'
Salma Hayek laboured for more than six years to bring Mexican painter and icon Frida Kahlo to the big screen. She talks to JAMES ADAMS about breaking away from bombshell roles and realizing her dream film

By JAMES ADAMS, The Globe and Mail
September 9, 2002

Film festivals are as hard on the stars as they are on the rest of us. So it wasn't that surprising this weekend to find all 5-foot-4 of Salma Hayek flat on the floor of her hotel room, barefoot, staring at the ceiling.

Then again, maybe she was on her back as much for photographic purposes as exhaustion. After all, Hayek was submitting to that other hallmark of the modern film festival, the industrialization of promotion, where faux intimate encounters are parcelled out to the media in frantic 15-minute chunks.

In this particular case, Hayek was doing an intense round of mini-interviews and quickie photo sessions ("No lights, please!") at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Frida,her much-anticipated biopic--a word she doesn't like, by the way -- of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo had its North American premiere on the weekend.

Tired as she may have been, Hayek looked mahhhvellous. At 36, prone, upright, seated, whatever, her status as one of the greatest beauties to grace the screen in the past 10 years remains unassailable. On this day she was wearing an ankle-length dark brown dress, topped by a sheer, sleeveless chocolatey turtleneck with ivory trim under which her famous bosom was covered by a black bra. Her mane of black hair was pulled back in a tight, immaculately sleek ponytail that served to heighten the presence of her piercing brown eyes, expansive, unfurrowed brow and strong eyebrows.

Did I mention she was smoking a cigarette? A taste for tobacco is something Hayek picked up while shooting Frida last year in Mexico. The real Frida Kahlo was a serious smoker, as well as a lover of drink and drugs, and in falling into the artist's life, Hayek, well, fell into some of her habits as well.

Hayek was doing her puffing in a non-smoking room, but her handlers seemed worried as much about its effect on her health and her image. Hayek waved off their concerns. "Really, you're going to get cancer before me just for worrying so much."

The Mexican-born Hayek first made her international impression in bombshell roles in films such as Desperado, 54 and Wild Wild West.But in the past three or four years, she has made a concerted effort to demonstrate she's more than just a temptress, appearing in such little-seen but challenging films as Timecode, Dogma and Breaking Up. It's Frida, however, that represents her most public declaration of independence, not least because she's both its star and co-producer, having spent more than six years bringing it to completion.

What also makes Frida interesting is the fact she hired Julie Taymor to be its director. With a background in sculpture and painting, Taymor had an enviable reputation among the arts cognoscenti through the late eighties and nineties as a director of plays, dance and opera. But in 1997 her name entered the mainstream when she was picked to direct the stage adaptation of Disney's The Lion King in New York.

That work was both a critical success and box-office smash, and in 1999 she was given the opportunity to direct her first feature-length movie, Titus, an audacious but stylish romp through Shakespeare's goriest tragedy, starring Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange. Critics were, by and large, impressed, even if the public didn't embrace it with the gusto of, say, Shakespeare in Love.

Even before she met Taymor, in 2000, Hayek said she was determined to hire a woman who was also an artist to direct Frida.Meeting Taymor, "I knew she would have the capacity to enter into Frida's brain, and do an interpretation of Frida's surreal interpretation of the world. A bonus was that Julie is very knowledgeable about Mexican culture. She's like a vampire: She knows how to go into a culture and just kind of suck it out.

There's no denying Hayek and Taymor had lots of material to draw on for Frida. Kahlo managed to cram three lives worth of experience into her 47 years: A horrific bus accident at 18 that crushed her pelvis and spine; a stormy 30-year marriage with the famous muralist Diego Rivera; a passionate commitment to the Mexican Communist Party; many, many love affairs, with both sexes, including involvements with Leon Trotsky and the legendary Costa Rican singer Chavela Vargas; miscarriages galore; operations and amputations.

Much of this went into her uncompromising art which, by combining elements of Mexican folk art and European surrealism, offers a theatrical sense of the self. Indeed, it's the depiction of how the paintings "correspond to the emotional, historical and biographical occurrences in [Kahlo's] life," as Hayek put it, that's most arresting about the Taymor Frida.

The real Kahlo laboured long under the shadow of Rivera, only getting her first one-woman show in her native country in the months before her death, in 1954.

In fact, not more than 20 years ago, Kahlo was known mostly in the worlds of art, feminist scholarship and Latin American cultural history. However, as Hayek noted, in the past decade "she's become the highest-paid Latin American artist in the world and the highest-paidfemale artist in the world."

Part of the reason for the rise in Kahlo's fortunes can be attributed to the pop singer Madonna, who became a large and serious collector of Kahlo canvases and who, at one point, was interested in doing a movie of the artist's life, starring, naturally enough, herself.

Hayek pointedly told a media conference on Saturday that Madonna's interest did not serve as a spur for her own Frida. "Competition was not the struggle or the focus of the work," she said. "The focus was on getting the film made." If anything, Madonna's connoisseurship and her fame "brought [Kahlo] to people's attention and helped us later on when we decided to make our movie."

During her life, Kahlo was the subject of many pictures taken by some of the world's greatest photographers, including Edward Weston, Nickolas Muray , Imogen Cunningham and Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Indeed, her famous unibrow and mustache and braided "updo," plus her fondness for long earrings and colourful, Versace-esque peasant dresses and shawls have made her the genuine iconic article, a sort of mid-20th century Patti Smith. Yet even a cursory glance at Salma Hayek in person and Frida Kahlo in photographs reveals they're not exactly sisters of the flesh.

For her part, Hayek is having little truck with such comparisons and the concomitant chatter about how difficult it must have been to, as it were, "uglify" her beauty to help assume the role of Kahlo.

"I just don't understand what would be intimidating about it," she said. "You just create the character. It's what I do for a living, as an actor. It's exciting to transform yourself, emotionally and physically. . . . Besides, I just don't happen to think she's ugly at all; I think she's beautiful."

Taymor's Frida is a handsome-looking, sensuous piece of filmmaking, with wonderful music and a striking use of puppets, computer animation and almost Monty Pythonesque collage. While Taymor and Hayek got permission to shoot scenes at the famous Aztec city of Teotihuacan and Diego Rivera's studios outside Mexico City, among other historic locales, the smallness of the budget -- about $15-million (U.S.) -- and the brevity of the shooting schedule meant they had to rely on the kindness of friends in certain casting decisions (Ashley Judd plays the photographer Tina Modotti; Geoffrey Rush, Trotsky; Antonio Banderas, Rivera's muralist amigo David Siqueiros). It also meant they couldn't travel to New York and Detroit and Europe to recreate Kahlo's adventures there.The colonial city of Puebla, about 150 kilometres east of Mexico City, was used in their place.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the movie uses the tumultuous romance between the famously promiscuous Rivera (played by Alfred Molina) and Kahlo as its primary organizing principle, with the result that sometimes it scans like a hot-blooded Fred and Ginger musical. Taymor is unapologetic -- "You have a lot of life to tell in only two hours" -- as is Hayek. "Fred and Ginger? I think that would be a good thing. If you ask my personal opinion, I think 'Fred' steals this film. Yes, we could have taken a different direction, but it's through Diego in this particular film that we show her passion and her love of life. It's not a film about falling in love; it's about loyalty, about staying in love, about unconditional love, which is much harder."

Hayek's own love life came into the creation of Frida in that it's her boyfriend, actor Edward Norton, who whipped the screenplay into shape. You won't find his name in the credits, however (the writing tag is shared by four individuals). The script underwent many rewrites over the years before Norton agreed, gratis,to find a way to realize Taymor's conception. As a result, the Writers Guild had to rule on the apportioning of credits.

Short of literally putting her nose to the grindstone, there is simply no way that Hayek cannot be radiant and glamorous. But she says she was "liberated" from the demands of being sexy "a long time ago." As she told a recent interviewer, "I don't walk around carrying this crazy image of myself like Christ carrying that cross."

Careerwise, that means "doing any film that I feel like doing." A few weeks ago she completed her first directing job, a family film for Showtime titled The Maldonado Miracle, about an 11-year-old boy who inadvertently causes a seeming miracle in a California mission church. Right now she's working up a romantic comedy that she'll both produce and star in.
Frida, starring Salma Hayek and Alfred Molina, goes into general release in North American theatres in October.

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