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Feeling Frida's Pain

Determined to play the artist in a credible biopic, Salma Hayek signed on as a producer, seeing the film, finally in production, through troubled times.

July 15, 2001|DANA CALVO | Dana Calvo is a Times staff writer

MEXICO CITY — '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.

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