A Bold Beauty

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 1, 2002

At the end of a screening of "Frida," the audience stood and cheered, but it was unclear if they were expressing their enthusiasm for the movie, which is good, or for the life it documents, which was magnificent.

Frida Kahlo, the Mexican artist who died in 1954 at age 47, may not make it into her century's top tier as a painter, since she really had but two subjects: herself and her pain, and they were pretty much interchangeable. But when she wasn't gazing into the mirror or enduring one of her 30 operations, she sure crammed a lot into what time was left, finding room for love affairs with some of the great artists of her time and a few American movie stars of her own gender – many of whom she met in that fab swirl of radico-boho-lefter-than-thou showboats that lit up the axis between Hollywood and Paris in the '30s. She turned out 200 or so paintings that combined a flattened, brightened folk vernacular of Mexico with a sense of pure savagery, and finally tumbled for a roll in the hay with my favorite commie, no less a mythic dead end than Leon Trotsky. She cheated, was cheated upon by her catnip-for-gals hubby Diego Rivera, suffered, unleashed suffering, smoked, drank, swore, traveled, joked, danced and laughed. On top of that, she only had one eyebrow, which snaked across her severe face like the last five inches of a furry bullwhip. You could say Frida got around. She covered the waterfront. So Julie Taymor's movie account of her life might be called "Reds" with salsa and chips and someone more beautiful than Warren Beatty – Salma Hayek.

The movie is essentially a romantic valentine to the outsize Latina, and it sees her as, perhaps, she yearned to be seen – protean, vigorous, sexy and iconographic – and not quite as she was. That's fine, I think. What movie bio has ever really told the truth? If it wants to portray the squat and toadlike Trotsky as a sleek aristocrat and full head of distinguished gray hair as played by Geoffrey Rush (was Sir Ian McKellen unavailable?) and grants Frida and her husband the Mexican muralist Rivera a perch on the right side of the Stalin-Trotsky affray, trying to protect the goatee from the mustache, so be it. But the movie forgets to mention that after Trotsky noticed the pickax in his brain and thereafter slept with the fishes (latest report: still there), she and Diego bragged that they lured him to Mexico so that Stalin could kill him. It may have been a lie – she told many of them, including the one about her age, which she always maintained was three years less than her birth certificate argued – but if it was, it was a particularly ugly lie, and if it wasn't, then I hope she's enjoying Hell.

Frying or not, she certainly suffered a lot on Earth. The movie skips the girlhood polio that left the tiny, pretty young woman with a limp, but it opens with the most terrifying event of her adult life, a bus accident that shattered her spine and other bones and left her in a body cast for a year. It was then – bored, wracked with pain, immobile – that she began to paint, presumably a genetic legacy from her Hungarian Jewish father, a noted photographer of his time. In a year, on sheer grit, she was walking again, though with more of a limp.

It was about that time that she met the first most terrifying accident of her life, a blimp with a cigar and a paintbrush. Rivera painted heroic up-with-people murals and had become world-famous; he took a look at the petite, tortured, bodacious Frida and fell in love. And he stayed in love. He cheated like crazy, but he stayed in love.

From there it was off to the races, and Taymor's camera stays with the fun couple for some of its notorious high jinks, including an extended time in New York where he worked for young Nelson Rockefeller. Diego's mural, which featured Lenin and Trotsky, ended up sandblasted off the wall of Rockefeller Center. But Diego, like most revolutionaries of the artistic left, cashed the check anyway.

Comedy, it is said, is hard; biography is also hard. But Taymor is helped by a complete consistency of character among her protagonists – none of these fabulous idiots ever grew, moderated, mellowed or wised up – as well as the ever-presence of pain, which always makes Frida compelling. At the same time, it stays away from certain mean-spirited speculation that one reason Frida had all those operations was to keep Diego close by and caring for her. (He cared for her so much, by the way, he slept with her sister!)

Hayek, of course, is beautiful, while Frida was merely handsome. Very pretty, but can she act? It's fun to dump on beautiful women who become stars on looks rather than talent, so much fun that I've spent a lifetime doing it. But Hayek (who also produced) really gets into the part, recognizing it as a professional opportunity of a lifetime. She doesn't want to play Latina bombshells forever, even if Taymor uses her breasts quite provocatively throughout, and also provides quite a heated re-creation of what appears to be Frida getting down and dirty with Josephine Baker in Paris just before the war.

But the best performance belongs to Alfred Molina as Diego. Gigantic, voracious, casually treacherous, he nevertheless loved Frida, and Molina captures all these complexities behind a great moon face. Watch him gaze rapturously upon her and dote upon her talent and her work. It just wasn't in him to stay loyal to anything except Marxism.

Taymor is essentially a stage director – her "Lion King" still runs on Broadway – and one can feel her bending desperately toward the abstract theatrical stylings, the giant puppets, the weird usage of stage space, that is the foundation of her New York reputation. She loves to partake of Kahlo's own near-surrealism in some of the inevitable biopic montages, such as the fabled trip to New York, which is handled by clever Pythonesque animation. Kahlo's art, with its bold simplicity and consciousness of pain, is another visual motif of the film, sometimes re-created as diorama-coming-to-life with Hayek, under the paint, crackling into motion, to press the point of the union of her artist and her work.

But the movie, whatever its dances with truth and brushes with art, is that one best thing: endlessly interesting. It's about people who thought ideas and art mattered, which makes it a rarity today.

FRIDA (R, 120 minutes)Contains scenes of extreme sexuality. At the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Landmark Bethesda Row.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company