Hayek and Jennifer López were cast in two Kahlo movies vying
to reach the theaters first.
years ago, production was suddenly stopped on Luis and Lupe
Valdezs film on the life of Frida Kahlo. Latina actresses had waged
a stormy protest, because the actress chosen to play Frida was Italian-American,
not Mexican or even Latina. A boycott was called. It was time for Hollywood
to give Latinas their due, to stop passing them over. The project was
halted, the screenplay sent to gather dust in the closet.
Ten years ago was another era, before Jennifer López and Salma
Hayek would command the millions they earn today. The actresses who protested
back then may rightfully claim credit for slapping Hollywood in the face,
for forcing Latinos into the spotlight.
But to any story there is another side.
The irony that the protesters glossed over and the public never knew was
that the Frida movie was actually going to be one of the few Hollywood
screenplays written by a Latina. The film was to be directed by well-known
director Luis Valdez (La Bamba, Zoot Suit), but it was his wife Lupe Valdez
who wrote that script. And it broke Lupes heart to think that it
wasnt the Hollywood mainstream, but Latinas, who shut down her dream.
It was the work that I loved, Lupe told me at the time. I
loved being able to work with Luis on this thing, because it really was
dealing with Frida Kahlo [from] a womans point of view. (El
Andar, Sept 1995, "Generations: Thirty Years at el Teatro Campesino")
That film, Frida and Diego, died in the summer of 1992, but
in 1993 it was born again as The Two Fridas. Now it would
star Laura San Giacomo along with a Mexican actress Luis hoped
it would be Ofelia Medina in a film about Fridas European
and indigenous Mexican personalities, about Frida, Diego and Frida,
as Luis put it. He dreamed of Raúl Juliá playing the role
of Diego. But that version, too, sputtered as the studio was criticized
for making a political compromise by simply adding a Mexican
actress to the mix.
By 1995, the film was dead.
Luis Valdez said that dealing with that project had become like
I was with Lupe Valdez in the days after it all ground to a halt, hanging
out at a former packing shed that had become the famous El Teatro Campesino
in San Juan Bautista, Calif. That was a rough time for Lupe, for Luis,
and for those involved in the Teatro. César Chávez had died
a year and half before. The Valdezes also suffered several deaths in the
family, and then there was this the protests against the film,
this stab in the back from fellow Latinos.
It hurt. Lupe never made a stink. Its not her style. She only admitted
to friends her great disappointment at not seeing her work move and breathe
on the giant screen.
When you get into any project and you get right into the middle,
its really like giving birth, Lupe recalled. Unfortunately,
this was a stillborn. I guess you never forget that. It is a child that
This year, ten years after the struggle to make this film began, Lupes
dream of the two Fridas came back to live another life. One reason was
that, nearly fifty years after Kahlos death, Frida-mania
has reared its gaudy, kitschy head again.
The Two Fridas
The L.A. Times has called Kahlo the Mexican Elvis for her
ability to return over and over from the dead.
Today, Kahlos art commands the highest prices for any woman painter.
Its collected by people like Madonna, rumored to be the secret bidder
who paid more than $5 million at a recent auction for Fridas Autorretrato
Frida is the first Latina ever to be honored on a U.S. postage stamp.
Exhibits of her work are touring the U.S. again. And if youre in
that racket called the media, the big news is that Fridas tormented
soul has become a battleground for female celebs. Everybody wants to be
First Madonna wanted to play the role. Then Laura San Giacomo. And finally,
J.Lo and Salma.
Its hard to imagine how any of them could top Mexicos Ofelia
Medina, who was piercing and silent in a dark 1987 film from Mexico simply
titled Frida. But in the U.S., ignorance is grand and memory
is short. We act as if were doing everything for the first time.
When our actresses are dying to play Frida, it is as if the chosen woman
will be the first, last and eternal Frida.
For Hollywood, after ten years of struggle, the time has finally come
to make The Frida Movie. In fact, the industry was so eager, it jumped
in and started cranking out two Frida movies. Back when Valdez was casting
in the early 1990s, there really was no big-box office Latina in Hollywood.
Now, though, we have two Latina stars, and they both want to play Frida.To
Mexican-Lebanese Salma Hayek and New York-Puerto Rican Jennifer López
were cast last year in two separate Kahlo movies, vying to reach the theaters
first. Salmas was a Miramax production, the other was the revived
Valdez film, now produced by Francis Ford Coppola.
The media has loved the race between the two films, treating it like a
bloody spectacle in the Roman Coliseum.
Headlines round the globe hummed with the worst clichés imaginable:
Its Hollywood Handbags at Dawn
The Independent (London)
Rivalry sure to get hotter than a jalapeño pepper
The Times (London)
The Battle of Hollywoods Hot Tamales
The Independent (London)
Latin sex bombs
Hayek will be making burritos for the Miramax
version, while López is doing the cha-cha for United Artists
Phillipine Daily Inquirer
The prize-winning headline, though, had to come from the New
York Daily News:
The Third Act
Tensions mounted this spring as the two Frida films raced to finish. Hollywood
certainly wouldnt have room for both; the question was, who was
going to drop out? A movie-makers game of chicken began.
To many it seemed ironic that Luis Valdez, coming from a background of
political theater, of Brecht and agitprop, should go so mainstream
Coppola, the big stars, United Artists, now MGM. After all, El
Teatro Campesino has its roots on truck beds and under carpas strung from
trees in Californias central valley, performing benefits for the
United Farm Workers in the 1960s.
Luis has always had an Achilles heel, one that has plagued the Frida
project from the beginning. He says the studios push him; others say it
is his own insecurity. Either way, he has always given in to pressure
to have a big box-office star play Frida. He says its hard enough
to get a Latino film into theaters, and without star power, he fears the
Frida film just wont make it. Perhaps hes right. But La
Bamba starred the unknown Lou Diamond Phillips, and it was a huge
For this film, Luis wasnt taking chances. He had López and
he had Coppola, and was even talking about casting Leonardo DiCaprio in
a supporting role.
But by early 2001, his big star had become a big problem. Jennifer López
had scheduling conflicts with her upcoming CD. Production was dragging.
Salma Hayeks project was moving ahead confidently, full-steam. Critics
began to murmur that López wouldnt be able to hold a candle
to Hayek in the role of Frida. For López, it must have been intimidating:
to finally land the serious part shes dreamed of, then to be compared
to a rival, and then, perhaps, to fail.
Hayek, on the other hand, was serious and tenacious. The Miramax production
pulled together an impressive crew: direction by the respected Julie Taymor,
script assistance by Rodrigo García, son of Gabriel García
Márquez; Diego Rivera played by Alfredo Molina. Along with a few
oddities thrown in for box-office effect: Tina Modotti played by Ashley
Judd. Antonio Banderas as the stormy muralist Siqueiros.
Salma Hayek has wanted this part forever. Unlike López, she has
immersed herself in the life of Frida. Its said that for years shes
been carrying Polaroids of herself dressed in full Frida regalia to parties,
trying to gauge in others faces whether she is meant to be the one
true Frida. She visited Frida haunts in Mexico, interviewed those who
knew her (including Leon Trotskys grandson) and sought out the counsel
of Dolores Olmedo, an eighty-something contemporary of Diego and Frida
who owns most of Fridas best work. Olmedo is the biographical advisor
for Salmas film.
When Olmedo came aboard, the Mexican press proved that as low as the news
reports were, they could always get nastier. In May, the Mexico City daily
Reforma reported that Frida expert Manuel Ávila declared
the film inaccurate because Olmedo was no friend of Fridas. They
hated each other, Ávila said. Dolores tried to take
[Fridas] boyfriend, Alejandro Gómez, from her, but could
not thats the reason they could not get along.
Olmedo admits shes not fond of Frida, and claims the artist would
never have become famous without Diego. Nor would she have been
famous without me, Olmedo told the L.A. Times. Manuel Ávila
claimed that Olmedo tried to charge Jennifer López $100,000 to
allow her collection of Kahlo paintings to be used in the film. López,
who had first tried out for the Miramax film, wouldnt pay, and,
says Ávila, thats how Salma got the part.
The two women, who had been respectfully diplomatic, finally joined the
nastiness. Press conferences were held in Mexico while filming went on.
Her Spanish is very bad, Hayek said, even though both films
were in English.
and now its very convenient, because
when she has to be Latin, shes Latin. López countered
that the role was not about being Latina. She would reflect the real Frida
romantic, passionate, bisexual, and added, Im
not afraid to look ugly.
In June, I ran into Lupe in the lobby of El Teatros playhouse. The
theater was reviving a twenty-five year old play by Luis, and the Valdezes
three sons were starring in it.
I asked Lupe about the Frida movie, how was it going?
It isnt, she said. When Jennifer López
backed out, the project got cancelled.
Will the producers be shopping for a new actress?
She sighed and with a pained expression said, No. The film is dead.
The competition between the two stars had gotten all too wearing. By spring,
production on Hayeks film was far advanced. López became
interested in another role as an FBI agent, and in March, she dropped
Lupe Valdezs script was hung out to dry one more time.
Hollywood columnists say the Valdez film may yet live. They point out
that these things have a way of coming around again. And again. And again.
We walked into the tiny theater that has seen hundreds of performances
since El Teatro Campesino moved there in 1981. It felt good to be in a
summer-hot playhouse watching the old gang. Veteranos like Danny Valdez
performed with the offspring now in their twenties of several
of El Teatros founders. They told the story of César Chávez
and the farm workers to sixties and seventies grooves, the audience humming
along. There was no real set bars, beds, even cars and trucks were
brilliantly constructed and deconstructed from fruit-packing crates. The
three Valdez kids commanded the stage, loud and convincing in bell-bottoms
and sideburns. Lupe was in the audience, beaming.
Afterward, the kids served sodas in the lobby. As he has for thirty years,
Luis held court on an old wooden porch, waving a half-smoked cigar and
discussing Mexican history. We lingered, sipped fast-warming Tecates till
the place shut down. It was a starry night in San Juan Bautista, California,
four hundred miles north of Los Angeles and about as far from Hollywood
as you can get.
Salma Hayeks Frida wrapped filming in June 2001 and
opened in theatres in October 2002.
© 2001-2002 El Andar Magazine