Las Dos Fridas
Hollywood's long, slow race to make the definitive Frida Kahlo film

by Julie Reynolds


Salma Hayek and Jennifer López were cast in two Kahlo movies vying to reach the theaters first.


Ten years ago, production was suddenly stopped on Luis and Lupe Valdez’s 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 Lupe’s heart to think that it wasn’t 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 woman’s 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 Frida’s 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 handling nitroglycerin.”

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. It’s 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, it’s really like giving birth,” Lupe recalled. “Unfortunately, this was a stillborn. I guess you never forget that. It is a child that you carried.”
This year, ten years after the struggle to make this film began, Lupe’s dream of the two Fridas came back to live another life. One reason was that, nearly fifty years after Kahlo’s 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, Kahlo’s art commands the highest prices for any woman painter. It’s collected by people like Madonna, rumored to be the secret bidder who paid more than $5 million at a recent auction for Frida’s “Autorretrato con aeroplano.”

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 you’re in that racket called the media, the big news is that Frida’s tormented soul has become a battleground for female celebs. Everybody wants to be Frida.

First Madonna wanted to play the role. Then Laura San Giacomo. And finally, J.Lo and Salma.

It’s hard to imagine how any of them could top Mexico’s 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 we’re 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 be Frida.

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. Salma’s 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:

“It’s Hollywood Handbags at Dawn”
—The Independent (London)

“Rivalry sure to get hotter than a jalapeño pepper”
—The Times (London)

“The Battle of Hollywood’s 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 wouldn’t 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 California’s 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 it’s hard enough to get a Latino film into theaters, and without star power, he fears the Frida film just won’t make it. Perhaps he’s right. But “La Bamba” starred the unknown Lou Diamond Phillips, and it was a huge hit.

For this film, Luis wasn’t 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 Hayek’s project was moving ahead confidently, full-steam. Critics began to murmur that López wouldn’t 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 she’s 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. It’s said that for years she’s 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 Trotsky’s grandson) and sought out the counsel of Dolores Olmedo, an eighty-something contemporary of Diego and Frida who owns most of Frida’s best work. Olmedo is the biographical advisor for Salma’s 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 Frida’s. “They hated each other,” Ávila said. “Dolores tried to take [Frida’s] boyfriend, Alejandro Gómez, from her, but could not — that’s the reason they could not get along.”

Olmedo admits she’s 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, wouldn’t pay, and, says Ávila, that’s 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 it’s very convenient, because when she has to be Latin, she’s Latin.” López countered that the role was not about being Latina. She would reflect the real Frida— “romantic, passionate, bisexual,” and added, “I’m not afraid to look ugly.”

In June, I ran into Lupe in the lobby of El Teatro’s 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 isn’t,” 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. It’s over.”

The competition between the two stars had gotten all too wearing. By spring, production on Hayek’s film was far advanced. López became interested in another role as an FBI agent, and in March, she dropped out.

Lupe Valdez’s 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 Teatro’s 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 Hayek’s “Frida” wrapped filming in June 2001 and opened in theatres in October 2002.

© 2001-2002 El Andar Magazine


frida inc.

The last words written in Frida Kahlo’s diary were: “Espero alegre la salida y espero no volver jamás.” She did not get her wish. If Frida the person did not come back, the idea of Frida came back with a vengeance.

“Just when you thought you had seen the last Day-Glo key chain with her haunting face on it, the last expressway billboard from which she and her monkeys stare down at you, the last self-portrait T-shirt, the last bus advertisement — she’s b-a-a-a-c-k,” John Phillip Santos wrote in 1993. He wondered then whether Frida-mania had reached its peak. It hadn’t.
The peak came in 1997.

But since then, says L.A. Times correspondent Chris Kraul, sales of Frida “stuff” in Mexico have declined thirty percent. Kraul says visits to Frida’s Coyoacán house in Mexico City — he calls it “Mexico’s Graceland” — have dropped twenty-five percent.
In fact, Kraul has dubbed the whole industry “Frida Inc.” Few people know that the rights to Frida’s name and image are a big business controlled by the Mexican government.

That’s because Diego Rivera willed the rights for the couple’s assets to the Mexican people. “To merchandise Kahlo legally,” explains Kraul, “movie producers and souvenir manufacturers must pay royalties to the Mexican Central Bank.”

But the government rarely collects. Kraul says that NAFTA has made the situation worse: intellectual property rights for artistic projects were weakened by the trade agreement; the rights that remain are controlled by the Education Ministry, which has little muscle for enforcement.

This year, Frida Inc. is back in business. Her paintings sell for millions at auction, new shows of her work are touring the U.S., and she’s just had the honor of being the first female bisexual, disabled, communist Mexican artist to appear on a U.S. postage stamp.

Welcome back, Frida.