I always liked Salma Hayek when I ran into her. We always had nice conversations, but I never understood exactly what she was up to. Her choice of movies wasn't very good: Chain of Fools, Wild Wild West, 54, The Faculty, Fled, Fair Game (you can't even remember it — Billy Baldwin and Cindy Crawford — so bad they can't play it on cable). Then she starts dating Edward Norton, who's a smart guy. So you know she's up to something, but you're never sure what.
Now, after seeing a sneak, early rough-cut screening of Hayek in her newest film, at last I can tell you what she wants — or at least what she's going to get: an Oscar nomination for best actress. For years Hayek, who is half Mexican and half Lebanese, has wanted to make a feature film about the great Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. For a while, another project about Kahlo starring Jennifer Lopez (Dios mio!) stood in the way — but the path was finally cleared, and Hayek managed to combine with stage genius Julie Taymor (Broadway's still-astonishing Lion King) to make the movie of her dreams.
Frida is that movie. It doesn't open until October, and maybe even then only a handful of people will see it, but I hope that is not the case. Taymor, who made the overreaching, ambitious Titus with Anthony Hopkins and Jessica Lange, has at last found the proper material to establish her as a film director. Her use of puppets, dream imagery and clever montages makes Frida absolutely riveting. The movie feels like a series of Joseph Cornell boxes all come alive and run amok.
At the same time Hayek and co-star Alfred Molina, who plays Kahlo's longtime husband and fellow artist Diego Rivera, keep the action moving. They establish this couple in such an odd, unusual and romantic relationship that their Mexican soap opera continues to fascinate even in its downtime. But the Riveras rarely have any lulls. They are either fighting or making love — or both. They are always painting, and their entity, as such, improves upon the Jackson Pollock/Lee Krasner marriage in last year's Pollock.
The title of this story is about Edward Norton, though, and I will tell you what I heard at my screening. Norton did a top-to-bottom rewrite of the finished script after many other screenwriters, including Gregory Nava, Walter Salles and Clancy Sigal among others, contributed enough to get their names on the credits. But Norton apparently had fresh enough eyes, and good enough sense of Hayek, to reshape parts of the script to suit her. It was a good gamble.
Norton, by the way, is one of a handful of "star" cameos in Frida, which are designed to lure in wary audiences. Norton plays a young Nelson Rockefeller, the man who commissioned Diego Rivera's famous mural in Rockefeller Center and then had it demolished because it had Communist references. Also passing through Frida most comfortably are Ashley Judd as the legendary photographer Tina Modotti; Roger Rees as Kahlo's father; Antonio Banderas as the artist and activist David Siquieros and the rarely-seen Valeria Golino (where has she been?) as Rivera's first wife, Lupe Marin.
Frida, which will shortly open the Venice Film Festival, gained some notoriety earlier this spring when Taymor and Miramax, the film's distributor, disagreed about its length. At issue was the sequence which recalls Kahlo's affair with Trotsky (played by Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush). All I can say is thank goodness this stuff wasn't cut. The whole of it, including a trek to the top of the Mayan ruins, is historically stunning and quite wonderful.
But then again, all of Frida is a joy to behold. I kept thinking all the way through it, "this is what Surviving Picasso should have been like." Taymor (and I should mention here the great music score composed by her partner Elliot Goldenthal) has endeavored to do something beyond the term "biopic" and stretch the limits of our imaginations, and she's had a great success. As for Hayek, we'll be seeing her at the Golden Globes, the Oscars, etc. She's the first Mexican actress since Dolores Del Rio to make such an impact. If this a result of NAFTA, then we made the right decision after all.