- The Washington Times - Friday, November 1, 2002

"This is at least eight years now," reflects Julie Taymor, alluding to the gestation period of "Frida," a new biographical movie about the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo that opens today at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle and Landmark Bethesda Row.

"Frida" is a labor-of-love project for the Mexican actress Salma Hayek, who has outlasted such rivals as Madonna and Jennifer Lopez by persisting in a Kahlo cinematic quest. It has been a relatively short-term commitment for Miss Taymor, persuaded to direct by Harvey Weinstein of Miramax Films about two years ago.

While Miss Hayek, now 36, was playing roles in numerous films and struggling with screenplay drafts of "Frida" that suffered from chronic shortcomings, Miss Taymor, 49, was becoming the toast of Broadway, circa 1997, by directing the musical adaptation of the Walt Disney animated hit "The Lion King." Two years later, she made her first theatrical feature, "Titus," an adaptation of William Shakespeare's gruesome "Titus Andronicus," starring Anthony Hopkins.

During a conversation at the Four Seasons Hotel, Miss Taymor reveals that one curious consequence of her late arrival is that none of the credited screenwriters for "Frida" is familiar to her.

"There are four credited writers," she observes. "Two of them work as a team. I assume all of them did early drafts. I never read anything they did. Honestly. I don't mind saying to the press that an injustice has been done to Rodrigo Garcia, who did write the first screenplay that I read, and to Edward Norton, who happens to be Salma's other half, apart from his renown as a film actor.

"When I took the job, Edward came on to do the final drafts. At least 80 percent of the Garcia script was rewritten by Edward. He did an enormous amount of work, and we're not at all happy that the Writers' Guild has declined to grant the screen credit he deserves. It happens a lot. They have their guidelines, which sometimes fail to reflect the reality of a film's creation and completion."

Mr. Norton also has a small role in the film, playing Nelson Rockefeller, a principal patron to Frida Kahlo and her once more famous consort, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera (impersonated by Alfred Molina in Miss Taymor's movie). The couple relocated to New York City in the early 1930s. The director points out that she read about 30 drafts between the Garcia script and a final Norton polish.

"People tend to think that means something is wrong," she says. "It's the opposite. Salma, who's been with it the longest, will testify that it was just difficult to get things right. There were wonderful things in different drafts, beautiful gems that came and remained from one script to the next. It was always the life of Frida Kahlo. The essential structure came from a biography by Hayden Herrera. But it was also a vast canvas. We try to cover 30 years in two hours. You have to be selective."

According to Miss Taymor, "They could never nail something about the creative process. I tried to correct that when I come on the movie. I suggested all the interludes that revolve around specific paintings.

"OK, you've got a beautiful story of an artist who survives incredible pain from multiple injuries suffered in a traffic accident when she's young. The pain lasts throughout her life but isn't there every moment. There's also this amazing story about staying in love being more important than falling in love. Frida and Diego marry, separate, divorce, remarry.

"Despite his infidelities, they're still a loyal couple when she dies. Not many people want to write about that. They're afraid of the idea of living with infidelity and transcending it. We know that in Washington, D.C., this was a topic of great debate a couple of years ago. We question a woman who stays with a man who so clearly, from the beginning, is incapable of physical fidelity. But what about loyalty? That's an aspect that got honed and honed in Edward's screenplay drafts."

The subjects were also communist militants whose lives coincided with revolutionary ferment in Mexico. "Diego especially was committed to a social doctrine and tried to reconcile it with his painting," Miss Taymor observes. "Frida less so. She basically painted herself. They were involved with art, politics, each other, numerous other lovers."

•••

As an artist, Frida Kahlo didn't emerge from the shadow of her famous consort until almost a generation after her death, in 1953 at the age of 47. She was even something of a late discovery among ardent feminists, although there certainly must be an ample supply of Kahlo thesis candidates in every academic year now.

"I think I caught up with her in the 1980s," Miss Taymor estimates. "The craze itself arose in the '80s. I had seen her work earlier, but I was much more of a Diego Rivera/David Siqueiros/Jose Orozco admirer. I saw a large exhibit of Mexican art that came to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. There were also Frida and Diego exhibits, but I was much more a fan of his.

"Like many people, [I found] her work almost repulsed me. But then you're intrigued and can't turn away. My initial reaction was that she's too personal, too in-your-face. But there's a directness about her. Some women like to use her as an icon martyr. What interests me more is her duality."

Miss Taymor draws attention to the illustrations in a Smithsonian magazine cover story about Miss Kahlo, contrasting photographs with self-portraits that exaggerate such features as heavy eyebrows and a mustache.

"This woman here, who obsessively painted herself, sometimes with an oddly mannish emphasis, managed to create through physical and emotional pain," Miss Taymor explains. "Salma and I decided that Frida as a victim was not true. She loved men. She loved women. She really loved Diego. You don't know what any of these people do in private, despite their diaries and letters. I wasn't in their bedroom. We're artists. We have to take liberties and interpret. Frida had a passion for life that defies anybody I know. A great lust for life. That impulse was as true as the pain that remained with her because of the accident.

"There's something else that intrigued me. Our puritanical North American culture doesn't quite understand Mexico's joy in death. The macabre, humorous relationship that's reflected in a celebration like the Day of the Dead. Latinos and Mexicans see this as a very Mexican movie, representing them. We don't get color, and we don't get death. Our society has become very gray and monochromatic if you look at movies and art."

The complaint about color-deficient movies is certainly just, and Miss Taymor has tried to correct it by saturating "Frida" in color.

"It's real color," she stresses. "Everything was shot in Mexico, with a Mexican cinematographer and production designer. The Kahlos' blue house is really blue. The orange flowers arranged for the Day of the Dead are really orange. The dresses are right for the period. We had to go outside Mexico City for some scenes in order to shoot in air that was unpolluted and similar to the atmosphere of the 1920s or 1930s. It gave us that incredible sharpness and clarity."


•••

Born and raised in the Boston area, Julie Taymor recalls being steeped in theatrical play and aspirations from the age of 11 or 12. Her late father was a gynecologist who was among the first experimenters with in vitro fertilization. Her widowed mother, Betty Taymor, "was in politics," she says, adding that "as a Washingtonian, you should appreciate that politics is a highly theatrical environment."

Miss Taymor believes her mother wanted to be an actress when she was younger, but her father disapproved. She was active in Democratic state politics in Massachusetts. "I went with her to the 1960 convention when John F. Kennedy was nominated," the daughter recalls happily.

Julie Taymor performed in children's theater in Boston, worked with experimental theater companies during high school and attended Oberlin College. She was awarded a Watson Fellowship upon graduation, and it led to a four-year sojourn in Eastern Europe, Indonesia and Japan, "studying visual theater and experimental puppet theater in countries where it's a very high art form, not what we consider children's entertainment." However, she resists being called a puppeteer.

"That's something the press has distorted," Miss Taymor says. "I sculpt, and I paint. I have made puppets and masks, for 'The Lion King' most conspicuously. But I've never performed with them. At least half my work has been with other kinds of material.

"Because of 'Lion King,' I'm the puppet master," she says mockingly. But, she says, "I've directed Shakespeare many times and operas in Japan, Germany, Russia, Italy. Many, many things in many different places."

In fact, two major projects at the moment are opera productions: an original called "Grendel" with composer Elliot Goldenthal, also the composer of "Frida" and Miss Taymor's "long-time partner for the past 20 years," and a Metropolitan Opera revival of Mozart's "The Magic Flute" for 2004.

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