This article originally appeared in The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and is reprinted with permission of the author. Visit www.jewishjournal.com.
LOS ANGELES--Years before she directed her new film, Frida, about the Jewish-Mexican Surrealist painter Frida Kahlo, Julie Taymor saw Kahlo's self-portraits at an exhibit in Oaxaca. "I was shocked, drawn in and repulsed," Taymor said of the paintings, which included visceral images of menstruation and miscarriage. "I was frankly put off by her work."
A surprising revelation from a wunderkind designer-director--known for her stunning staging of The Lion King--who is prone to theatrical grotesquerie.
At the climax of her production of the Stravinsky opera, Oedipus, red cloth streamed from the hero's gauged-out eyes. Shadow-puppet locusts splatted to depict one of the Ten Plagues in her 1980 pageant, "The Haggadah." Hacked-out tongues and severed heads rolled in her 2000 feature film debut, Titus, based on the early Shakespeare tragedy.
But Frida's gory artwork was unappealing to Taymor until she met actress Salma Hayek, who'd struggled for years to make a Kahlo biopic against all odds and rivals (including Madonna and Jennifer Lopez).
"Salma walked into my Manhattan apartment and she just takes your breath away, even if you're a nice heterosexual woman," the willowly Jewish director said during an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel. "We sat on my couch and for two hours she passionately described Frida's bawdiness, her brilliance, her raunchiness, her foul mouth, her drinking habits, her cigarette smoking, her bisexuality. It was a true seduction."
By the end of the meeting, Taymor had agreed to direct the biopic, which is already generating Oscar buzz.
The bold, lushly photographed film chronicles Kahlo's life from her crippling childhood bus accident through her rocky marriage to womanizing muralist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina), her torrid affairs and excruciating spine surgeries.
Along the way--this being a Julie Taymor film--Kahlo's autobiographical paintings spring to life via special effects. One of the most disturbing is The Broken Column, in which the artist's naked torso, punctured by tacks, rips open to reveal a cracked marble spine.
"Frida's artwork was an exorcism," said Taymor, who at 49 is two years older than Kahlo was at her death in 1954. "She survived by transforming her emotional and physical pain into art."
Nevertheless, Taymor--speaking in strong, precise tones--insisted her film isn't another suffering-painter biopic.
"Frida wasn't just this poor, abandoned woman who lived a life of torture in a bed," she said with Kahlo-like cheek. "She had more than her share of suffering, but she also had more than her share of pleasure and sex. Her life was a combination of extremes."
Perhaps no director was better suited to bring those extremes to the screen. Kahlo and Taymor "share a visual sensibility that combines fantastical imagery with the macabre," said Frida producer Jay Polstein.
The painter and the director also share varying degrees of Jewish heritage.
Kahlo's father, Wilhelm, was a German-born Hungarian Jew who emigrated to Mexico in 1891, changed his first name to Guillermo and married Kahlo's Catholic mother. He became a famous photographer of historical monuments and reportedly gave his favorite daughter her first set of paintbrushes, although he apparently did not pass down his religion.
Yet Frida Kahlo wasn't above ribbing the notorious anti-Semite, Henry Ford, during a dinner party he gave for her husband in Detroit: During a lull in the conversation, she turned to him and asked, "Mr. Ford, are you Jewish?"
Taymor's Russian grandfather also changed his name when he emigrated to America (from Teitelbaum to an Anglicized version of "Tamar," which means date tree in Hebrew), although his family remained Jewish.
Julie Taymor grew up in a Reform household in Newton, MA, where she enjoyed the beauty of ritual but abhorred the materialism of the bar and bat mitzvah culture. Her early years were as dramatic as Kahlo's: At 16, she convinced her mother, a political activist, and her father, a Harvard Medical School professor, to let her study mime in Paris.
In her 20s, Taymor founded a theater troupe in Indonesia, where she lived for four years while enduring floods, malaria and a bone-deep injury suffered while skirting a live volcano. (An impromptu surgery--sans anesthesia--saved her leg from gangrene).
She also survived a Kahlo-like bus crash that paralyzed one of her performers and carved her chin and lip in two.
Upon returning to the States, Taymor immersed herself in New York experimental theater and met her life partner, the composer Elliot Goldenthal, at a performance of "The Haggadah." "Someone told him he'd like my work because it was as grotesque as his," Taymor said with a laugh.
The couple has since collaborated on projects from the Obie-winning Juan Darien to Frida.
While Goldenthal studied Mexican folk music to write Frida's score, Taymor read Hayden Herrera's 1983 Kahlo biography and visited sites such as the cobalt-blue house where the artist had lived in Coyoacan.
Only after the exhausting 2001 production wrapped did Taymor visit the Dolores Olmedo Patino Museum--home to the world's largest Kahlo and Rivera collection--and felt she had stepped into her own movie. On palacial grounds overrun by peacocks, she met Olmedo, who was Rivera's mistress before he fell madly in love with Kahlo in 1928.
"She ushered me into her private quarters and it was like being in Miss Havisham's presence," Taymor said.
She was around 90 but she had these incredible fake eyelashes and this thick makeup and it was clear she didn't like Frida one bit."
After her "audience" with Olmedo, Taymor realized how far she had come from her impressions at that Kahlo exhibition in Oaxaca years ago. "The mixture of beauty, the morbid and the sardonic wink-twink of the eye are what make Frida's paintings so compelling and provacative,'' she said.