Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo

OPINION

Weinstein sabotaged Salma Hayek’s career – and distorted Frida Kahlo’s legacy

Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo (Photo: Rex)

Kat Lister’s love of Frida Kahlo was ignited by Salma Hayek’s biopic. She didn’t know there was a monster behind the movie who sought to diminish them both

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By Kat Lister on

My love affair with Frida Kahlo was ignited, first and foremost, through Salma Hayek’s eyes. Her vision, her imagination. Up until 2002’s Frida biopic I had read about Mexico’s surrealist painter, certainly; seen her defiant face on souvenir posters, tote bags and T-shirts; heard the crass monobrow jokes… and admired the Tehuantepec embroidery she chose to adorn her broken body – but I hadn’t fully seen and understood her. As an artist, not a long-suffering wife. As a complex artist with an extraordinary talent, not simply a two-dimensional brand utilised to monetise feminism decades after her death. A fearless woman. A strange kind of warrior; my kind of warrior, flaws and all – with a zero-fucks attitude to those who told her “no” and “can’t”. A fighter with her own unique story to tell.

I didn’t know that there was a monster behind that movie – a film that lassoed me into Kahlo’s frightening, dazzling, heartwrenching, joyously technicolour world and convinced me that women’s stories matter. Yesterday, Salma Hayek revealed his grotesque form in a devastating op-ed for The New York Times. “My greatest ambition was to tell her [Kahlo’s] story,” she wrote. “It became my mission to portray the life of this extraordinary artist and to show my native Mexico in a way that combated stereotypes.” In a bitter twist to her story, Hayek mistook Harvey Weinstein’s Miramax empire for a pair of protective arms with which to cradle Frida Kahlo’s life story, nurture it – and bring her many contradictions to the screen for others to finally bear witness to her determined spirit and wild heart.

In reality, Weinstein’s involvement in Frida’s production shows us the brutal ways in which sex can be wielded in powerful hands to distort, manipulate and diminish women: their lives, their art, their careers – and their lasting legacies. As Rebecca Traister rightly pointed out this week, this moment isn’t (just) about sex. It’s really about work”.

“It’s possible that we’re missing the bigger picture altogether,” she warned. “That this is not, at its heart, about sex at all – or at least not wholly. What it’s really about is work, and women’s equality in the workplace, and more broadly, about the rot at the core of our power structures that makes it harder for women to do work because the whole thing is tipped toward men.”

Stories matter. Frida’s story was Hayek’s defining work – and to study the ways in which Weinstein sought to warp, pervert and undermine it during production was almost unbearable for me to read last night. On the set of Frida, Weinstein didn’t just sexually harass one woman to satisfy a gross appetite for power – he squeezed the life out of three artists: Hayek the storyteller; Julie Taymor the director; and Kahlo the painter, too. And when the Oscars showered the film with accolades after its release (a release he tried to sabotage), the sweaty, beastly mogul took a bow – and the credit – shook Hayek’s hand and told her, nice job, “we made a beautiful movie”.

The beautiful movie was a labour of love for one woman: Salma Hayek. Her Frida Kahlo, not his. “One of the forces that gave me the determination to pursue my career was the story of Frida Kahlo,” Hayek wrote in her New York Times account, “who in the golden age of the Mexican muralists would do small intimate paintings that everybody looked down on. She had the courage to express herself while disregarding skepticism.”

Weinstein’s involvement in Frida’s production shows us the brutal ways in which sex can be wielded in powerful hands to distort, manipulate and diminish women: their lives, their art, their careers – and their lasting legacies

When I read Hayek’s words I immediately recalled a newspaper column written about Frida Kahlo during her lifetime, in 1933. When a local news reporter wrote about the artist – during Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera’s visit to Detroit – the headline read: “Wife of the Master Mural Painter Gleefully Dabbles in Works of Art.”

“Dabbles in art.” Remember this antique newspaper column – and Hayek’s words – when you now imagine Weinstein’s looming presence during the film’s making. His male gaze. “Halfway through shooting, Harvey turned up on set and complained about Frida’s ‘unibrow’,” Hayek wrote in her op-ed. “He insisted that I eliminate the limp and berated my performance. Then he asked everyone in the room to step out except for me. He told me that the only thing I had going for me was my sex appeal and that there was none of that in this movie.”

Two women demeaned to mere sex objects by a crass abuser with a big wallet to wield against them. Frida Kahlo’s life-defining disability – and her defiant eyebrows; the ones that still declare to us, “here I am: take me or leave me” – mocked, berated, misunderstood and, ideally, erased. And the heartbreak of an actress who, like Kahlo before her, was desperate to be seen as an artist and, instead, was bullied to take part in a full-frontal sex scene she was so upset by she cried, convulsed and vomited before filming began.

“It was not because I would be naked with another woman,” Hayek wrote. “It was because I would be naked with her [Ashley Judd] for Harvey Weinstein.”

And so there were two warriors on set that day: Hayek and Kahlo. Two artists at odds with a patriarchal world that told them their bodies are all they have. The only measure of their worth. “At the end of the day we can endure much more than we think we can,” Kahlo once said. Women’s endurance, post-Weinstein, is now on trial.

When Hayek saw Weinstein socially, she’d smile telling herself that, like Kahlo before her, she went to war and won. “But why do so many of us, as female artists, have to go to war to tell our stories when we have so much to offer?” she asked us yesterday.

“Why do we have to fight tooth and nail to maintain our dignity?”

@Madame_George

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Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo (Photo: Rex)
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women we love
harvey weinstein
sexual harassment

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