At the center of every Frida Kahlo painting is a deep wound.
Arrows pierce her mythical deer body, nails puncture her flesh, and her torso is torn open and bound by a body brace as tears stream down her proud, dignified face. In Frida, the 2002 Julie Taymor film starring Salma Hayek, the painter’s deepest wound isn’t portrayed as any one of her many physical ailments (she was diagnosed with polio at the age of six, suffered a serious trolley accident, underwent more than 30 surgeries, and eventually even had to have her leg amputated); instead, her worst injury seems to be an emotional one, after she catches her unfaithful husband, Diego Rivera (played by Alfred Molina), in bed with her own sister.
This scene of infidelity sends Kahlo down a spiral, inspiring a sequence in which she turns to the bottle and cuts off her long locks, mirroring one of her famous paintings, "Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair," in which she’s holding scissors and dressed in a man’s suit. In the film, the painting is animated to show Frida slumping over in her chair, head hanging in despair.
It wasn’t until last week that we became aware of the deep wound that cut Salma Hayek in the making of this film. On December 12, the actress penned a harrowing New York Times op-ed titled "Harvey Weinstein Is My Monster Too," which not only detailed disturbing accounts of abusive behavior echoed by many other women, but also specifically how nightmarish Weinstein was during the production of Frida—making absurd demands, bullying on set, and threatening to recast the leading role.
"He had been constantly asking for more skin, for more sex," Hayek wrote. "Once before, Julie Taymor got him to settle for a tango ending in a kiss instead of the lovemaking scene he wanted us to shoot between the character Tina Modotti, played by Ashley Judd, and Frida." (This tango scene can be watched in the above clip.)
But even then, Hayek said, Weinstein gave her a vile ultimatum: she could finish the film only if she did a lesbian sex scene with full-frontal nudity. "It was clear to me he would never let me finish this movie without him having his fantasy one way or another," she wrote. "There was no room for negotiation." In response to Hayek's op-ed, a spokesperson for Weinstein said that he "does not recall pressuring Salma to do a gratuitous sex scene with a female costar."
Dipped in a honey-tinted palette, the lesbian sex scene consists of a brief montage of Frida sharing a night of passion with a Parisian chanteuse she picks up at the club (though not mentioned by name, those in the know will recognize her as French dancer and actress Josephine Baker, who Kahlo had an affair with). I don't remember what I thought of the scene when I first watched the film; I'd probably assumed that it was the sexualized "Hollywood" version.
In retrospect, the sex scene feels gratuitous, but one tends not to question things of that nature when the project is helmed by a female director and creatively backed by the woman starring in the scene. It's nothing short of horrifying to rewatch the scene after reading Hayek's piece detailing how traumatizing it was for her to get through it.
"It was not because I would be naked with another woman," she wrote. "It was because I would be naked with her for Harvey Weinstein. But I could not tell them then. My mind understood that I had to do it, but my body wouldn’t stop crying and convulsing. At that point, I started throwing up while a set frozen still waited to shoot. I had to take a tranquilizer, which eventually stopped the crying but made the vomiting worse. As you can imagine, this was not sexy, but it was the only way I could get through the scene."
Frida can no longer exist without this added layer of suffering and sorrow. We often credit misery as a source of artistic inspiration; Kahlo herself had said that she painted so many self-portraits because she was so often alone. But the wretchedness inflicted by Weinstein did not draw out some deep creative insight for the film. Instead, we're left to wonder what could have been had Taymor and Hayek not been subject to Weinstein's abuse and instead received full studio support. That the film received critical acclaim and six Oscar nominations is a testament to their talent and tenacity.
Frida is the work of a woman who survived her monster and fought to tell a story—a story of an important, revolutionary woman—against all odds. In that regard, it’s an incredible cinematic artifact that deserves to be reconsidered and appreciated once more. The film also showcases Hayek as an incredible performer—something Weinstein made her doubt over and over again.
"He made me doubt if I was any good as an actress," she wrote. "But he never succeeded in making me think that the film was not worth making."