Frida begins just before the traumatic accident Frida Kahlo (Salma Hayek) suffered at the age of 18 when a trolley bus collided with a motor bus she was riding. She is impaled by a metal pole and the injuries she sustained plague her for the rest of her life. To help her through convalescence, her father brings her a canvas upon which to start painting. Throughout the film, a scene starts as a painting, then slowly dissolves into a live action scene with actors.
Frida also details the artist's dysfunctional relationship with the muralist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina). When Rivera proposes to Kahlo, she tells him she expects from him loyalty if not fidelity. Diego's appraisal of her painting ability is one of the reasons that she continues to paint. Throughout the marriage, Rivera cheats on her with a wide array of women, while the bisexual Kahlo takes on male and female lovers, including in one case having an affair with the same woman as Rivera.
The two travel to New York City so that he may paint the mural Man at the Crossroads at the Rockefeller Center. While in the United States, Kahlo suffers a miscarriage, and her mother dies in Mexico. Rivera refuses to compromise his communist vision of the work to the needs of the patron, Nelson Rockefeller (Edward Norton); as a result, the mural is destroyed. The pair return to Mexico, with Rivera the more reluctant of the two.
Kahlo's sister Cristina moves in with the two at their San Ángel studio home to work as Rivera's assistant. Soon afterward, Kahlo discovers that Rivera is having an affair with her sister. She leaves him, and subsequently sinks into alcoholism. The couple reunite when he asks her to welcome and house Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush), who has been granted political asylum in Mexico. She and Trotsky begin an affair, which forces the married Trotsky to leave the safety of his Coyoacán home.
Kahlo leaves for Paris after Diego realizes she was unfaithful to him with Trotsky; although Rivera had little problem with Kahlo's other affairs, Trotsky was too important to Rivera to be intimately involved with his wife. When she returns to Mexico, he asks for a divorce. Soon afterwards, Trotsky is murdered in Mexico City. Rivera is temporarily a suspect, and Kahlo is incarcerated in his place when he is not found. Rivera helps get her released.
Kahlo has her toes removed when they become gangrenous. Rivera asks her to remarry him, and she agrees. Her health continues to worsen, including the amputation of a leg, and she ultimately dies after finally having a solo exhibition of her paintings in Mexico.Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo
Alfred Molina as Diego Rivera
Geoffrey Rush as Leon Trotsky
Mía Maestro as Cristina Kahlo
Ashley Judd as Tina Modotti
Antonio Banderas as David Alfaro Siqueiros
Edward Norton as Nelson Rockefeller
Diego Luna as Alejandro Gonzalez Arias
Margarita Sanz as Natalia Sedova
Patricia Reyes Spíndola as Matilde Kahlo
Roger Rees as Guillermo Kahlo
Valeria Golino as Lupe Marín
Omar Rodriguez as André Breton
Felipe Fulop as Jean Van Heijenoort
Saffron Burrows as Gracie
Karine Plantadit-Bageot as Josephine Baker
The passengers on the trolley Kahlo rides and that crashes with a bus are based on subjects in the painter's 1929 portrait, The Bus. The Brothers Quay-created stop motion animation sequence depicting the initial stages of Kahlo's recovery at the hospital after the trolley accident are inspired by the Mexican holiday Day of the Dead. The gown Valeria Golino wears at Kahlo's 1953 Mexican solo art exhibition is a replica of the dress her character Lupe Marín wore in Rivera's 1938 portrait of her.
The film version of Frida Kahlo's life was initially championed by Nancy Hardin, a former book editor and Hollywood-based literary agent, turned early "female studio executive", who, in the mid-1980s wished to "make the transition to independent producing." Learning of Hayden Herrara's biography of Kahlo, Hardin saw Kahlo's life as very contemporary, her "story... an emblematic tale for women torn between marriage and career." Optioning the book in 1988, Hardin "tried to sell it as an epic love story in the tradition of Out of Africa, attracting tentative interest from actresses such as Meryl Streep and Jessica Lange, but receiving rejection from the film studios. As Kahlo's art gained prominence, however "in May, 1990 one of Kahlo's self-portraits sold at Sotheby's for $1.5 million, the highest price ever paid at auction for a Latin American painting." Madonna "announced her plans to star in a film based on Frida's life", and Robert De Niro's Tribeca Productions reportedly "envisioned a joint biography of Rivera and Kahlo." In the spring of 1991, director Luis Valdez began production on a New Line feature about Frida Kahlo starring Laura San Giacomo in the lead. San Giacomo's casting received objections due to her non-Hispanic ethnicity, and New Line complied with the protesters' demands, and left the then-titled Frida and Diego in August, 1992 citing finances. Hardin's project found itself swamped by similar ones:
When I first tried to sell the project ... there was no interest because nobody had heard of Frida. A few years later, I heard the exact opposite – that there were too many Frida projects in development, and nobody wanted mine.
Valdez was contacted early on by the – then unknown in the U.S. – Salma Hayek, who sent "her [promo] reel to the director and phoned his office", but was ultimately told she was then too young for the role. By 1993, Valdez had retitled the film The Two Fridas with San Giacomo and Ofelia Medina both playing the portraitist. Raúl Juliá was cast as Diego Rivera, but his death further delayed the movie. At the same time, Hardin approached HBO, and with "rising young development executive and producer" Lizz Speed (a former assistant to Sherry Lansing) intended to make a television movie, hopeful that Brian Gibson (director of "What's Love Got to Do With It, the story of Tina Turner" and The Josephine Baker Story) would direct. Casting difficulties proved insurmountable, but Speed joined Hardin in advocating the project, and after four years in development, the two took the project from HBO to Trimark and producer Jay Polstein (with assistant Darlene Caamaño). At Trimark, Salma Hayek became interested in the role, having "been fascinated by Kahlo's work from the time she was 13 or 14" – although not immediately a fan:
Hayek was so determined to play the role that she sought out Dolores Olmedo Patino, longtime-lover of Diego Rivera, and (after his death) administrator to the rights of Frida and Rivera's art, which Rivera had "willed ... to the Mexican people", bequeath[ing] the trust to Olmedo. Salma Hayek personally secured access to Kahlo's paintings from her, and began to assemble a supporting cast, approaching Alfred Molina for the role of Rivera in 1998. According to Molina, "She turned up backstage [of the Broadway play 'Art'] rather sheepishly, and asked if I would like to play Diego". Molina went on to gain 35 pounds to play Rivera. When producer Polstein left Trimark, however, the production faltered again, and Hayek approached Harvey Weinstein and Miramax, and the company purchased the film from Trimark; Julie Taymor came onto the project as Director. Meanwhile, in August 2000 it was announced that Jennifer Lopez would star in Valdez's take on the story, The Two Fridas, by then being produced by American Zoetrope. Nonetheless, it was Hayek and Miramax who began production in Spring, 2001 on what was to become simply titled Frida.
On August 29, 2002, the film made its world premiere opening the Venice International Film Festival. Frida's American premiere was at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in Los Angeles on October 14 of that year. It had its Mexican premiere on November 8, 2002 at Mexico City's Palace of Fine Arts.
Frida was initially shown in five theaters and earned $205,996 upon its opening weekend in the United States. The following week the film expanded to forty-seven theaters, earning $1,323,935. By late December 2002, Frida was playing in 283 theaters and had earned over $20 million. The film earned $56,298,474 in its worldwide total gross.
Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 76% of 151 critics have given the film a positive review, with a rating average of 6.9 out of 10. According to the site's summary of the critical consensus, "Frida is a passionate, visually striking biopic about the larger-than-life artist." Metacritic, which assigns a score of 1–100 to individual film reviews, gives the film an average rating of 61 based on 38 reviews. Stella Papamichael from the BBC gave the film three out of five stars and stated "Julie Taymor's biography of Mexican painter Frida Kahlo connects the dots between art and anguish. The disparity lies in the fact that Frida settles for tickling a fancy where it should be packing a punch. Although involving and sprightly, it offers the kind of guilty pleasure a Fine Arts student might derive from a glossy cartoon strip." Film critic Roger Ebert awarded Frida three and a half stars and commented "Sometimes we feel as if the film careens from one colorful event to another without respite, but sometimes it must have seemed to Frida Kahlo as if her life did, too." Ebert thought Taymor and the writers had "obviously struggled with the material", though he called the closing scenes "extraordinary." The New York Post's Jonathan Foreman praised the score and Taymor's direction, saying that she "captures both the glamorous, deeply cosmopolitan milieu Kahlo and Rivera inhabited, and the importance Mexico had in the '30s for the international left." He added that the odd accents adopted by the likes of Judd and Rush let the authenticity down. Andrew Pulver from The Guardian gave the film three stars and proclaimed that it is "a substantial film, its story told with economy and clarity."
The American Film Institute included Frida in their Movies of the Year 2002, Official Selection. Their rationale was:
Frida is a movie about art that is a work of art in itself. The film's unique visual language takes us into an artist's head and reminds us that art is best enjoyed when it moves, breathes and is painted on a giant canvas, as only the movies can provide.Frida (soundtrack)