Salma Hayek as Frida Kahlo

F By Al Milgrom

for local Salma Hayek fans, the long-delayed transformation of the sultry Hollywood sex symbol into surrealist painter Frida Kahlo begins this weekend. For local Frida Kahlo fans, the celebrated Mexican painter will be getting long-delayed recognition as one of the 20th century’s major artists. With the opening of “Frida” on the local screen, filmgoers will be treated to one of the legendary love stories of the last century.

“Frida,” the new and engrossing film biography of the vibrant Mexican artist and her tempestuous marriage to muralist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina) opens for a weeklong run Friday at the Uptown Theater.

After decades of relative obscurity outside Mexico, Kahlo (l907-1954) is finally going to receive her Hollywood apotheosis. Hayek says she had dreamed for years of bringing the artist’s story to the screen. Several film projects stalled, and the dream had to wait until Tinseltown considered Hayek “bankable.”

She and co-producer Nancy Hardin then finessed an option to the exhaustively researched l983 Kahlo biography by art historian Hayden Herrera. They also managed to get rights to reproduce several major paintings.

(Better late than never; Kahlo has now become the first Hispanic woman to be commemorated with a U.S. postage stamp.)

“Frida” had its North American premiere at this fall’s prestigious Toronto International Film Festival, where Hayek regaled assembled press corps (including the Daily) with the story of her long and frustrating journey to get the difficult project off the ground. The film is now being touted for the Oscar race, but this might only be pre-Oscar hype.

Hayek’s new role as impassioned producer of “Frida” and now as a serious player on the Hollywood film scene is at odds with her image as sex symbol and superstar newcomer. In fact, at 36, she has actually been around for years, first in Mexican television soap operas in the late 1980s, then as a Hollywood wannabe until her breakthrough film in 1995 – “Desperado” with Antonio Banderas. One has to go back to the 1940s and Delores Del Rio to find a Mexican actress as a Hollywood star.

At her side in Toronto was Tony-award director Julie Taymor (“The Lion King”), credited by Hayek as the person “who pulled everything together” to recreate Kahlo’s complex battle of egos with mentor and several-times husband, the philandering Rivera. The engaging Molina is more than equal to this role as foil to Hayek’s dominating presence.

Taymor captures Kahlo’s romantic entanglements with women (a liaison with Italian photographer Tina Modotti, portrayed by Ashley Judd, figures prominently) and her controversial affair in which she seduced the brilliant, exiled Communist revolutionary Leon Trotsky (Geoffrey Rush) upon his arrival in Mexico in l937. The film records the vicissitudes of their humorous and famously obsessive relationship.

“The film does not judge Trotsky’s politics,” says Hayek. “I only tried to show him as a man.”

Against a canvas of vibrant Mexican sunlight and a half century of cultural and intellectual ferment, the film covers Kahlo’s uncompromising life. Hayek masterfully portrays Kahlo at 16 as an art student and chronicles her debilitating streetcar accident at l8 (which shattered her spinal column and impaled her on a metal rod). “Frida” also marks the defining moments of her deep and controversial 30-year relationship with Rivera.

Kahlo’s famous autobiographical paintings (Hayek herself painted some of the canvases used in the film) and Taymor’s collages, informed by a script culled from letters and diaries, are used to examine Kahlo’s tortured inner life. The epic story, shot in Mexican studios and locations, also simulates the couple’s bohemian travels to Paris and Manhattan. In making period and politics, spectacle and surrealism, pain and painting all come alive in two hours, “Frida” succeeds where other recent artist biopics – “Pollack” or “Before Night Falls,” for instance – have fallen short.

Crucial uncredited script revisions by boyfriend/actor Edward Norton finally brought the film to fruition, said Hayek. (Norton also plays Nelson Rockefeller, who chose communist Rivera to decorate newly built Rockefeller Center in l933 with a grandiloquent mural, about capital and labor, then rejecting it when it was discovered that Lenin’s portrait had been snuck in somewhere on the wall.)

Observing Hayek in action, it is not hard to figure how her grit, determination and intelligence could have convinced Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein to finance the project.

In realizing “Frida,” her decade-long producing and acting dream, Hayek also credits the rich palette of Mexican cameraman Rodrigo Prieto (“Amores Perros”) and the folk songs of 90-year-old Costa Rican-born legend Chavela Vargas, herself on the screen, with lending authenticity and inspiration.

Kahlo’s trademark unibrow is unaltered for Hollywood sensibilities.

“What does it symbolize? Her intelligence?” asked a press corps guy. “It’s usually a mark of low mentality.”

“It only means that I had to become more hairy,” replied Hayek, laughing.

“Frida,” Rated R. Directed By Julie Taymor. Starring Salma Hayek, Alfred Molina, Edward Norton. Starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre, 825-6006.