Is it possible to watch a performance with no expectations at all? Surely a lot of people will say yes and they are surely right but I know that I have never been able to do that. For me, expectations come naturally. There are so many forums, websites or blogs with reviews about Best Actress nominees that by now I have basically heard or read about everyone of them and before I watch a certain performance, I already know about the reputation it has today and how it was reviewed when it was first released. I also have my own ideas about the kind of movie the nominee stars in and if it’s a movie that allows an impressive performance and so on. Because of all this, it’s impossible for me to watch a performance without already thinking before the movie even started about how much I am probably going to like it. And strangely enough, most of the time I am right. By now, I just know what to expect of certain actors, of certain roles and of certain movies and it hardly happens anymore that I am completely surprised. Does this mean that I judge all these performances based on my expectations? Or that my expectations cloud my judgment and therefore all performances end up receiving just the grade that I expected? Certainly not – this would make this whole trip and ranking useless. Because I may have a certain expectation about every performance but not about where exactly it will end up in my ranking. I also think of myself as somebody who is not influenced by a love, respect or dislike for a certain performer. Katharine Hepburn is my favorite actress but her performances are not above criticism. I don’t care very much for Norma Shearer but her work in Marie Antoinette blew me away nonetheless. And in the end, surprises do happen – sometimes I expect to be blown away only to end up disappointed. Of course, being disappointed can still mean that it is actually a great performance – but when you expect an easy 5, a grade of 4,5 can still be disappointing. And of course, there are the other, much more pleasant surprises – when a performance that I expect to dislike completely ends up ranging from good (happens rather often) to very good (not quite so often) or even great (almost never happens). So why am I telling you all this? Well, it was very hard to watch Frida without thinking of the huge amount of dislike that has been thrown at Salma Hayek’s Oscar nominated performance during the last years – she may have been nominated for every major award for her work as the famous Mexican painter Frida Kahlo but the reputation of her work has gone downhill rather fast. Nick Davis, dinasztie, Sage and Joe are all almost unanimous in their critical position to this performance and also other critics, bloggers and writers tend to share this point of view. So, my mind was pretty made up and I was prepared for the worst. So – were my expectations fulfilled? Or did this performance turn out to be one of those seldom surprises?
Frida is the kind of movie that is often described as a ‘passion project’ because Salma Hayek had been involved with it for a long time and over the years convinced producers and famous co-stars to share her vision. And Frida is certainly a curious creation – on the one hand it’s impossible to overlook the passion, the dedication and the admiration for its central character that went into the whole production. But on the other hand, the whole movie never truly seems to grasp the character of Frida Kahlo – it’s a conventional biopic that tries to tell a whole, complicated lifetime in just 2 hours and, in this way, follows the tradition of countless biopics before. But even though it still never feels like a movie about a specific artist but rather seems to tell the story of any artist whom it follows along and in this way resembles the kind of movie that makes one say during the end credits ‘Oh look, this was actually based on a true story’. Maybe the reason for this is that Frida Kahlo is more known for what she did instead of who she was but obviously it’s the task of a biopic to present the woman behind the paintings. In this aspect, Frida failed – but in its own structure it still comes out as a strangely fascinating and gripping story. Maybe it doesn’t fulfill its own goal to give insight into the life of Frida Kahlo but it still works as a general story of art, passion, politics and life, using a specific character for a general idea. And within this context, Salma Hayek’s performance works surprisingly well, even if involuntarily. Because she, too, seems not to portrays a certain character but her own idea of strength and art. Like Nicole Kidman in The Hours, Salma Hayek played a woman who is mostly known for her artistry instead of her personality. And because of this, both women did not need to either copy any well-known mannerism or create a public figures from the inside because neither the exterior nor any characteristics, moods or behaviors of Virginia Woolf or Frida Kahlo are truly known. Maybe a fake nose and a unibrow were added to add to the effect but essentially, Salma Hayek and Nicole Kidman could create their characters with a lot of artistic freedom and independence. Just like the movie Frida itself, Salma Hayek crafted a woman that never uncovers the layers of this real-life personality but rather one that seems to be a product of acting, writing and directing instead of reality. In this way, Salma Hayek may not give a truly deep or challenging characterization of Frida Kahlo but she does give a deep and satisfying characterization of the woman presented on the screen. It’s hard to say if this all makes sense and in some ways her performance is not different from that of countless other performances of real-life persons – as mentioned just now, Nicole Kidman’s work is less notable for bringing Virginia Woolf to life than for displaying a woman suffering from deep depression. Or is Faye Dunaway’s performance in Bonnie and Clyde ever measured by how well she captured the character of the real Bonnie Parker? So, Salma Hayek’s work is not unique in this aspect but it is worth noting since Frida is a straight-forward biopic while movies like The Hours or Bonnie and Clyde aim to achieve different goals. So, in a certain way, both Frida and Salma Hayek’s performance are failures because they are not able to evoke any feeling for the real-life character they present. But at the same time, they are able to succeed in a different way – crafting a strong and intriguing woman who, as written, seems only to exist in the world that Frida creates but, thanks to Salma Hayek’s charisma and dedication, is still fascinating enough to overcome all the flaws surrounding it.
The character of Frida demands an actress to find the right tone for her work from the first moment on she is on-screen – because Frida Kahlo is presented as a fully-developed person right away and a false step at these early moments could easily ruin the whole performance that follows. Thankfully, Salma Hayek disappearance into the 18-year old Frida Kahlo is a completely spellbinding introduction, mainly because she was able to display her youthful spirit without any exaggerated mannerism or make-up. Salma Hayek still looks like Salma Hayek but somehow her smile, her way of talking and behaving turns her into a believable young woman who meets her boyfriend for a quick sexual encounter in a closet and then needs the help of her bigger sister to get him out of the house unnoticed. In these first scenes, she successfully unfolds the character in small and big steps and finds a constant stream in which she develops her further – she already shows her as a passionate, unconventional, intelligent woman who possesses the kind of ‘free spirit’ that a character like this in a movie like this always displays. But fortunately, she handled the clichés of her character with visible ease. She can sneak into an auditorium to watch Diego Rivera paint a nude woman or talk about politics with her boyfriend and suddenly admire some gold that another man is carrying without turning into the kind of ‘free spirit’ that can be found in so many other movies – an unconventional woman who uses every second of her life to be different, to exaggerate her emotions and while talking jump from one topic to the other, constantly trying to surprise everyone around her, often to cover the obligatory sadness inside her with a joyful appearance. Instead, Salma Hayek’s Frida appears like a truly honest creation, a woman who always means what she says and says what she thinks, a real multitasker who is always handling various different topics in her mind without losing the connection to one them and who can be an object of affection, of lust, a comrade, an artist and a political figure all at once. In the bus scene, Salma Hayek effectively showed that Frida may be shifting her focus to another topic for a short moment but this does not mean that her mind is not still fully focused on the political conversation she is having at the same time. Also later in the movie, Salma Hayek often believable demonstrated that Frida is always aware and always reflecting, combining this thoughtful spirit effectively with her emotional side. And also for this emotional side, Salma Hayek avoided the usual clichés and mannerisms that accompany such a part – Frida is an artist! She is Mexican! She has affairs! She talks about politics! She has a wild marriage! This alone would usually generate the most exotic, wild and unpredictable acting choices. But apparently Salma Hayek understood her character better than that and played her with a combination of pig-headedness, sensitivity, emotiveness and clear focus on both her own acting choices and Frida’s intentions. And this clear focus on her own work while portraying a sort of rebellious woman made her performance much richer and more satisfying than first expected. Maybe Frida does not allow Salma Hayek to go really deep into the mind and soul of this woman since it tells a very straightforward story that mostly stays on the surface as it presents the various events that happened to her instead of showing who she was but somehow Salma Hayek was able to find her own depth and her own core by never dropping any of Frida’s characteristics and constantly showing her emotional and intellectual growth despite the fact that she actually never changed during her lifetime.
Strangely enough, despite all the admiration for Frida Kahlo that went into Frida, everything and everyone in it still keeps a visible distance from her – an involuntarily distance created by the screenplay but this distance also helped Salma Hayek to treat this character without any worship or exaggerated admiration. Instead, she always feels honest and down-to-earth in her interpretation and carried the movie this way with charisma and intriguing realism, from her moments of joy to her outbursts or grief and her relationship with Diego. This relationship is another important part of the movie – Frida may be about Frida Kahlo but most of all it puts the relationship between two headstrong and unique characters in its centre. And both Salma Hayek and Alfred Molina are able to keep the tension and electricity between their two characters for the whole movie, from this first meeting right up to the scene in which he proposes to her again. In this first meeting, Salma Hayek defined their relationship right away when Frida refuses to go up to him to show him her pictures and instead insists that he comes down to her – it may be out of necessity because her legs still suffer from her accident but Salma Hayek also combined this moment with Frida’s typical insistence and headstrong personality while also finding moments of nervousness and uncertainty over her art. The romance and marriage that follows this moment is never perfect but somehow feels right, thanks to Salma Hayek who is able to be the driving force of this relationship and always gives it reason. Even when the movie begins to shift at some parts and focuses more on the character of Diego, Salma Hayek still keeps control over all proceedings and dominates the story without feeling officious in any way. When Selma Hayek displays happiness, she also gives a positive light to this relationship and when she tells her husband in the night how much he hurt her or on the street that he was never a husband to her, she finds some truly wonderful moments that highlight and define her whole performance and the complicated love between Frida and Diego.
Of course, there are moments when the flat structure of the screenplay and the movie also brings Salma Hayek down – but she also adds some misfires herself, too. Sometimes she feels too much like an actress going through the emotions that she is asked to go through instead of truly turning her character into an honest creation. But even if she doesn’t handle some of these moments with more than the competence of a dedicated performer – this competence is still more than enough to both carry the movie and help Salma Hayek to go through the various emotions and living situations of her character. And with this, she serves both this character and the movie and single-handedly defines the tone and feeling of every scene. She can be truly heartbreaking when her boyfriend breaks up with her after her accident, exciting when she is dancing at a party, believably angry and disappointed when she smells the perfume of another woman on her husband and compelling when she talks about her political views. Maybe it is easy to accuse Salma Hayek of not going very deep – mainly because these accusations are correct. Her whole performance feels more like a presentation than a characterization but it’s still a gripping one and needed a lot of confidence and charisma to make it work. And even if her performance exists mostly on the surface, she still makes it feel that Frida is a much deeper character than the movie allows – it’s maybe not a deep characterization of Frida Kahlo but it feels like a deep characterization of the woman that is presented on the screen. Maybe this review sounds a little bit too enthusiastic – as I mentioned, Salma Hayek does not always overcome the limitations of the movie or her own talent and despite the wide range of emotions and events her character goes through, the role often feels too one-dimensional in many aspects. But still, Salma Hayek was a surprise – a more than pleasant surprise. Maybe I am alone with this opinion but to expect the worst and discover something truly engaging and worthwhile does not happen very often during the journey through all Best Actress nominees – I hope to be surprised more often like this in the future. But for now, Salma Hayek’s performance in which dedication, passion and focus triumph over one-dimensionality and thin writing receives