shows independent spirit
By Fabiola Santiago.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Posted on Fri, Jan. 14, 2005 in The
Filmmaker León Ichaso has an enviable
gig coming up in Hollywood -- directing
couple-of-the-hour Jennifer Lopez and Marc
Anthony in a movie about the troubled life
of a salsa legend.
But pan the Cuban-American director's career
for dramatic effect, the way Ichaso has
done with his eclectic subjects in 25 years
of movie-making, and you'll find his soul
in the 1998 love story Bitter Sugar.
Ichaso wrote the synopsis, about an idealistic
young Communist in Havana and a dance student
who dates foreigners for dollars, in just
one hour, inspired by his anger over news
stories coming out of Cuba.
''People, many of them in my industry,
had just discovered Havana as the new Studio
54, the place to go, get laid and have fun,
and what a party,'' says Ichaso, who is
being honored today with a retrospective
showing of his major films at the Tower
Theater in Miami.
''I thought it pathetic, cruel and irresponsible,
and I really wanted to say something about
it,'' he says of the Cuban reality.
He did, delivering a touching movie, filmed
in black and white and featuring unforgettable
characters like the young rocker who injects
himself with HIV.
But then -- deliberately, he admits --
Ichaso ruined the film, at least in the
eyes of critics. Instead of the expected
artful finale, he chose a ''patriotic ending''
in which the disillusioned protagonist pulls
out a gun at a massive rally and tries to
kill Fidel Castro.
''I could have ended up with a cleaner,
more artful film loved by the American critics.
But I wanted to inspire some kind of patriotism
in the art and maybe hope that somebody
would really pull out a gun and kill that
bastard,'' Ichaso, 56, says in an interview
from his New York apartment.
Not exactly the words of your standard
Hollywood director. Instead it's vintage
Ichaso -- unguarded, frank, contrarian.
From 1979's El Super, which remains the
quintessential Cuban-exile film, to Piñero,
the 2001 movie starring Benjamin Bratt about
a Puerto Rican bad-boy poet-playwright who
did time in prison for drug dealing and
theft, Ichaso's productions reflect his
''He's the lone wolf of filmmakers, the
one who has given up everything else for
the sake of his art -- and he's made it
in Hollywood,'' says Alejandro Ríos,
coordinator of Miami Dade College's Cuban
Cinema Series 2005, which is hosting the
Ichaso tribute with the three-day film marathon.
"He's the most successful Cuban-American
Born to a Havana family of ''writers and
totally dysfunctional people,'' Ichaso left
Cuba in 1963 with his sister and mother,
the writer Antonia Ichaso. He was 14. His
father, Justo Rodríguez Santos, a
poet who was published alongside Cuba's
greatest writers in the literary magazine
Orígenes, would not be able to leave
the island for six years.
In Miami and New York, Ichaso ''drifted
into the '60s.'' The culture of sex, drugs
and rock 'n' roll suited his bohemian spirit.
He was a player in the ''psychedelic Miami''
of the late '60s and '70s. He started out
making commercials in New York but found
his calling when he saw a play by fellow
exile Iván Acosta that became his
first film, El Super, the story of a Cuban
building superintendent unable to adapt
to exile. ''It was not a successful Cuban
in Miami, but a failed Cuban in New York
who longed to go back to a place he couldn't
go back to and was frustrated . . by the
Americanization of his daughter, by a world
he didn't understand,'' Ichaso recalls.
The film, co-directed with Orlando Jiménez
Leal, played to packed theaters in Miami
and New York. ''It was a way of breaking
through some taboo or stigma,'' Ischaso
says. "It had the Bay of Pigs guy boasting
about Fidel Castro himself shooting from
a tank to get him, a Cuban girl getting
pregnant by an unknown kid in school, all
these unthinkable subjects we would never
After El Super, ''it was less commercials
and more movies.'' He filmed Crossover Dreams
with Rubén Blades, about salsa musicians
in New York.
Ichaso has been able to shuttle between
making independent films close to his heart
and the Hollywood television and movie projects
that bring home the paycheck.
A writer-director for the television shows
Miami Vice, Crime Story and The Equalizer,
he has directed movies starring Wesley Snipes
(Sugar Hill), Sidney Poitier (Free of Eden)
and Louis Gossett Jr. (Zooman).
''I was the only Cuban that directed Miami
Vice and knew Miami vice,'' he quips, a
reference to his days as a big-time partyer.
"They would bring all these people
to Miami and had a fictionalized version
of it. I tried to bring something of my
own into the show and it worked. I did five
episodes. I took Don Johnson to a cafecito
on Flagler Street, and he even spoke Spanish.''
He went on to direct the Showtime movies
The Fear Inside and A Kiss to Die For.
''All of a sudden you start making money
in a career that's been loaded with miseries
and sacrifices,'' he says.
Sugar Hill, he says, "was a very mainstream
film that made a lot of money and was a
good experience. It was for me a kind of
branching out. It was not like they hired
me to do a Cuban story. It was a fully black
cast with a story about Harlem. I've lived
in New York, so I know that world.''
Although Hollywood darlings like J.Lo want
to make movies with him now, Ichaso still
doesn't take himself too seriously. ''This
is it; my dream is my nightmare,'' he says.
"I'm solely responsible for my anxiety,
my craziness, my joys. I've never done anything
but what I want to do and I paid a big price
for it because it's like sometimes it's
too late for you to prostitute yourself.
. . . I'm stuck with being me and doing