Hollywood rediscovers rum, music and the magic of Havana

Big acting names travel to Cuban capital amid signs of thaw

It was only a drab union room and it was over faster than you could pluck a paper umbrella from a rum cocktail. But on Wednesday night, Havana briefly embraced Hollywood once again. Bill Murray crooned "As Time Goes By" from the film Casablanca while actors James Caan, Benicio del Toro and Robert Duvall smilingly looked on.

Whence this instant of glamour on an isle that remains mostly shuttered off from America even if this year has seen first glimmerings of change? Mr Del Toro, it turns out, was in the hall receiving an award from his Cuban peers for his performance in the title role of two-part bio-epic Che, about Che Guevara, the lieutenant to Fidel Castro in the overthrow of the Batista regime in 1959. The film, directed by Stephen Soderbergh, was a huge hit in Cuba.

Four famous actors in Havana do not make an invasion. Yet, the mere fact of these four men treading the capital's famous Malecon – its curving seaside boulevard – on the same week will make Los Angeles eyebrows levitate. Messrs Duval, Caan Murray, indeed, were in Cuba, with permission from the US government, on a "research" mission.

What that meant exactly, no one was saying. But it is easy to imagine that the US film industry, like others – cruise ship and hotel companies are at the front of the queue – are impatient for Cuba and America to get over their 50-year spat.

The island has new stories to tell and fresh topography to shoot in, urban and rural, while Havana, the most beguiling city in all the Caribbean, has a history with Hollywood. A city with "magical bells for lovers, full of rum and music on a makeshift island," said Marlon Brando in the 1955 film version of Guys and Dolls.

Certainly, Mr Murray seemed a tad giddy at the Wednesday night event. After singing the Casablanca song, he jokingly made as if to hand around a hat to collect money for the pianist. Nor did he shy from indulging in an occasional Cuba cliché. "I sure like the cars," he said, in reference to the pre-1959 American clunkers that still roam the city's streets. "I get excited about cars".

The award to Mr del Toro was named after the late Cuban film director Gutierrez Alea, who is remembered for avoiding direct criticism of the Castro regime while using wit and beauty to puncture small holes in it. His most famous worldwide hit was surely Strawberry and Chocolate, released 15 years ago. Mr del Toro, who is Puerto Rican-born, said he had been most influenced by another of his films, Death of a Bureaucrat.

The award ceremony was organised by the Cuban Union of Artists and Writers and held in a function room behind its headquarters in Havana. Asked directly whether he expected American directors to resume making films in Cuba one day, he replied: "That depends on the governments, on the American government."

A thaw of sorts may have begun since Fidel Castro handed over power to his brother Raul and, more significantly, since Barack Obama took office in the US and swiftly announced his interest in "recasting" relations with the island. Since then he has lifted restrictions on Cuban Americans visiting the country and sending money to relatives there. Talks on easing immigration rules, suspended by George Bush, have been resumed and this week the US said it has shut off a news ticker at its interest section building in Havana that had long irritated Cuban authorities.

But it was enough on Wednesday night to savour the moment, because of the sheer unlikeliness of it. "This is a show that will never be able to be repeated," Mr del Toro said. "Bill Murray singing, Robert Duvall with his flowers, James Caan sitting here next to me ... It will stay in history forever."

It did not escape Mr del Toro that the presence of Messrs Duvall and Caan spoke to another old link between Hollywood and Havana. Before Castro, the city was famed as a playground of America's Mafia hoodlums. And both Caan and Duvall, of course, earned their fame from starring in the original Godfather film. With Mr Brando.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?