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.