Farewell Farewell, Bernardo Bernardo

Rapid Pinoy pop-culture quiz: name another media celebrity with a double name. Aside from the usual nickname or fancy given name (Jonjon, Zsa Zsa, or, for political controversy, Bongbong), only a sufficiently elderly local observer might be able to remember Justo Justo. And unlike Bernardo Bernardo, Panfilo C. Justo opted to use a pseudonym by reduplicating his family name.

More recent friends of Bernardo would also know that he specified a second name, also reduplicated: BB, coined (as he once told me) to facilitate conversations in Facebook and FB Messenger.[1] Born on January 28, 1945, BB was too young to remember the intensification of World War II, leading to an ending, about half a year after his birth, where there were in fact no winners except for the abruptly wealthy Americans. The recollections of his elders must have induced in him a resolve never to face any historical crisis without contributing his share to social change, for better or worse.

This much can be seen in his choice of college major: journalism, then-available (circa the mid-1960s) only at the University of Sto. Tomas, with the national university still laying the groundwork for its own media program. In addition to his stint as editor-in-chief of the Varsitarian, Bernardo struck an imposing Adonic figure, tall, smart, and confident; his moreno features only served to heighten his appeal – and not surprisingly, the performing arts started knocking on his door and never stopped calling on him till the end.

Before he succumbed last March 8 to a particularly severe bout with pancreatic cancer, BB had made a name for himself as the most successful crossover actor in the country, conquering stage, film, and television (in that order) and expanding his reach to global stages and festivals, while also directing and producing some of his projects. Name a Philippine National Artist still alive during BB’s active years, and chances are that the name “Bernardo” will appear in the roster of participants, twice. Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., director of the Filipino Arts & Cinema International (FACINE), confirmed in private that the Annual Filipino International Film Festival was planning to recognize him with a life-achievement award during its twenty-fifth anniversary celebration in San Francisco this year.

Regarded in retrospect, Bernardo was always a step or more ahead of his colleagues. He parlayed his facility in English into lead roles at Repertory Philippines, known for its restaging of US theater and musical hits. By the time the production of the West End musical Miss Saigon scouted for Filipino talents, zeroing in on Rep and discovering Lea Salonga in the process, he had long moved on. He first sought a more remunerative arrangement via the then-burgeoning dinner-theater scene, and stood out in the multicharacter sequel of Boys in the Band at Century Park Sheraton, where he was “flaming enough to burn the ballroom down,” as he described in an interview I had with him, titled “Manay Revisits Manila by Night.”

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Ishmael Bernal, who had seen his performance, was then on the lookout for an actor who could play one of the lead roles in Manila by Night, intended to be the second-anniversary presentation of Regal Films as a production outfit. The character, Manay, was meant to represent the “conscience” of the film – a flawed one, it must be added, since the project entailed an encompassing and necessarily dystopic vision of the city under militarized dictatorship. Nighttime was when everything repressed by prevailing social institutions during martial rule could emerge – prostitution, drug transactions, queer assignations, live-sex shows, drag displays, hypocritical masquerades, political corruption, police abuse, polyamorous promiscuity, and so on.

The other requisite that made the role of Manay the most challenging in the film was that, like the rest of the other characters, it was intended to be improvised by the actor in conjunction with the director as well as a number of script consultants, with help from the very denizens that Bernal modeled his characters on. In “Manay Revisits Manila by Night,” Bernardo describes his process of collaboration with Bernal: “Although it is true that there were no conventional shooting scripts provided, there were definitely scraps of paper on the set with key dialog for the film character’s objectives for the day. On a typical shoot, with Bernal’s approval, I would ad-lib during blocking rehearsals to bookend the philosophical riffs of Manay that Bernal wrote. Bernal understood that this process helped me to give the dialogue a more conversational, spontaneous feel.”

When contemporary filmmaker Lawrence Fajardo, who has been specializing in the multicharacter film narratives that Bernal pioneered in, opted to return to his theater roots, he picked out a play, Herlyn Gail Alegre’s Imbisibol, and cast Bernardo in a role intended for a straight actor. Realizing that BB’s strengths lay in camp and humor, Fajardo requested him to collaborate in revising and improvising Benjie, a character several steps removed from Manay: older, impoverished, sickly, working overseas as an undocumented laborer, whose only happiness lay in the domestic relationship he shared with his same-sex partner (played in the film by Ricky Davao). When the film version was completed, shot on location in Hokkaido, Bernardo won his second critics prize for performance (the first was of course for Manila by Night) – the only actor since Vic Silayan to win in all the instances he was nominated.

In effect, BB was drawing from his experience as a health worker in the US, where he had gone into self-exile after enduring stereotyping in his film and TV roles because, ironically, of his triumph with his Manay character. An avowedly queer subject, he had also had, after all, his share of heterosexual romances, including a years-long high-profile affair with Chanda Romero. Younger acquaintances familiar with his occasional cross-dressed socnet pics needed a double-take or two to grasp the full measure of his boundary-busting, genre-challenging, culture-crossing persona, what with some of his female contemporaries admitting to having had crushes on him.

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A more direct deduction one could make regarding his facility in various professional capacities is that he was always fully prepared, in practice as well as in theory: his professional record yields an enviable number of academic qualifications, including scholarships and graduate degrees at prominent American universities, as well as faculty stints in US and Philippine educational institutions.[2] During the past couple of years he would mention work on a memoir as his legacy project, and posted some wonderful little-known anecdotes on his Facebook wall as samples.

This was about the same time that he came out, as it were, in another sense – in support of the presidential candidacy of Rodrigo Duterte. Such a political stance set him off against several of his friends in literature and the arts. As someone who refused to capitulate to polarized positions, I was able to continue corresponding with him, and saw how his motives were as earnest as when he linked up decades ago with Bernal, Lino Brocka, and the other founding members of the Concerned Artists of the Philippines against the Marcos dictatorship. He read the drafts of the book I was working on (titled Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic, published by Arsenal Pulp Press in Vancouver, where “Manay Revisits Manila by Night” appears as an appendix), and suggested some helpful changes and corrections.

During the final revision, I informed him that I expanded the book’s conclusion, saying in effect that not only had nothing changed since the Marcos years, but that the plight of the country’s poor had worsened. To drive the point home, I juxtaposed some scenes from Manila by Night with drawn-from-headlines photographs of extrajudicial executions, and offered Bernardo the opportunity to revise anything in his interview by way of responding to this harsh indictment of the Philippine political system. He took an unusually long time before he finally replied, on FB Messenger: “I’ve decided not to make a statement regarding the current state of affairs in Manila under the new dispensation. After those years of depression in the US, I think it’s healthier for me to cling to a more hopeful outlook. Eyes wide open. [Smile] Love the book, Joel. [Heart] So proud and honored to be a part of it. Maraming, maraming salamat.”

Before we consign Bernardo to a historical past, a few things ought to remind us that he deserves to be around longer. Manila by Night remains the only major Filipino film still awaiting restoration and the memoir he left behind still has to be published. FACINE also recently announced that he’ll be the first posthumous awardee of their Golden Harvest prize – an indication that when BB left, he made sure we would all be enriched by his presence.

Notes

[1] Posted in Ámauteurish! as “Bernardo Bernardo: Exchanges on Facebook Messenger.”

[2] Many thanks to Sari Dalena (director of the University of the Philippines Film Institute) and Ina Avellana-Cosio (UPFI researcher) for information on Bernardo Bernardo’s extensive academic background.

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About Joel David

Teacher, scholar, & gadfly of film, media, & culture. [Photo of Kiehl courtesy of Danny Y. & Vanny P.] View all posts by Joel David

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