Mother Pinas, Onscreen

From the Internet Movie Database.

Out of Anita Linda’s several bouts of mixed fortunes, the fact that she survived into the internet era should count as her so-far final stroke of good luck. Tributes, recollections, even film excerpts regarding her excellence as performer flooded Pinas social media on the day she died, two days before Independence Day 2020 – a time when people were seeking fitting symbols of the nation to honor.

11011Linda would of course be the perfect embodiment. Dying in the early morning – or, in keeping with her professional approach, sleeping her last – she seemingly made sure that no schedule that required her for the day would be disrupted by any untoward drama in real life. Anything dramatic, for her, should be allowed to emerge only in her performances.

11011Anyone should be able to pick up the basic details by now, and a whole lot more might be added to her bio once historians of pop culture have finished combing through the many anecdotes her co-workers have been posting about her. Born in 1924 to an American father and Ilongga mother, Alice Lake was discovered while watching a stage show by Lamberto V. Avellana, and given her screen name by Avellana’s wife, the former Daisy Hontiveros.[1] She expressed reluctance because of her difficulty with Tagalog, but Avellana was insistent and cast her in a non-speaking stage part.

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Sisa publicity pic. [From Video 48]

11011World War II delayed the screening of her first film, Avellana’s Tiya Juana [Aunt Juana] (1943), for LVN Pictures, Avellana’s home studio. Her next projects, however, came out four years later, for Premiere Productions: three films in 1947, five in 1948, seven in 1949. Premiere was where Gerardo de Leon worked, and Linda may have impressed him enough to cast her in a period project, Sisa, based on the tragic figure in Jose Rizal’s 1887 novel Noli Me Tangere [Touch Me Not], who in turn was partly based on the persecution by Spanish authorities of the hero’s mother, who had made herself vulnerable by marrying a Chinoy.[2] Most of the other evidence of Linda’s evolution as film actor may be impossible to source by now, since most of the Premiere holdings were burned in one of those warehouse fires that kept razing down combustible celluloid stock.

11011An added misfortune was political in nature. Linda, along with Patria Plata, supported a crewpersons’ strike at her home studio, led by soundperson Casimiro Padilla. The owners decided to shut down the production company, leaving the strikers stranded, the actresses included. (Based on their production credits, this would have occurred around the mid-1950s.)[3] During this period, the studio system was also faltering from its top-heavy vertical integration and was facing challenges from more successful stars, who had enough of their own money to start producing their own films. Unfortunately, this tension resolved into a highly commercial catch-as-catch-can approach to production that did not guarantee that many of the titles made by practitioners during that period could be preserved for posterity.

11011Felicitously for Linda’s most celebrated film role, Lino Brocka spearheaded a recovery program with a team whose members hunted down Gerry de Leon films from all over the country, starting with the most logical final destinations – provincial theaters where celluloid prints would usually be left to deteriorate or be cannibalized as caps and horns for Christmas and New Year merriment. The recovery of Sisa (1951) bowled over a new generation of observers, who had been earlier transfixed by a more recent performance, Lolita Rodriguez’s in Lino Brocka’s own Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang [Weighed But Found Wanting] (1974).

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In Emmanuel Quindo Palo’s Sta. Niña (2012), with Coco Martin. [Cinemalaya & CCM Creatives]

11011Linda in Sisa deservedly took top spot as Pinas cinema’s most outstanding film performance, the gold standard against which a much younger aspirant, Nora Aunor, was subsequently to measure herself. To say that Aunor was eventually able to surpass her is no slight on Linda’s achievement: a new filmmaking generation brought with it more openness and artistic daring, along with Aunor’s own considerable resources as top multimedia star of our time. Nevertheless Linda persisted and even managed to occasionally headline her own film projects, possibly the oldest Filipino actor to ever achieve the feat. The two millennial-era films where she appears as lead actress, Adolfo Borinaga Alix Jr.’s Adela (2008) and Brillante Ma. Mendoza’s Lola [Grandmother] (2009), deploy the benevolence and humility that Linda became known for among her colleagues.[4] It were as if the directors scouted for unusual and inaccessible urban settings, set Linda down in them, and instructed her to be her truest self. Her final film, Alix’s Circa (2019), also features her in lead capacity – a fitting end to a career with several highs but also too many lows.

11011This may also have been a consequence of iconicity, a higher realm than stardom: people become aptly reverential, sometimes to a fault. One of the unforgettable anecdotes about Linda on the set of Sisa was of de Leon adjusting her delivery by saying, “Anita, konting libog pa [more libido please].” Cineastes may have delighted in this narrative by imagining how much greater the director was than his performer, but Linda’s output throughout and beyond the Marcos regime (regarded as the Second Golden Age of Philippine cinema) belies this auteur-snobbish interpretation. Scroll through the tribute excerpts posted by, as an example, Facebook’s Cristina Gaston (a pseudonym adopted from an Alma Moreno character): Ishmael Bernal, Maryo J. de los Reyes, Elwood Perez, and Joey Gosiengfiao were never content to just depict her as mother to the star(s) of their projects. She had to be kooky, eccentric, decadent, flighty, bitchy, alcoholic, unfaithful, and/or ambitious.

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The working-class assassin in Gumapang Ka sa Lusak (1990). [Viva Films]

11011These characterizations did not arise out of disrespect. On the contrary, they came from a recognition that Linda was always game for unusual challenges, and seemed grateful to make use of comic devices for a change. We’ve left out Lino Brocka, with whom Linda was most associated with sanctimonious-motherly roles. Yet even in this territory, we find departures from her later mater-dolorosa persona. In Jaguar (1979), she scolds her son for his social-climbing delusions but shields him later from pursuing police agents and helps him escape when they get near; in Gumapang Ka sa Lusak [Dirty Affair] (1990), nominatively a sequel to Jaguar, she reprises the role played by Carlito Dimailig in real life, assassinating the movie’s Imelda Marcos figure with a bolo (though as in real life, the person gets killed by security personnel).

11011In the Madama Butterfly-inspired “Hello, Soldier” segment of Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa [Three, Two, One] (1974), she transforms from a devoted mother dutifully preparing to surrender her daughter to the American who fathered her and now wants to adopt her, to a drunk-off-her-ass slum dweller re-enacting the moment she, as a then-younger bargirl, espied and seduced the foreigner she would fall for and be abandoned by. Brocka documents the sequence from the moment she wakes up from her intoxication, through her panic at the thought of being left alone and wandering the streets, regretful at how she was unable to say a proper farewell, without a single line of dialogue: Linda pursues and finishes the tale magnificently, by the use of her face and nothing else.[5]

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The wordless closure of the “Hello, Soldier” episode of Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa (1974).

11011In two films by Mario O’Hara, we find definitive formal proof of Linda’s capabilities. In Bakit Bughaw ang Langit? [Why Is the Sky Blue?] (1981), she executes extended melodramatic arguments with Nora Aunor and proves to be the only actor capable of matching the country’s most gifted performer, line by spiteful line. In Babae sa Bubungang Lata [Woman on a Tin Roof] (1998), she uses the disadvantages of representing a lost past in cinema, narrating her tale rather than enacting it, providing embarrassingly manipulative final-act revelations, and winds up claiming equal-ensemble status as the younger performers via the force of her haunted slow-burn delivery.

11011It would therefore be unsurprising to learn that when Elwood Perez decided to initiate an autobiographical film trilogy as his final artistic statement, Anita Linda heralded the first installment, Otso [Eight] (2013). Her presence infuses the entire film, even though she appears only in the final sequence – as Alice Lake, playing a once-famous actress known as Anita Linda, now the owner of a residential building where an aspiring artist learns about life, love, and desire, realizing to his amazement that his present has become possible because of what the lady at the top floor, overlooking events in her property, underwent in the past.[6] This may be the ultimate way to remember Linda: a woman who dedicated her life so completely to her craft that it expectedly defined her, but also unexpectedly and even more profoundly became defined by her.

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Alice Lake in Otso (2013). [Film Development Council of the Philippines & Earth Moving Pictures]


First published June 13, 2020, as “Remembering Anita Linda: She Devoted Her Life So Completely to Her Craft that It Defined Her,” in ABS-CBN News Channel. The author acknowledges the solicitation and assistance of Jerome Gomez, as well as anecdotes shared by the late Vic Delotavo and several leads provided by Bibeth Orteza (including the very first endnote entry). This article is for a wonderful and supportive social-media acquaintance, Jane Po.

[1] Most reports ascribe the source of Linda’s screen name to Avellana, but their granddaughter Ina Avellana Cosio provided the clarification – that it was Daisy rather than Lamberto who suggested the name – in her comment on my Facebook post of June 10, 2020. Incredibly, Linda’s father named her after his sister, the silent film star Alice Lake (1895-1967), known for co-starring in “Fatty” Arbuckle comedies. See “Anita Linda: Truly a Legend,” a compilation of interview excerpts by Ricky Lo (Philippine Star, June 12, 2020).

[2] I recall this staggering and essential revelation on why a member of the landed gentry was made to march from her home to the municipal jail from one of the first article publications of Caroline S. Hau, whose title I do not recall but which I read for certain in the 1990s. In a recent exchange, she mentioned that her account was cut from the final version of The Chinese Question: Ethnicity, Nation, and Region in and Beyond the Philippines (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2014).

11011In her typically generous manner, she maintained that “the Sisa-Alonso link is [now] orthodox in the scholarship on Rizal, and the authorities really made an example of her, not caring if she was herself of relatively high social standing in the town…, so there’s no need to cite anything I wrote” (“Re: Query re Teodora Alonso Realonda,” email received by the author, July 25, 2020) – all the more reason for a non-Rizal scholar like me to insist on acknowledging Hau’s continuing contribution to this field of study.

[3] This information first came out in the citation for Anita Linda’s award for outstanding lifetime achievement, given by the Filipino Film Critics Circle, of which I was a member then. (Her acceptance speech, delivered in English, was a marvel of humility, ending with – paraphrasing, regarding her worthiness – “If people still want to have me around, I promise to keep working as long as I live.”) The citation was published in the group’s first decadal collection and reprinted in the second; see “Anita Linda,” in The Urian Anthology 1970-1979 (Quezon City: Manuel L. Morato, 1983), pp. 420-21, taglined Jun Cruz Reyes, trans. Nicanor G. Tiongson. After 1953, Patria Plata stopped working altogether at Premiere, while Anita Linda had occasional projects, although not as actively as before.

11011My provisional speculation is that she may have been emboldened by winning the first industry-wide award for an actress in Sisa. Her people skills may be seen in her returning for the occasional Premiere project, as well as for production companies set up by her colleagues in the studio, specifically Gerry de Leon and Larry Santiago. In fact, by freelancing not just for rival studios but also for independent outfits, she may have been the first star who demonstrated the instability and morally questionable logic behind the oligopoly of the Big Three. One of her early “indie” projects anticipated the wild and woolly years of the post-studio 1960s: Nardo Vercudia’s Basagulera [Troublemaker] (1954), for Everlasting Pictures.

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[4] Update: a little-known anecdote that typifies industry practitioners’ reverence for Linda, from multimedia artist Bibeth Orteza, whose mother-in-law, Armida Siguion-Reyna, was then the chair of the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board:

When Joseph Estrada got elected, Fernando Poe Jr. asked for only two people to be appointed to a government slot. One was for his pal Rudy Meyer, who was put on the board of the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation, and the other, Tita Alice (what we all called her because Alice Lake was her real name, after her aunt, the silent film star in Hollywood), for the MTRCB.

11011We lived just a village apart in 1998. Tita Alice requested a copy of Presidential Decree 1986, the law which created the MTRCB, so I sent her a hard copy. Less than an hour later, she was on the phone. “Hija, please tell Armida I am grateful for the offer of my appointment. But please convey my apologies to her, and to Ronnie, because I cannot accept the post.”

11011I was surprised, and asked her why. She said, “The law says only natural-born Filipinos can serve on the board. I am not a Filipino citizen. I am still an American citizen.” She was so honest about it that Armida wept, in appreciation. (Facebook Messenger exchange, April 15, 2021; acronyms spelled out by the author)

[5] A precursor of how her soon-to-be-rediscovered performance in Sisa was about to recapture the top spot in local film appreciators’ regard was during the 1975 awards ceremony of the Filipino Academy of Movie Arts and Sciences: while Lolita Rodriguez in Lino Brocka’s Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang affirmed her stature as an outstanding female performer by winning best actress, it was Linda’s far shorter role, misclassified as supporting actress, in one of three episodes in Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa, that presenters kept raving over.

11011One of the possibly apocryphal tales about the shoot is that the art-direction team used actual (inexpensive working-class) booze on the set, resulting in Linda accidentally getting drunk during the buildup to her confrontation scene. Finding authenticity in her delivery, Brocka proceeded to document her in her inebriated condition.

Update: The aforementioned story is apocryphal. Bibeth Orteza (see endnote 4) narrated an account of how Linda wanted to confront some neighborhood toughies who turned rowdy whenever they got drunk. She challenged them to a drinking contest and won – by remaining sober even after they had finished several rounds of liquor (Pelikulove evaluators’ Zoom session, March 11, 2022).

[6] A wistful and poetic full circle has been inscribed with Otso as well, when we consider that Elwood Perez’s first film, the now-lost Blue Boy (1970), starred Fred Cortes Jr., Linda’s son by Fred Cortes, with whom she had starred in her first film, Tiya Juana. (And just as her husband acted in her first film, she also appeared in her son’s debut.) She put her film career on hold, for the last time, when she opted to live with Cortes in the US, but returned after their union ended. Cortes died in 1966.

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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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