The Studio System’s Final Movie Queen

Susan Roces’s recent passing made me realize at first how she could have been a star in Philippine politics as well, as the best First Lady and First Mother we never had. I’d voted for her late husband, actor-producer and National Artist Fernando Poe Jr., and later for her daughter, Grace Poe, during the presidential runs where they placed first and second respectively, according to their most ardent supporters (in spite of what official tallies announced). The studio that launched her, Sampaguita Pictures, had claims to another aspirant on a similar level: Imelda Marcos, who had screen-tested for them, and whose sudden marriage to the man who would be dictator probably spared them a lot of embarrassment after the couple was deposed by a popular uprising.

11011I went over my files and was surprised to find that I had written her a letter, though not as a fan. The book I edited, Huwaran/Hulmahan Atbp.: The Film Writings of Johven Velasco, was being launched at the University of the Philippines; Johven was such a Susanian that he requested, if his collection were to be published, that he appear on the cover along with her. His most important scholarly essays were about her films, but he also wrote an admirable account of his fandom, invoking Jacques Lacan, Laura Mulvey, and most intensively Jackie Stacey, in order to explain his identification: “not based on pretending to be something one is not but rather selecting something which establishes a link … based on a pre-existing part of the spectator’s identity.”

11011Roces became a star ahead of the generation that finally allowed women to dominate Philippine film production, relegating men to equal status at best, secondary positions more often. The two top movie figures around her time were FPJ (whom she married) and Joseph Estrada, now footnoted as one more deposed Philippine ex-president, although better remembered for his populist antihero roles and empathetic (earlier) performances. Yet again, when I went over the First Golden Age films that were listed by a research team in a forthcoming all-time canon project for Summit Media, two Swanie films were cited: Armando Garces’s Sino ang Maysala? [Who’s at Fault?] and Tony Cayado’s Mga Ligaw na Bulaklak [The Wild Flowers], both from 1957. The latter, in fact, is also figuring strongly in the short study I’m finalizing on working women (the equivalent of the Korean “hostess movie”) in local cinema.

11011I’m sure Johven would have been able to explain how the best movie stars wind up affecting serious students of popular culture, whether they know it or not. During the launch of his book, one reader was an actor he had trained and who was at that time on his way to becoming the biggest independent-to-mainstream crossover star of the moment. Before reading his assigned excerpt, Coco Martin remarked how he made sure to impress Johven by playing up his resemblance to Susan Roces. That was how Johven knew that Coco would also make it big: he had a “face that refreshes,” as Susan was once described. The lady born Jesusa Sonora has gone, reminding us how so much preferable it would be to live with as much dignity and productivity as we could leave to posterity.

[First published May 24, 2022, as “Jesusa Sonora Is Gone; Long Live Susan Roces” in The FilAm]

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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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