Artist in a Hurry

There will always be ambivalence surrounding the Filipino word for performer: artista. The word it suggests in English is in many ways opposed to the notion of an artist, who supposedly stands apart from issues of popularity and financial success. This is why the first film star recognized as National Artist, Nora Aunor, underwent such a difficult process that politicians involved in two successive final rounds regarded her omission as no big shakes.

11011Cherie Gil, who died before she could turn 60, started as a star, became an active and reliable supporting actress, left the country to attend to her family, and returned when she found she wasn’t cut out to merely be a wife to Rony Rogoff, a globally renowned violinist. When news of her death broke recently, folks in my limited netizen circle were as shocked as I was that she was already more than the sum of everything she was before she first departed, during the preceding millennium. Gil belonged to the renowned Eigenmann clan of performers, where ironically only her parents and elder sibling, Michael de Mesa, remain after another brother, Mark Gil, passed away in 2014; both he and Cherie were admirably stoical about keeping their illnesses private.

11011Before her mother, Rosemarie Gil, retired from acting, production projects that required a good-looking villainess only needed to decide whether she should be older or younger, then contact the Eigenmanns. Cherie Gil’s film appearances since her comeback were authoritative owing to a renewed seriousness, and radiant from the loveliness endowed by her mixed-race heritage; she opted to teach acting and study scriptwriting, signs of a restlessness of spirit; she produced her own dream project, a reworking of an earlier prestige film titled Oro, Plata, Mata (1982) with the same director, Peque Gallaga, in tandem with Lore Reyes.

11011Sonata, her 2013 Gallaga-Reyes production, brandishes what on paper might seem like a fantasy figure: an opera diva traumatized by losing her voice, who returns to her rural estate and learns to overcome her reclusive state by taking an interest in the several munchkins who hang around the place. Only someone who underwent an equivalent process in real life and resolved to heal her heartbreak by plunging into artistic fulfillment would be able to display the full measure that the character required, and we will always be fortunate that Gil was already exactly that person. As if by way of preparation, she had portrayed a similar role onstage a few years earlier, as a vocally damaged Maria Callas in Terrence McNally’s Master Class.

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11011It was these theatrical forays of hers that the local cognoscenti looked forward to, and Gil accommodated the offers whenever she could. The mass audience still had some catching up to do, but her pre-departure appearances were already proving iconic to different kinds of people. Her role as lesbian drug dealer Kano in Ishmael Bernal’s Manila by Night (1980) combined a tough exterior with a movingly self-destructive faith in true love,[1] while her performance in Bilanggo sa Dilim (1986), Mike de Leon’s exceptional video adaptation of John Fowler’s 1963 novel The Collector, presaged her triumphant collaboration with the same director’s Citizen Jake (2018), where she demonstrated how malignant damage could be delineated with a minimum of words and gestures.

11011It was her premillennial turn as nasty celeb Lavinia Arguelles, won over eventually by the humility of Sharon Cuneta’s loyal fandom in Bituing Walang Ningning (1985), that inspired generations of drag queens to memorize her single-sentence fulmination, glass of cold water at the ready. Cuneta posted the bittersweet farewell she was able to have in person with Gil – which led to the heavier realization that descended on observers: these were two chums who were able to mature together, in parallel but impressive ways, so many of us hoped it may only be a matter of time before Gil could persuade her BFF to explore the legitimate stage together with her.

11011That, and many other potential treats, will now only have to be relegated to the realm of speculation forever. But the lesson that Gil modeled for later generations of pop-culture jobholders abides: that one can always upgrade one’s craft, and in so doing, leave this world a better place even ahead of schedule. Politicians will always make their self-serving claims and will die off in time, but real art is what will always remain and be worth treasuring.


First published August 7, 2022, in The FilAm, reprinted in The FilAm: Newsmagazine Serving Filipino Americans in New York 55 (September 2022). The author would like to acknowledge the information and feedback provided by Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., Jerrick Josue David (no relation), and Jojo Devera.

[1] In drafting my 2017 monograph Manila by Night: A Queer Film Classic, I planned to interview the film’s most prominent then-surviving participants: production designer and script consultant Peque Gallaga, and the primary queer-character performers Bernardo Bernardo and Cherie Gil. Gallaga then had several Facebook posts which I could draw from, while BB proved to be such a printed-word raconteur that the series editors decided to use our Q&A exchange (originally posted on Ámauteurish!) as an appendix. Gil could only reply sparingly, apologetic that she could not remember much about that period of her life, which was understandable; I requested use of a photo that she had with BB for one of their dinner-theater productions and slated her for a possible future career lookback. All three are now gone, a reality that induced a personal degree of regret the moment I learned about Gil’s demise.

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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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