Category Archives: Star texts

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.

Linda 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.

Anyone 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.

Sisa publicity pic. [From Video 48]

World 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 (because of the wartime suspension of production), 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 racist persecution of the hero’s Chinay mother by Spanish authorities.[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.

An 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. Once more, this highly commercial catch-as-catch-can approach to production did not guarantee that many of the titles made by practitioners during that period could be preserved for posterity.

Fortunately 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).

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

Linda 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. 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.

This 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.

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

These 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).

In the “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.[4]

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

In 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.

It 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.[5] 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.

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

Notes

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 provided by the late Vic Delotavo.

[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.

[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). In her typically generous manner, she maintained that “the Sisa-Alonso link is 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, whether Chinese mestizoness or not, 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 achievement, given by the Filipino Film Critics Circle (of which I was a member then). 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. My 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.

[4] 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 televised awards ceremonies of the 1974 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.

[5] 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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My Peque Gallaga Interview

Maurice Claudio Luis Ruiz de Luzuriaga “Peque” Gallaga (1943-2020). [From the National Commission for Culture and the Arts]

I will admit that I tried, for the longest time, to keep distance between myself and Peque Gallaga. During the publicity blitz for his first solo film, Oro, Plata, Mata [Gold, Silver, Death] (1982), I preferred to interview his wife, Madie, the film’s producer who also happened to be the daughter of my mother’s supervisor at what was then the national sugar institute. He had a reputation for being temperamental and I preferred to avoid celebrity types, although I discovered later that I enjoyed studying them. Since this was the “new cinema” moment when the film world lavished adulation on auteurs, and OPM was a star turn more for its director than for any of its actors, Peque became as much the star of one of the Experimental Cinema of the Philippines’ initial productions as Nora Aunor was (then-already) the star of the other, Ishmael Bernal’s Himala [Miracle].

Gallaga directing his films: Oro, Plata, Mata (1982, above) and “Manananggal [Viscera Sucker]” segment of Shake, Rattle & Roll (1984). [From Focus on Filipino Films and Ronald Rios]


In fact I’d made his acquaintance earlier, when I had just joined a then-still-studious critics group that decided to invite the members of the newly formed production designers’ guild in order to get pointers on how to properly evaluate their category – for an annual awards system that I also soon repudiated. When the guild president kept arguing that PD practitioners insist on lavish adornments in order to shame producers who skimped on production budgets, Peque spoke out and said that the best kind of mise-en-scène was one that did not draw attention to itself. In effect, he stated that PDs should learn to welcome the challenge of working within narrow budgets, although whether he knew or didn’t, by saying so he contributed one vital brick to the ethical critical structure I was building for myself.[1]

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On another occasion, in one of those many self-congratulatory receptions the then-booming industry loved to sponsor, I had occasion to mention to him that I attended the rescreening of a film where he participated as actor. This was Mario O’Hara’s Tatlong Taóng Walang Diyos [Three Godless Years], which came out in 1976, the same year he won the critics’ prize for production design for Eddie Romero’s Ganito Kami Noon … Paano Kayo Ngayon? [As We Were]. Over coffee after the screening, one of the founding members asked me if I’d seen it before (I had), and what impressed me about the present viewing. “Peque’s performance,” I said, and he agreed. I said it might be the best of that year for the supporting-actor category, and he agreed again, somewhat sheepishly (I thought, because Peque wasn’t even nominated for it).[2]

About a year later, when the agency provided me with a scholarship to complete a second bachelor’s degree in the country’s first academic film program at the national university, I arrived at the office to turn in my output for the day. The whole place was abuzz with the premiere of the first sex film made by Regal Films, the country’s most successful studio. It wasn’t the first so-called bold film, or even the first locally produced bold film, to be exhibited free of censorship at the Manila Film Center; neither was it Peque’s OPM follow-up, since he’d already exhibited Bad Bananas sa Puting Tabing [Bad Bananas on the Silver Screen] (made for the 1983 Metro Manila Film Festival) as well as the soft-core historical allegory Virgin Forest, also a Regal production, earlier in 1985. Scorpio Nights promised to be different though, with its title suggesting an overtly and unapologetically sex-focused product.

But the buzz I mentioned was something else. It centered on an event that occurred right before the pricey but expectedly jampacked screening. Those who’d attended said that when it was Peque’s turn to speak, he let go of a volley of curses, naming specific individuals who were officials in the ECP and/or colleagues of mine in the critics’ group. Despite the fact that I’d already forsworn participation in the group’s annual awards after extreme frustration with not just the individual choices but also the hypocrisy and cynicism behind the process, Peque’s outburst made me anxious. At that time, I guessed that it had to do with the backlash by left-leaning critics against OPM, to which our group had given its highest prizes; some of the OPM-bashers were former members, others were later invited to be part of the group.

With some hindsight, I later thought that it also may have had to do with the fact that the cash-strapped ECP bypassed its next year’s second-place scriptwriting contest winner, Flores de Mayo [Flowers of May], and favored the third, Soltero [Bachelor] (1984), thus ensuring that Flores would never get done: not only was Flores written by Jose Javier Reyes, the same person that Peque recruited to write OPM as well as Bad Bananas, but Soltero was written by an official of the ECP – one of the names Peque had singled out. Friends at the agency however told me that any hurt feelings were subsequently smoothed over via an apology that Peque issued.

I got some measure of assurance later, after I completed the film program and worked up enough nerve to contact him to tell him how much I appreciated Scorpio Nights, how I disagreed with the critics locking it out of their major awards categories, and how relieved I was to drop out of the group so I could finally criticize them as an independent entity. He was effusive with praise for me, pointing out something that didn’t occur to me up to that point: “those people,” he said, “should have done what you did – study the field that they were dabbling in, so they’d know what they’re talking about and earn the right to call themselves qualified.”

Films co-directed by Gallaga: Binhi [Seed] (with Butch Perez, 1973, above) and Sonata (with Lore Reyes, 2013). [From Ronald Rios and Rappler]

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Academe gave me the time and inclination (though not the funds) to pursue a career as resident film critic of what was then the country’s most consequential newsmagazine, National Midweek. A foreign graduate-study grant became available right after I published my first book, and I stopped communicating with Pinas industry participants for nearly a decade. I maintained contact with some practitioners of a narrative format that I announced as my dissertation topic, but when the most prolific among them, Ishmael Bernal, died unexpectedly, I decided to stay put in the US until I completed my doctorate.

This is my roundabout way of explaining why my most intensive interactions with Peque since the present millennium consisted entirely of social-network exchanges. I knew I could get a great interview out of him, but in the meanwhile what I needed was some information for the book on Manila by Night (1980) that I was writing. I knew some of his stories as its production designer (for which he won his second critics’ prize), and I was aware that he was referring to his work on it when he articulated his principles during the critics’ soirée with the PD guild several years earlier.

What stumped me regarding Manila by Night was a different type of design – film sound. I apologetically brought up the topic with him, expecting him to hint at least that I should focus on his visual specialization. What do you know, he did get involved with the movie’s aural design, confirming my suspicion that the film’s extremely accurate and well-timed voices and noises were actually artificially – and painstakingly – recreated in the sound studio.[3] Much like creating a news report using memory and restaging the incidents one wanted to cover, carefully enough so that the total reality effect was replicated.

So one of my long-term to-do projects was an all-out Peque Gallaga interview, covering the full spectrum of his participation in film and film-related activities: as project conceptualizer, director (for film, TV, and theater), performer, visual and sound designer, theater-guild founder, professor, and whatever else he might remind me. I just needed to muster the guts to handle what I thought was his contempt for film critics, since he never failed to blast my older colleagues even after they handed him a well-deserved life achievement award about a decade ago. I also take every opportunity to point out their shortcomings, so at least we could have that useful convergence as starting point.

Gallaga and Lore Reyes, his co-director since 1987. [From Lore Reyes’s Facebook page]

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The final factor that eliminated all my misgivings regarding his belligerence occurred via a casual conversation I had late last year with his co-director, Lore Reyes.[4] I mentioned, in one of my recollections of the ECP screenings, Peque’s flare-up during the Scorpio Nights premiere. Apparently, according to Lore, everyone else had forgotten about it – but of course I couldn’t, since I had to steel myself for a Peque interview that was never to be, as it turned out. The story involved an otherwise highly regarded personality who was associated not just with ECP but also with the critics group as well as the national university’s film program. I deduced that he was acting with the support or encouragement of people in these institutions, the same people Peque had called out.

From our November 21, 2019, exchange: “Did you know? I caught Hammy [Agustin Sotto] cutting Scorpio Nights near dawn on the morning before its ECP premiere. I told Hammy I was going to fetch Peque, he said go ahead, fetch Peque. So I did. Peque punched him and kicked him in the head. It was a scene straight out of a cheap indie movie: a 5,000-foot reel unspooling all over Jess Navarro’s editing room in [the Regal office in] Valencia as Jess and I tried to stop Peque from beating up Hammy.[5] Later that day, [unknown to Manila Film Center head] Johnny Litton and Hammy, Jess restored all the clips that Hammy had cut (we brought a Steenbeck to the ECP parking lot and bribed the ECP projectionist so we could borrow the premiere print). That was where Peque’s rage was coming from, when he cursed all those personalities who were right there in front of him on the first row. They tried to cut his film without his knowledge.”

Goodness, I realized, I had nothing to fear at all about the man. He would defy hell itself to fight for something he thought was right. About that interview….

Notes

An account of Peque Gallaga’s achievements is recounted in the tribute issued by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts on its Facebook page. An abridged version of this article, titled “Peque’s Rage: A Retelling,” was published in the May 12, 2020, issue of The FilAm; it was also reprinted in the June 2020 issue of The FilAm: Newsmagazine Serving Filipino Americans in New York. (Click on pic below of the newsmag version to open PDF file.)

[1] In Monchito Nocon’s unpublished 2012 interview with Peque Gallaga regarding Manila by Night, Peque quoted Ishmael Bernal’s response when he demanded a reshoot of the Halloween revelers’ frolic at Manila Bay, since the camera operator had forgotten to bring the right lenses: “A film can never be perfect. It has to have a rough edge … a mistake … a human aspect.”

[2] To the credit of the late Mario A. Hernando, with whom I was conversing, he devoted a portion of his newspaper column (Kibitzer, in the now-defunct Times Journal) to raise this very same issue. The incident also alerted me to the dangers of passing canonical judgment based on swift and temporally marked-off considerations such as awards schedules.

[3] Abbo Q. de la Cruz, who played the rebellious peasant in Oro, Plata, Mata [Gold, Silver, Death], and whose Misteryo sa Tuwa [Joyful Mystery] (1984) was the first film completed during the second and final batch of ECP productions, was credited for sound effects in Manila by Night. On a Facebook post that was subsequently deleted by the account owner, Peque mentioned how he and Abbo locked themselves in the sound studio and worked themselves to exhaustion, until they felt they had all the possible audio coverage that the director might require.

[4] Another critical issue that besets the Gallaga credit is the directing partnership he maintained with Lore Reyes. This should resolve by itself as Reyes continues making films on his own, as he has done and as he should continue doing. Gregory Paul Y. Daza, in “The Unsung, Ignored Half of the Gallaga-Reyes Movies” (for the September 4, 2015 issue of BusinessWorld), provided what amounts to a useful primer for the Reyes-Gallaga dilemma.

[5] Tina Cuyugan, in a Facebook comment posted on April 10, 2020, narrated that “Peque did mention that he went to that encounter with Hammy brandishing (although not using, in the end) a cane that had been hand-carved by prisoners in Palawan. The type of precise Bakunawan detail that can stick to one’s memory for 35 years.” (“Nelson Bakunawa” was the name Peque used for his account, bakunawa being a mythological serpentine dragon capable of disrupting weather cycles and causing eclipses and tremors; the account has been archived by his family and is no longer available.) My own assessment of Hammy’s extremely conflicted positions as film critic, historian, festival promoter, educator, and aspiring industry practitioner may have to wait until I have been able to ensure my own objectivity about his actuations vis-à-vis the far-from-perfect institutions wherein he operated. For an essential and intensive retrospective report on the production history of Scorpio Nights, see Jerome Gomez’s “Coital Recall,” in Rogue (November 2015): 74-81.

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The Aunor Effect in Philippine Film Book Publications

Certain friends whose opinions I value have been asking me to elaborate on the “Aunor effect” – a term that immediately came to mind when I uploaded the bibliography on Philippine cinema to a spreadsheet and sorted the data chronologically as a whole as well as per category.[1] The impetus for me to explain the Aunor effect further strengthened when the text I contributed to the Pinoy Rebyu blog’s Filipino Film Person of the Decade survey came out. The full text I submitted (which was duly reprinted on the website) was as follows:

Until a few days ago I kept going over the list of movers and shakers in local cinema during the past decade, then during the present millennium, then during the last few years of the past century. When I drafted an essay to accompany the Philippine film bibliography I posted on my blog, I was surprised to find a name I associated with all-time influence on Philippine cinema. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Nora Aunor remains as important today, though no longer as a box-office attraction, as she did when she started out. Nevertheless I still felt as humbled as I was fascinated: here was someone whom I felt I was upholding by making sure to acknowledge her superiority as film performer – when in fact I was the one (along with everyone else) she was bolstering, by ensuring that local film-book publication could begin and become sustainable through the decades.

Her political significance is also as unstable and unresolved as her artistic importance is beyond dispute: this is the only way to read her exclusion from the Order of National Artists under two successive administrations that regard each other as mortal enemies. What compounds the situation is that the Marcos oligarchy, now seeking to recapture its glory days, would be most likely to acknowledge her excellence, if the clan members are (atypically) sincere about restoring Ferdinand Sr.’s best practices. This isn’t the only irony attending Aunor’s existence in our lives, nor will it be the last. She deserves to be the decade’s Film Person, if only to remind ourselves that upsetting conventions and defying cherished notions will always have its place in the Filipino artist’s endless striving for meaning.

In a “Authoring Auteurs,” a bibliographical essay I published on January 18, 2020, on this blog, I cited the first film books to come out at the start of a mostly uninterrupted trend that kept growing to the present: these were titled Nora Aunor: Tagumpay sa Bawat Awit (ed. Jose Reyes Martinez, 1971), Ang Tunay na Kasaysayan ni Nora Aunor, Superstar (Rustum G. Quinton, 1972), and Getting to Know Nora (Herbert L. Vego, 1973). A few years later, Nick Joaquin (as Quijano de Manila) titled his compilations of feature articles according to “headline” star interviews – Amalia Fuentes and Other Etchings, Ronnie Poe and Other Silhouettes, Joseph Estrada and Other Sketches, Gloria Diaz and Other Delineations; the strongest seller in the list was Nora Aunor and Other Profiles (with his groundbreaking “Golden Girl” article), no longer a surprise by then.

In 1983, two “installment” texts came out. One was the first Urian Anthology covering the 1970s, which was followed by other anthologies covering the other decades since. The other was Baby K. Jimenez’s Ang True Story ni Guy, Unang Aklat and Ikalawang Aklat – both comprising a satisfying auteur biography that people tend to overlook because of its subject. I would maintain that ATSG 1&2, along with Ishmael Bernal, Jorge Arago, and Angela Stuart-Santiago’s Pro Bernal, Anti Bio (2017) and Jerry B. Gracio’s Bagay Tayo / Hindi Bagay (2018) are my favorite celebrity bios – engaging, finely detailed, honest about their subject. If Ricky Lee’s long-gestating no-holds-barred biography finally comes out, then Aunor, who already has several books devoted to her, would have the most impressive biographies of any Filipino auteur, alive or dead.

A third 1983 volume, more historically significant than the critics’ anthology, was Rafael Ma. Guerrero’s Readings in Philippine Cinema. Nestor de Guzman, possibly the most assiduous Aunor scholar hereabouts, recently pointed out how National Artist for Literature Virgilio S. Almario (a.k.a. Rio Alma) wrote a celebrity article only once, and the text, “Cinderella Superstar,” was anthologized in the Guerrero book. De Guzman’s own anthology, Si Nora Aunor sa mga Noranian, was not, strictly speaking, the first of its kind; two other anthologies, Monina A. Mercado’s Doña Sisang and Filipino Movies (1977) and Mario A. Hernando’s Lino Brocka: The Artist and His Times (1993), preceded de Guzman’s 2005 collection, but then both subjects had died when the book projects were initiated as tributes to them. Moreover, de Guzman also took charge of the Iriga Public Library’s Noraniana Collection, a remarkable compendium, the only one of its kind, of media texts (books, videos, recordings, posters, etc.) on Aunor. In 2011, Kritika Kultura came out with its special issue titled On Nora Aunor and the Philippine Star System (August 2015), containing the sequel of Wilfredo Pascual’s Palanca Award-winning essay, “Devotion.”[2]

While further describing other “firsts” in film-book publication, two matters came up. The first novelization of a Filipino film was Edgardo M. Reyes’s 2010 adaptation of his script for Romy V. Suzara’s Mga Uod at Rosas (1982), a film that starred Aunor. The other centered on Aunor’s most famous project, Ishmael Bernal’s Himala (1982): Ricky Lee’s first republished book was his innovative prose collection, Si Tatang at Mga Himala ng Ating Panahon (1988, 2009); and although another script of his was first to be reprinted (Salome in 1981 and 1993) and behind-the-scenes accounts of other films were already available, Sa Puso ng Himala (2012) is by far the best example of a lavishly annotated and illustrated book centered on one title.

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Beyond these samples, we have a number of Who’s Who type of anthologies, of which I have so far confirmed the following as including Aunor in their list of subjects: Yen Makabenta’s Book of the Philippines (1976); Joy Buensalido and Abe Florendo’s 100 Women of the Philippines (1999); the Cultural Center of the Philippines in cooperation with the Centennial Commission’s CCP Centennial Honors for the Arts (1999); and the Sulong Pilipina! Sulong Pilipinas! volume of the National Centennial Commission’s Women Sector (1999). Needless to say, several other titles may turn out to contain features of Aunor.

More intensive inspections have been provided in such articles as Ambeth Ocampo’s “The Nora Aunor Mystique” in Bonifacio’s Bolo (1995); Marra PL Lanot’s “That Gal Named Guy” in The Trouble with Nick and Other Profiles (1999); Leonor Orosa Goquingco’s reviews of Aunor’s performances at the Philippine Educational Theater Asociation in Curtain Call (2001); Danton Remoto’s queer-inflected appreciation in Rampa (2008); and Patrick D. Flores’s “Hanapbuhay sa mga Pelikula ni Nora Aunor” in Consuelo J. Paz’s Ginhawa, Kapalaran, Dalamhati (2009).

Aunor’s status has long been iconic, for anyone who wishes to delve into that aspect of her signification. This can be gleaned in book chapters or sections devoted to her or her films, especially Himala: Neferti Xina M. Tadiar’s “The Heretical Potential of Nora Aunor’s Star Power” in Fantasy-Production (2004), Sumita S. Chakravarty’s “The Erotics of History” in Antony R. Guratne and Wimal Dissanayake’s Rethinking Third Cinema (2003), as well as Renato Perdon’s upholding of the film as a sample of religious expression in Footnotes to Philippine History (2008). A remarkable instance of a scholar using Aunor’s iconography to reflect on another Philippine star is Bliss Cua Lim’s “Sharon’s Noranian Turn: Stardom, Race, and Language in Philippine Cinema,” in Andrea Bandhauer and Michelle Royer’s Stars in World Cinema (2015).

There may have been no Aunor book or article during the last four years, although several (in varying degrees of development) are in the pipeline.[3] And as in the case of most of the other Pinoy auteurs such as Gerardo de Leon, Lamberto V. Avellana, Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal, and Fernando Poe Jr., more material can be expected to emerge after she dies. At this point, the only other living auteur whose name gets cited in several bibliographies is Kidlat Tahimik, discussed in four book chapters with one book, a film festival brochure, devoted entirely to him. Even if we assume an unlikely scenario where the Aunor effect already permanently ended in 2015, there still has not been any other Filipino who impacted publishing as she has, except for José Rizal and (possibly) Ferdinand E. Marcos.

A final note, irrelevant as far as I’m concerned, but urgent to many Aunor observers: all the filmmakers mentioned in the previous paragraph are National Artists. Even when regarded strictly as a scholarly issue, the honor means nothing when the most significant among them is excluded from their circle.

Notes

[1] Encouragement for me to write out this mini-essay came from Mauro Feria Tumbocon Jr., Nestor de Guzman, Cristina Gaston (pseud.), Patrick D. Flores, Deogracias Antazo, Juan Andres Nolasco, [more to come]…. Most of these books appear in the auteurist section of the categorized listing of the bibliography that I posted on January 18, 2020. To search through an uncategorized alphabetical listing, please click here. Of several other Aunor titles reported as published, I have been able to confirm their stature as books along with details of publication via the Noraniana Collection Project’s highly responsive overseer, Nestor de Guzman.

[2] In the comprehensive bibliography, I had to exclude nearly all theses and dissertations. However, it would be remiss to ignore the very first (and presumably not the last) doctoral dissertation on Aunor, written by the country’s leading art critic and cited in Wilfredo Pascual’s “Devotion”: Patrick D. Flores successfully defended “Makulay na Daigdig [Colorful World]: Nora Aunor and the Aesthetic of Sufferance” at the University of the Philippines in 2000.

[3] As if anticipating the need to prove my misgivings wrong, the latest Aunor publication came out within a month after this article was first published. This was the first issue of this year’s Bikol Studies: Perspectives & Advocacies, the Ateneo de Naga University’s journal, titled Nora and edited by popular-culture and gender expert Jaya Jacobo.

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Showbiz Babylon: A Tribute-of-Sorts to the Barretto Sisters


Pique and pulchritude: Claudine, Gretchen, and Marjorie (left to right), the protagonists of the Barretto family scandal, 2019 edition. (Instagram collage courtesy of ABS-CBNNews.com.) To jump to later sections, click here for: New Blood; Trophy BFs; Weaker Sex; and Notes.

“La dénonciation du scandale
est toujours un hommage rendu à la loi.”
– J. Baudrillard[1]

Since celebrity scandals observe the same cycle of fostering fatigue among the public after a period of intense engagement, don’t be surprised if the latest Barretto family intrigue has mellowed, if not dissipated, by the time you read this. Before the first member of the family emerged on the national stage, “Barretto” used to be better known as the location of a coastal drive along Subic Bay, where girlie bars featuring women from all over the country catered to American GIs willing to spend their precious dollars for rest and recreation (even if they wound up getting neither).

This made the Barretto clan locally prominent citizens in so far as any red-light area could bestow respectability. (It might help to remember that the illustrious residents of Malate also reside adjacent to another former red-light district, Ermita.) Hence Gretchen Barretto, or her handlers, did not feel the need to use another family name when she was launched as part of the second batch of mixed-gender Regal Babies. Unfortunately, the rival Viva Films studio had just launched its monstrously successful all-male Bagets batch, and Rey de la Cruz had an all-female troupe, the Softdrink Beauties, claiming whatever (frankly prurient) interest could be generated in good-looking women.

So the Regal Babies II were destined for certain oblivion, with a bravely determined Gretchen languishing in supporting roles.[2] She was barely noticeable in Lino Brocka’s Miguelito: Batang Rebelde (1985), for example, banking on her classy features but limited by her narrow range as a performer. By the 1990s, she had shed enough of her premature flab and gained enough height to look alluring enough for male-gaze purposes. Robbie Tan, founder-manager of Seiko Films, profitably deduced that the public had tired of sex sirens who looked and behaved like they came from the wrong side of the tracks. He devised a series of projects that objectified seemingly unattainable porcelain beauties led by Gretchen, turned his outfit into a major player in the process, and made the first Barretto star (Figure 1).[3]

Figure 1. Gretchen Barretto in one of Seiko Films’ early “sex-trip” hits, Abbo Q. de la Cruz’s Tukso: Layuan Mo Ako (1991).

New Blood

Another Barretto quietly took Gretchen’s place as constant second-stringer: Claudine, her younger sister. Unlike her predecessor, Claudine handled her years of relative obscurity as an opportunity to hone her performative skills. Her walk in the sun had a healthier component to it, by conventional moralist standards: she came of age when romantic comedies succeeded in displacing all the other then-profitable local film genres – horror, action, comedy, even her elder sister’s soft-core melodramas – and managed to prove her mettle alongside the peak capability of Vilma Santos, in Rory B. Quintos’s Anak (2000).

An accident of fate though propelled Claudine to a stature never attained by Gretchen. It was, unfortunately, a tragedy, the first indication that the Barrettos could only really soar on the wings of bad news. Just as Gretchen became a star by shedding her clothes, Claudine captured the public imagination when she broke up with her buena-familia boyfriend Rico Yan, grandson of a former army chief and ambassador during the presidency of Ferdinand E. Marcos. The heartbroken beau repaired to a Palawan resort, where he failed to awaken on an Easter Sunday, of all days, after a night of heavy drinking (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Claudine Barretto’s Instagram memento of the last note sent her by Rico Yan, posted after the latter died.

The public response was hysterical, with Yan’s wake and funeral march overshadowing those of two National Artists for Music, Lucio San Pedro and Levi Celerio. A reporter from the rival of Yan’s home station happened to be at the resort and scooped its competitor, which in turn avenged itself by preventing all other TV stations from occupying vantage points during Yan’s wake. Best of all, for Claudine’s fortune, her co-starrer with Yan, Olivia M. Lamasan’s Got 2 Believe (2002), had just opened in theaters, with Yan’s death catapulting it to record-blockbuster status.

Trophy BFs

This made of Claudine an even bigger star than her Ate Gretchen, and acrimonious vibes from the sisters’ perceived rivalry began getting airtime, with then-incipient social media paying due interest. Gretchen became the constant partner of businessman and media mogul-aspirant Antonio “Tonyboy” Cojuangco, while Claudine linked up with and eventually married another alumnus of De La Salle University, Raymart Santiago (of the well-known brood fathered by producer-director Pablo Santiago, preceded in showbiz by his elder brothers Rowell and Randy). Their mother Inday declared her preference for Claudine – a position eroded by her daughter’s on-cam pummeling of one of the roughneck Tulfo brothers (Figure 3) and her later separation from her husband amid speculation of excessive drug use, with Gretchen openly declaring her sympathy for Raymart.

Figure 3. Screen cap of mobile phone video taken by onlooker of Claudine Barretto and Raymart Santiago beating up Mon Tulfo for allegedly recording a quarrel they had with airport personnel.

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Which brings us to the latest teapot tempest. The situation could not be more high-profile, with the country’s chief executive, a family friend, attending the wake of the just-deceased Barretto patriarch. Gretchen and Claudine had patched up their differences, and Gretchen attended ostensibly to reconcile with her mother. A third Barretto showbiz aspirant, Marjorie, who never attained the same level of stardom as her younger sisters, refused President Duterte’s admonition to greet Gretchen, alleging that her niece, Nicole, was traumatized by Gretchen spiriting away a lover, businessman Atong Ang.

In a sensational tell-all TV interview, a remarkably articulate and sensible-sounding Marjorie acknowledged that after the collapse of her own marriage to Dennis Padilla (actually Dencio Padilla Jr., son of a late well-loved comedian), she bore a love-child to Recom Echiverri, a former mayor of Caloocan City; this was by way of her pointing out that Ang was also very much married, and that Gretchen was thereby being unfaithful to Cojuangco, who similarly was married to someone else.

Predictably, Gretchen denied any physical relationship between her and Ang (Figure 4), a sufficiently credible assertion when we consider how she never balked at admitting any of her past indiscretions. The clarifications and counter-accusations will continue for some time, until the family arrives at a level of accommodation acceptable to the major players in the current fracas.

What conclusions can we draw from the situation? One is that the Barretto sisters are smart and determined enough in stretching their media mileage, notwithstanding the occasional evidentiary recordings of such social slip-ups as Claudine’s fistfight with Mon Tulfo or the screams and hair-pulling (with the Presidential Security Group atypically befuddled) that erupted during Miguel Alvir Barretto’s wake.

Marjorie’s subsequent TV interview effectively effaced an earlier scandal caused when her daughter, Julia, admitted boinking hunky star Gerald Anderson, who was supposedly committed to another star, Bea Alonzo. Julia claimed that she had broken up with male starlet Joshua Garcia (just as Anderson’s relationship with Alonzo had supposedly ended), but also subsequently wound up denying that she was the mistress of another elderly entrepreneur, Ramon Ang.

Figure 4. One of Gretchen Barretto’s series of socnet posts mocking the charges made by her elder sister Marjorie and referencing Recom Echiverri.

Weaker Sex

Another conclusion we can make is that males involved in any capacity in this dustup will be better off keeping quiet. Atong Ang appeared in one of those obviously staged “ambush interviews” coddling his legal family while declaring he had never diddled any of the Barrettos. Assuming he was truth-telling, he was also effectively saying (awkwardly, at that) that some of his Barretto friends were lying. The family patriarch, in contrast, was ironically better off reposing in a coffin: even with Gretchen recapitulating her accusation that he had molested her, no one will want to continue speaking ill of the dead.

As pointed out by the late film scholar Johven Velasco in his book article on Rico Yan,[4] a number of influential talk-show personalities were penalized by their TV stations, after they revealed that the deceased young star, upon learning that Claudine had allegedly been unfaithful to him, had obtained Ecstasy tablets to counter his depression.

An even more significant conclusion that Velasco makes, echoed by social experts looking at the current familial flameout, is that the scandal’s staying power derives from what it says about us, more than about the family itself. It’s women claiming for themselves what moral authorities used to say only men were entitled to: the privilege of behaving badly (“war of the courtesans,” to use a semi-complimentary description by expat artist Therese Cruz). The scope even has the trigenerational impact of classical Greek tragedy, a curse being passed on from parents to children to their children’s children.

A fast-declining generation might remember when a similar phenomenon used to command the attention of the media and public, not just in the Philippines but also overseas: the Marcos family saga, from the patriarch’s womanizing and his wife’s philistinic overcompensation, through their rebellious daughter’s romance with an oppositionist scion (including a kidnapping and fall-guy killing that foreshadowed the murder of Benigno Aquino Jr.), to their exile and triumphant return to a country that seemingly, masochistically, has not had enough of their excesses. Thankfully, the worst that the Barrettos can visit on themselves and their public will never be as malevolent as their higher-profile media predecessors had been.

Notes

First published October 28, 2019, as “The Barrettos and the Privilege of Behaving Badly,” in The FilAm. An abridged version of this article, titled “Barretto Sisters: The Privilege of Behaving Badly,” was reprinted in the December 2019 issue of The FilAm: Newsmagazine Serving Filipino Americans in New York. (Click on pic below of newsmag version to open PDF file.)


[1] From Jean Baudrillard, Simulacres et Simulation (Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1981): “The denunciation of scandal always pays homage to the law,” trans. Paul Foss, Paul Batton, and Philip Beitchman (Los Angeles: Semiotext[e], 1983).

[2] Incidental disclosure: some time after completing my second undergraduate degree (film, at the national university), I was a freelance production assistant in a Regal Films project, Emmanuel H. Borlaza’s Asawa Ko, Huwag Mong Agawin (1987), a Vilma Santos-starrer that featured the 1960s tandem of Amalia Fuentes and Eddie Gutierrez; Santos played the mistress of Gutierrez (and rival of Fuentes), while her much younger boyfriend was essayed by Gabby Concepcion, an original (first-batch) Regal Baby. A then-deferential and reclusive Gretchen Barretto was cast as one of the older couple’s neglected children.

[3] In much the same way that an early martial law-era pop-culture term, “bold,” was introduced by Regal Films, the country’s longest-running major studio, to distinguish its soft-core entries from the pre-martial law period’s more overtly sex-themed “bomba,” Robbie Tan felt a similar need to distance his productions from the late Marcos-era’s hard-core “penekula films.” Seiko Films did this by first appropriating “sex-trip,” abbreviated as ST, and later introduced an English coinage, “titillating film.” See “Fleshmongering” in Fields of Vision: Critical Applications in Recent Philippine Cinema (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1995), 112-14.

[4] “Rico Yan: Posthumously Recognized and Constructed,” in Huwaran/Hulmahan Atbp.: The Film Writings of Johven Velasco, ed. Joel David (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2009), 24-38.

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Manoy Takes His Leave

The sudden end to the long and productive life of actor-director Eddie Garcia was unnecessarily tragic, with corporate negligence compounding the foolhardiness of an artist too game to retire at an age when most other people would have completed two or more entire careers. The evaluation of netizens is on the mark in this case: Garcia’s willingness to take risks, typical of his approach throughout an extended and colorful career, should have been tempered by the studio that had apparently bet on countering the most successful serial program of the moment by showcasing, among other novelties, the physical agility of the country’s oldest active action performer.[1]

First appearing as a contract actor by the most star-obsessed among the 1950s First Golden Age studios, Garcia’s unconventional attractiveness positioned him a degree apart from full star stature: he could occasionally headline a project, but never the romantic leads that required the Euro-mestizo prettiness claimed by any number of now-forgotten actors. Having decided to make the most of a range of skills that allowed him to dabble in genres as disparate as horror, action, comedy, even soft-core melodrama, as leading man or villain, he settled on making himself indispensable as a competent ensemble performer who could draw on reserves of brilliance in case the role happened to demand it of him.

His filmography of over 650 film appearances (a possible local record) attests to the success of his strategy, but he had a higher purpose in mind: to be able to carve out a parallel career as film director. His choices were informed by the same principle of populist entertainment that he maintained for his acting career. One can see how his efforts could be occasionally penalized for being too mainstream, in a system that prized (then as now) “independent” efforts: when his best film, Saan Nagtatago ang Pag-ibig? (1987), came out, the Filipino critics’ group declared that no film during that year was worth considering for its annual prizes. Saan Nagtatago has since then been regarded as one of the high points in Pinoy melodrama.

Observers were also prone to concluding that his expertise as director accounted for his actorly acumen. This may be safely accepted as conventional wisdom, in conjunction with his pronouncement that his original dream was to be a military official. His work ethic, arriving about an hour ahead of call time, lines already committed to memory, was typical of performers of his generation, and those of theater-trained actors even today. Yet there were fault lines in this ultra-professional approach, and it occasionally showed up in his filmmaking record. He directed (and won his first directorial award for) the second biographical campaign movie of Ferdinand Marcos, Pinagbuklod ng Langit (1969). When later, the then-newly founded directors’ guild declared a boycott of the film projects of Gabby Concepcion, Garcia defied guild president Lino Brocka by accepting a Concepcion assignment for Viva Films.

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Ironically, Garcia’s acting projects with Brocka constituted his most rewarding body of work. He had memorable roles in the first few films of Ishmael Bernal, showed up in some of Eddie Romero’s more ambitious projects, and endeared himself to camp fans in the sex-comedies of Danny L. Zialcita. But as the most politically committed Filipino director, Brocka required effective representations of political villainy, and no one delivered the goods as well as Garcia, in a series of acclaimed works: Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (1974), Miguelito: Batang Rebelde (1985), and Gumapang Ka sa Lusak (1990), among others. Their collaboration was cemented early on, in Brocka’s second film assignment and first serious work, Tubog sa Ginto (1970), still arguably the highest peak in male Philippine film performance.

The mystery in Tubog lies in how Brocka managed to create his best queer film during the period when he still had to come around as an openly queer artist. His later “out” movies, notably Macho Dancer (1988), pale in comparison to the early work. People tended to ascribe some credit to Garcia, to his admission that he conducted intensive research among colleagues in the industry, plus his earlier attempt in essaying a comic version of the closeted authority in Kaming mga Talyada (1962), affirmed by his subsequent willingness to tackle similar roles (comic and dramatic) even in his old age – including his last film assignment, Rainbow’s Sunset (2018). To be honest, the results were always mixed and not as definitive as Tubog itself; in a comic ensemble work, Mga Paru-parong Buking (1985), he was upstaged predictably by Bernardo Bernardo and unexpectedly by George Estregan.

Eight years ago, in one of those confluences that make pop culture an endlessly fascinating phenomenon for its devotees, several identifiably masculine actors admitted to past same-sex experiences. One of them was Garcia, who said that his own episode occurred early, when he was 15, as part of a quest to determine his own preference. One could look at the group of confessors and note for the record that they were all extremely accomplished performers. Yet the measure of the audience’s distractability, as well as Garcia’s own volatility, is that most people remembered his queer performances, but not his own acknowledgment of the roots of his appreciation. All in all an occasionally spotty record then, but generously strewn with gems worth treasuring: rarely have we been so lucky.

Note

[1] In the wake of the tragedy, the studio, GMA-7, announced that its series, Rosang Agimat, was shelved. The new program was intended to challenge ABS-CBN’s long-dominant Ang Probinsyano, where Garcia had (ironically) also been a featured player.

[First published June 23, 2019, in the The FilAm]

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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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