Thursday, June 23, 2022

Nora Aunor

Philippine cinema's dark beauty

Nora Aunor is arguably Philippine cinema's greatest actress.

She doesn't stand alone, of course: Anita Linda's sensual performance in Gerardo de Leon's Sisa (1951), Rosa Rosal's humble matriarch in Manuel Silos' Biyaya ng Lupa (Blessings of the Land, 1959), Lolita Rodriguez's elemental Koala in Lino Brocka's Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (You Were Judged but Found Wanting, 1974) are, I think, for the ages. Hilda Koronel, Gina Alajar, Lorna Tolentino, Amy Austria, Cherie Gil, Liza Lorena, Laurice Guillen, Nida Blanca, Gloria Romero, Charito Solis, Jacklyn Jose, Rita Gomez, Mona Lisa, Maricel Soriano, even Nora's supposed rival Vilma Santos have their memorable, even great, moments (might as well include Irma Adlawan as perhaps the most talented yet least known actress working in Filipino movies today). But Nora is the greatest, I believe--not only because she had the sheer talent but because she had the opportunity to work with some of the Philippines' best filmmakers on some of their greatest films, producing a handful herself.

Nora wasn't always great. She started out as a popular singing star, a rags-to-riches wonder discovered in a singing contest who became an overnight sensation; movies were just another way of cashing in on her popularity. Under contract to Sampaguita Pictures she made (among others) Cinderella A-Go-Go (1967) and The Ye-Ye Generation (1968); for Tower Productions she made D' Musical Teenage Idols! (1968), Teenage Escapades! (1969), Nora in Wonderland (1970) and My Blue Hawaii (1971). Her first two pictures with Tower (Idol, Escapades) were so popular Sampaguita sued her for breach of contract; apparently they wanted her to work for them exclusively. At around the time of the lawsuit she was all of seventeen years old.

In 1973 Nora was popular enough and powerful enough to establish her own production company, NV Productions; her experience with Sampaguita Pictures likely taught her the benefits of self-employment. Their initial project was Carmela (1973), followed by other commercial projects--Super Gee (1973), Paru-Parong Itim (Black Butterfly, 1973), among others.

But Nora wanted more. With Fe, Esperanza, Caridad (Faith, Hope, Love, 1974), an omnibus made with Premiere Productions, she worked with three major Filipino filmmakers--Cirio Santiago, Lamberto Avellana, and Gerardo de Leon. The Esperanza segment, where she was wayward wife to Jay Ilagan, showed her skill at light comedy, set against a realistic urban background; Caridad showed her gift for stylized drama, playing fallen nun opposite Ronaldo Valdez's impressive Satan.

Nora must have enjoyed working with De Leon, because she approached him to direct her first epic, Banaue (1975), a melodrama about the Ifugao tribe that built the great Rice Terraces in Northern Luzon. Nora's performance is creditable (though not, I think, as interesting as in Fe, Esperanza, Caridad); more significantly, she could attract a filmmaking legend like De Leon (even if this was his last finished feature), raise enough money to finance such a major effort all her own.

Nora would do more commercial films with her production outfit, but the experience of making Banaue must have stayed with her; again, she looked for a filmmaker to do yet another prestige production. Legend has it that she first approached hot young filmmaker Lino Brocka, fresh from his success with Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang ; legend also has it that Brocka's initial reaction was "I don't want to have anything to do with that Superstar!" She then approached (or possibly Brocka referred her to) longtime Brocka collaborator Mario O'Hara, who had made his directorial debut with Mortal (1975). O'Hara picked up a script he wrote for the Hilda TV series set in World War 2, and rewrote it for the big screen.

The result was Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos (Three Years Without God, 1976). Nora played Rosario, a simple country girl whose boyfriend, Crispin (Bembol Roco), leaves her to fight the Japanese. Rosario is raped by Masugi, a half-Japanese officer (Christopher de Leon, at the time Nora's husband); she ultimately finds herself caught between two worlds--that of the oppressed Filipino peasants, and that of the Japanese military and their Filipino collaborators. A powerful film, it's arguably Nora's finest performance and one of the greatest Filipino films ever made.

Nora would work with O'Hara several more times: Kastilyong Buhangin (Castle of Sand, 1980); Bakit Bughaw ang Langit (Why is the Sky Blue? 1981); Condemned (1984--another NV Production); and Bulaklak ng City Jail" (Flowers of the City Jail, 1984). She would work with Brocka--who after the critical success of Tatlong Taong must have finally admitted there might something to this 'Superstar'--in the middle-class melodrama Ina Ka ng Anak Mo (You are the Mother of My Child, 1979--critic Agustin Sotto's favorite Brocka film), and the slum drama Bona (1980--yet another NV Production). With filmmaker (and Brocka rival) Ishmael Bernal she would do Ikaw ay Akin (You are Mine, 1978--Bernal apparently being quicker than Brocka in realizing Nora's potential) a drama noted for pairing her with Vilma Santos, and the great Himala (Miracle, 1982), about a woman (Nora) who works supernatural cures in a small town. Other filmmakers she has worked with include Lupita Kashiwahara (Minsa'y Isang Gamu-Gamo (Once there was a Moth, 1976)), Gil Portes ('Merika, 1984, Andrea, 1990), and Joel Lamangan (The Flor Contemplacion Story, 1995).

I would argue however that her collaborations with O'Hara have a magic no other filmmaker has reproduced. O'Hara was the first major filmmaker to recognize Nora's talent, the one who collaborated with her most frequently, and with the best results. It's possible they worked so well together because in many ways their temperaments are similar: both show a shyness, a reserve around strangers; both aren't aggressive about marketing themselves (in Nora's case usually fans or media friends speak out for her). O'Hara has remarkably little ego for a filmmaker (in an industry where ego is as necessary as a cellphone); Nora too, despite her power and longtime celebrity. Even when she's the lead of a film like Bulaklak sa City Jail her performance doesn't overwhelm the rest of the cast--the film is a model of ensemble acting. In her finest pictures--Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos, Ina Ka ng Anak Ko, Bakit Bughaw ang Langit, Ikaw ay Akin, she meshes perfectly with her co-stars to create not an opportunity for her to stand out but a flowing dynamic, a relationship or duet that helps the story soar. As O'Hara says of her: "She would never improvise--she felt that the director should direct her, and she should never presume to act otherwise. But she would listen to me and give me more than I ask for. Whatever it was, she would give more."

This lack of ego is nowhere more evident than in what may be her most celebrated role, that of Elsa in Ishmael Bernal's Himala. It's often cited as her finest performance; I disagree, but for a special reason. I believe the film never dives deep into Elsa's character, or makes us identify completely with her--and this, I think, was intentional on Bernal's part. He uses Nora as a kind of focal point, a lens through which the different townsfolk (who are all more sharply delineated than she) project their various fantasies and fears--an icon, in short. Nora's Elsa for them is, alternately, a charlatan, a saint, a sex object, a target, a booming religious industry; none of them quite see her as a person, and neither in the end do we. It's a remarkably selfless performance, totally dependent on the filmmaker's concept; when Bernal said that only Nora was capable of playing Elsa, he was right, but in a particular way--I doubt if any other star of comparable standing would have allowed herself to be used like that.

Along with Nora's selflessness, sometimes complementing it, sometimes flashing out from behind, is an intense acting style. Nora is essentially a silent film actress performing in a sound world; she has some skill with dialogue--you see it in films like Bernal's Ikaw ay Akin, or Brocka's Ina Ka ng Anak Mo, where she plays intelligently eloquent middle-class career women--but dialogue isn't her kind of magic: it's in the final scene in Ikaw, when Nora faces Vilma in wordless confrontation; it's in the revelation scene in Ina Ka, when Nora confronts her mother's lover. When the words die away and the camera zooms in, it's Nora's eyes that stay with us--her mute yet eloquent anguish, up there on the big screen, cinema's emblem for the Filipino's almost infinite capacity for pain.

Nora's films have made an impact internationally, most notably Bona, which was shown at the 1981 Cannes' Director's Fortnight; Himala which was screened at the 1983 Berlin Film Festival; and earned Nora a nomination for Best Actress, and The Flor Contemplacion Story, which won the Golden Pyramid at the 1995 Cairo Film Festival. But I would argue that her international acclaim is a modest side effect, because Nora wasn't made for international audiences, but for us. She's our own, quintessentially Filipina actress, the one star in all of local cinema who can never be miscast when playing a domestic helper or provincial girl or urban squatter. I'm of the opinion that Brocka's Insiang would have been better with Nora in the lead (I think many of his earliest--and best--films would have been better with her in the lead). Her life's story, from humble probinsyana to all-around Superstar, is the dream of every Filipino moviegoer--is our dream, in effect; her suffering, whether as a lowly housemaid, or small town icon, or Japanese officer's pregnant wife, is our suffering. When we see her onscreen, we see ourselves.

(First published in Nora: Through the Years… a souvenir program for Ms. Aunor's Grand Reunion concert, April 24-25, 2004)

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