by ARNEL RAMOS
Malaya Business Insight
Monday, August 22, 2011
What we know about Nora Aunor is largely culled from movie excursions with our mom, a certified Noranian, when we were too young and did not have much of a choice but go along with our Nanay’s preferred film fare. And so, beside Nanay inside random cavernous cinema houses, we enjoyed "Annie Batungbakal" and "Bongga Ka ‘Day," and the comedy "Totoo Ba ang Tsismis" opposite a much younger leading man (Gabby Concepcion at the peak of his matinee idol good looks).
Her highlight by the cliff as the woman an ambitious Phillip Salvador wanted to get rid of in favor of the rich and beautiful Hilda Koronel in "Nakaw na Pag-ibig" we found gripping. As her gifts matured in such acting vehicles as "Ina Ka ng Anak Mo," "Bona," "‘Merika" and most especially "Himala," we found ourselves, not unlike the most ardent Noranians and anyone who is a film buff, having memorized Nora’s iconic lines and memorable scenes from these opuses.
Nora, we would hear over and again, changed the way producers and audiences believed how a star should look like. Pint-sized and rather ordinary looking, the dusky Bicolana who peddled water by the train tracks before she won the singing contest "Tawag ng Tanghalan" put the mestizas out to pasture.
She was someone who was not conversant in the King’s language and became the personification of the masa and the bakya with whom the plain Juanas and Marias identified strongly and deeply. It was as if they found someone who was of their own kind. Nora represented their struggles, their pains and sorrows and their dreams and hopes.
We started writing about the movies and stars four years into the new millennium. But we have been closely observing the goings-on in the industry from when we were a child of 9. Tatay and his mom, my paternal grandmother, didn’t care much about Nora. The two were both fans of Carmen Rosales, the original queen of Philippine movies. Tatay also was crazy about Roger Moore and the James Bond movies, French sex symbol and action star Alain Delon, Omar Shariff. But Nanay, as we’ve mentioned earlier, was just nuts about Nora. "Mata pa lang niya, umaarte na," she would praise the bulilit goddess to high heavens, echoing the sentiments of the brown Cinderella’s legions of followers.
Hers is the clearest singing voice Pinoys have ever heard, Nanay would remind us often lest we forgot. Nanay passed away April of 1983 and her last Christmas was spent watching "Himala" during the Metro Manila Film Festival with me and my sister. When Vilma scored a Best Actress grandslam as the modern-day querida in "Relasyon," we were so sorry for Nora because, in our young mind, we couldn’t fathom how Nora’s almost hypnotic portrayal of Elsa, the bogus visionary, could have lost to Vilma’s body-and-soul and yet sort of shrill performance. Years later, of course, after repeated viewings of "Relasyon," we came to appreciate Vilma’s efforts more. For one thing, her character was better written than Nora’s and Vilma seized the day, giving the role everything she had. But then Nora’s Elsa still remains special and essential.
When Nora’s box-office magic started to wane in the early ‘80s with her bohemian ways contributing to her downfall, we became quite critical of the star. We found her performance as Magnolia dela Cruz in "Bilangin ang Bituin sa Langit" quite fine but it was nowhere near the brilliance of her earlier collaborations with master filmmakers Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal and even the underappreciated Mario O’Hara (the scene where Nora goes on a long walk towards nowhere while clutching her newborn in "Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos" comes to mind). The ones that followed "Bilangin" we found utterly disgusting. She was just, in our mind, over-the-top in "Andrea, Paano Ba ang Maging Isang Ina," "Ang Totoong Buhay ni Pacita M.," "Sidhi," and even the much-awarded "Flor Contemplacion Story." Suddenly, Vilma’s "noisy" acting style seems to have rubbed off on her fiercest rival. We remember hearing Ricky Lee, one of Nora’s dearest screenwriter-friends, say that Nora was "marunong mag-eksperimento." Still, we preferred the nuanced performances of yore. The chilling scene in "Bona" when she threw boiling water onto the stuntman to whom she wrongly devoted her life. The tender scene on the roof with Dennis Roldan (as the simpleton) in "Bakit Bughaw ang Langit." When she utters "Hayop, hayop…" repeatedly upon discovering her mother and husband’s indiscretion in "Ina Ka ng Anak Mo." The eerily quiet, no-dialogue scenes in "‘Merika" where she simply goes about her daily routine, staring out into nothingness, the bleakness she is feeling within peeking through those fabled eyes. The list is quite long indeed.
She may have a solid reputation as an incredibly-gifted actress but there is another facet of Nora that is not exactly pleasing to hear and learn about. Horror stories abound. Of how she would make people wait for her on the set of a movie or TV show. The reported predilection for alcohol which her critics would dismiss with a cryptic attempt at tag phrasing: "Nora lasengga." The nomadic nature; we all have heard of course of her legendary habit of changing addresses. When Nora Aunor, by then 51, left for the US in 2004, she herself may have felt what Greta Garbo would famously intone in her swan song "Two-Faced Woman" in 1941: "In this harsh new world, there is no place for me."
That time, she has been labeled as box-office poison many times and would be able to bounce back without fail but then, maybe Nora may have felt that she has already reached the end of the line. There was, after all, nothing more to prove. There was nothing left to conquer. She could retire and retreat from the spotlight and people would still talk about her. People would continue to eulogize her even before her time on earth has run out. People would continue to analyze her, discuss her, write books on her even.
And yet, the whole duration of her US hiatus was plagued by unsavory reports, rumors, accounts, speculations. Did she really marry her former manager in same-sex rites in Las Vegas? Is John Rendez, the mestizo rapper she plucked out from obscurity to play her adopted daughter Lotlot de Leon’s leading man in "Pacita M" her lover? And what about the time she was arrested at an airport for possession of illegal drugs?
What are we to make of this woman who seems to have this tendency to self-destruct? What are we to make of this extraordinarily-gifted performer who seems intent on living the rest of her days wayward and just plain crazy?
When TV5 hosted a welcome home press meet for Nora Aunor on the afternoon of August 2, the very day of her arrival from Los Angeles, it was just astounding to see her magic work full blast right before our very eyes. Old friends from the entertainment press were in tears at the sight of her, not a few were muttering "Iba pa rin si Nora" under their breath, the air filled with strains of stirring, dramatic music and the room reduced to a hush at her grand entrance.
She comes home to a hero’s welcome, triumphant and yet repentant. Nora Aunor vows to make up for her past misdemeanor. And this writer, overwhelmed by the reception given to her by colleagues, is taken back. We spend the next few days sorting out our feelings for La Aunor. The woman our Nanay swore was the greatest actress Philippine Cinema has ever produced. She whom her worshippers attest to as peerless, adamant in dismissing those who would dare put in their two cents’ worth: "But then Lolita Rodriguez is also exceptional. Hilda Koronel is elegant and no less outstanding. And Maricel Soriano is versatile, Vilma Santos heartfelt and heartbreaking. And then there is Jaclyn Jose, Chanda Romero, Beth Bautista, Daria Ramirez."
"Ganun yata talaga kapag artist, may pagka-luka luka," puts in a colleague.
"Iba ang magic ni Aunor. Meron siyang enigma. Para siyang non-linear narrative. Laging meron kang aabangan. Hindi palaging straight, hindi boring," adds another.
There are a thousand and one more opinions, expressed differently in varying degrees of fervor and conviction, but all valiant attempts at trying to explain the hold, the spell that Nora Aunor has cast on her devoted public for so long.
How do you demystify a legend? How do you deconstruct a myth?
By the end of this treatise, we realize that we have come up with nothing but a feeble effort to answer this thesis question: "Sino ka talaga, Nora?"
You can choose to read through or simply ignore the rest of this discourse – Nora Aunor is so much more complex and confounding than she herself would put it. "Ako pa rin po ito. Maloko pa rin. Lukaret eh." If so, it is madness that has set her apart from a long line of fair-skinned, conventionally beautiful movie queens. Hers is the kind of magic that could have originated only in the era which spawned her. Can you imagine Nora Aunor giving the studio-manufactured stars of today, a mix of half-breeds and second-generation starlets, a run for their money? The careers of modern-day luminaries have been charted by their respective managers to last only for a good five years or so. They lack the gift and prescience of Aunor.
The woman may have gone bankrupt and lost a great deal of her earnings when she ventured into producing movies in the ‘70s but the cinematic gems she came up with would last forever. "Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos," "Bona," the list is illustrious. Aunor started out as a singing idol but did not stop at that. She sought opportunities to work with the best people in the trade. The results are a shining gallery of memorable screen incarnations. The stars of today do not walk the talk when they go out to media and speak about "wanting to improve their craft" without doing anything concrete about it. This is precisely why their acting often borders on the soap-opera-ish style prevalent in the TV landscape. You couldn’t feel the pain of being abandoned by a lover or a parent. They couldn’t make you smell the filth of the slums and see the ghastliness of poverty.
Her artistry is the side of Aunor that compensates for the aberrant behavior and merits, as most showbiz insiders and observers believe, a National Artist award while she can still enjoy the recognition and honor. She is, after all, a national treasure. When showbusiness was used to the traditional and the predictable, along came Nora. And our notions of what was beautiful and extraordinary were changed forever. The likes of her do not come every so often. Flaws and all, Nora Aunor remains arguably the quintessence of what a showbiz himala brings with it and leaves on its trail.
Will she be able to translate the mania and hysteria that surrounds her homecoming into good box-office returns and soaring ratings? Are we witnessing the rebirth of a new Nora Aunor? Expectations are high and Nora seems up to the daunting task ahead. "Ayokong umasa kasi ayokong mabigo at masaktan," says La Aunor. "Kung ano ‘yung mangyari. Kung ano ‘yung mga pinangako ko na tutuparin ko, ‘yung attitude sa trabaho lalo na, saka lang ako maniniwala kapag nagawa ko na." Change, they say, is never possible without first acknowledging one’s past misdeeds.
Are we to believe the words of this most mercurial of stars? Why is it that where Nora Aunor is concerned, most showbiz folk seem always ready to forgive and forget and embrace this repeatedly errant star back? One image remains imprinted in our memory during a rare up-close, in-the-flesh encounter with the legend. Nora was recounting a recent ordeal that caused her the very thing that started her off on the path to superstardom and near-beatification – her rich, soulful alto. For a few seconds after her heartbreaking recollection, she sits still on the couch, head lowered. When she looks up and meets our gaze, she lets out a meek smile, her eyes like a keeper of a million hurts undisclosed.
In an industry where stars are expected to be like divinity, immortal and all-powerful, can you even begin to ascertain what a chosen one like Nora Aunor must put up with and live up to? Chances are, you may not wish to be in her place. To be venerated as the greatest could be the loneliest predicament of all.