(This article was first published in print in issue 20 of the Philippine Collegian on 12 December 2012.)
by Anton Chua
A young woman, clad in white, prays to the heavens to receive a vision of the Virgin Mary. Silently, her beautiful almond eyes are placed in focus, then the camera pulls back to show her kneeling and steady, until at last she is completely visible, motionlessly in awe of her vision. It is here, in this unspeaking moment, that she is at her most expressive.While this unfortunate woman, Elsa, would go on to be fatally shot later in the film, the performance behind the character would live on forever. In Ishmael Bernal’s masterpiece Himala, Nora Aunor gives her most recognizable performance as faith healer Elsa, in a role that parallels her own mythical nature.
Nora Aunor ranks among the greatest of Filipino artists, endowed with such superlative titles as “Superstar,” and conferred with a long list of awards, the breadth of which could only be dreamed by other thespians.
More than this, however, she is a figure of mythical proportions, larger than any of her roles or even her own persona. Practically worshipped by fans, and seemingly made to represent ideals larger than herself, Nora Aunor is an unparalleled legend in the Filipino entertainment industry.
Ang Totoong Buhay ni Pacita M.
Nora Aunor, or “Ate Guy,” grew up as a member of the masses, a short, dark-skinned girl who at the time could hardly be confused for a star. Her career began at a radio singing competition in Naga, called Darigold Jamboree. Nora joined in order to help her parents pay for her sister’s tuition. Winning this and many other amateur competitions, she soon made it big as a professional singer, her magnificent contralto delivering record-breaking sales.
She also starred in her own TV series, a variety show, at first called the Nora-Eddie Show when it was launched in 1967, and then renamed The Nora Aunor Show in 1968, and was ultimately known as Superstar. Movie appearances followed, with her nabbing her first FAMAS nomination in 1972 for the film And God Smiled at Me. It was here, when she started to enter film, that the myth began to take shape.
“There is no Nora Aunor film that does not script her ‘own’ life,” writes Barnard College professor Neferti Tadiar. These performances typically characterize her as a lower-class martyr who values helping others and suffering for them in service, mirroring her own humble beginnings. In becoming this myth, both her own persona and her characters are elevated to heights that exceed how they would otherwise been regarded.
This semi-autobiographical nature of her films build a sense of aspiration from the audience that is underscored and enhanced by Nora’s status as a very down-to-earth celebrity, who looks or acts nothing like the tall mestiza beauty queens who usually grace the silver screen. She is an everywoman, not a goddess, but she was able to achieve all of these things through effort and perseverance – and this makes all the difference to her fans.
T-Bird at Ako
Certainly there are many great actresses and singers out there with plenty of fans, but Nora Aunor’s fanbase is of particular note. Noranians, as fans of the famed actress are oft-called, are among the most enthusiastic and energetic fanbases of any celebrity. They’d go as far as to threaten to stage a rally if their star doesn’t win an award.
Reverence of her image takes place at almost religious levels. Tadiar writes of a story of a wealthy neighborhood in which daily life was disrupted, because all the household maids had gone off to watch a nearby shooting at which Nora Aunor was present. Art history professor Patrick Flores recounts statements from members of the Grand Alliance for Nora Aunor Philippines, in which they “would affirm that Nora Aunor is the sole reason they ‘spend countless hours, experiencing sleepless nights, working day and night.’”
“The social profile of Nora Aunor fans is usually characterized as lower class, consisting of housemaids, slum dwellers, and market vendors; any wealthy Nora fans are considered an exception to the rule,” writes Dr. Bliss Cua Lim of the University of California, Irvine, in describing the Noranians.
Director Cesar Buendia notes what immediately made Nora so special and celebrated: “She became a hit when it was in vogue to be fair and mestiza. The fans were waiting for someone they could identify with. She was like Manny [Pacquiao] in her time. That, combined with phenomenal singing and acting talent made her a superstar.” Behn Cervantes calls her “the Dark Pinay who toppled the White Tisay,” saying that her ascendancy “coincided with the rise of rabid nationalism during the late 1960s and early 1970s.”
Dr. Lim writes that Nora is the only “short, dark, low-born actress in the Philippines” to achieve as much success as she did, given the competition of stars who were definitely tall, white, and of higher class. In being such, “she seems to encapsulate the most progressive anti-colonial aspects of Filipino masscult.”
Relative to this myth, Nora the human is not quite so perfect; she supported Marcos in the 1986 snap elections, pleaded guilty to drug charges, and endured money problems and unemployment in the United States.However, her triumphant return to the country in August 2011 reified the ontological aspect of the mythical Nora Aunor figure.
“Bakya temporality,” according to Tadiar, is when the social elite believe the poor masses to be backwards in their culture and are unwilling to change, unready to move forward. Nora, like her alter-ego Elsa, is a “heretical saint,” whose trajectory is unlike anything the gatekeepers of high culture has ever witnessed. In light of this, the heretic figure of Nora Aunor represents a subversion of the elite’s almost-colonialist assertion that the poor are “not ready” to advance or contribute.
The value of the Nora Aunor mythical figure lies in how she maintains the hope of those who suffer, who find themselves at the bottom rungs of the social ladder. Interpassivity, in which people project themselves and their aspirations onto people or objects, is described by philosopher Slavoj Zizek as the delegation of sensation to the object. With the mythical figure of Nora Aunor as an interpassive subject, one can see that her representation of the masses runs far deeper than just being a source of inspiration. If Nora falters but gets back on her feet, then it shows that someone like her can have faults but still recover.
That said, Nora and her characterizations never seem to extricate themselves from their suffering. This is in sharp contrast to the characters of her contemporary and rival, Vilma Santos, whose roles in films such as Sister Stella L and Dekada ’70 depicted women who were empowered despite their context, not simply remaining passive to their tribulation. The final heresy lies in shattering the mythical figure of herself, in breaking the shackles of the Nora persona and hurl the character of the martyred woman into the annals of history once and for all. To borrow the title of one of her unfinished projects – the sole copy of which is reportedly in her possession –that will be Nora Aunor’s Greatest Performance. ●