Filipinos today, movie fans especially, would be bemused to realize what a groundbreaking phenomenon Nora Aunor was when she broke into show business as “The Superstar.”
Before her, actresses were invariably mestizas, parlaying their fair complexions, remarkable height, sharp noses and regal bearing to achieve stardom. Think Gloria Romero, who ironically came from humble stock but whose queenly aura drew adoration, even when producers deliberately sought to downgrade her aristocratic appeal by making her portray laundresses and tricycle–driving tomboys.
At the height of her popularity, Aunor, or “Ate Guy” to devotees, was pitted against another mestiza, Vilma Santos or “Ate Vi,” who, though fair of complexion, was just as tiny and petite.
But while Ate Vi entered the movies as a child actor and was catapulted to fame by the popularity of her love team with Edgar “Bobot” Mortiz (now a TV director), Ate Guy’s entry into show biz was via the enduring singing contest “Tawag ng Tanghalan.” I remember everyone in our household jostling for a place in front of the TV set when the contest aired, drawn by the truly powerful and emotive voice of the diminutive teen from Bicol.
It was only a matter of time before Aunor was snapped up by Sampaguita Studios, which fielded her in a series of teenybopper films with her first film partner, Manny de Leon, and, more successfully, Tirso Cruz III.
Just to show you her extraordinary appeal, and the devotion she inspired, Pangasinan Rep. Gina Vera-Perez de Venecia, daughter of Sampaguita head honcho “Doc” Perez, recalls attending a fans’ gathering at the Sampaguita grounds for Ate Guy. “When she arrived,” recounts “Manay” Gina, “she was immediately swamped by the fans, but to be fair to everyone, she was picked up and asked to stand atop a table.” This was when her fans rushed to the table, “some of them content to wipe their hands on the hem of their dress, like she was the Black Nazarene or some miraculous image,” says Gina, laughing.
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Given the prevailing standards of beauty at the time, one had to wonder what made Aunor such a box-office draw. After all, unlike the svelte performers then, she was small (barely five feet), with unremarkable “ethnic” features, and most significantly, she was of dark complexion.
Of course, she had “the voice,” which escaped from her like a living creature, full-throated, deep and powerful. Even when she belted teenybopper tunes in her early movies, she managed to imbue them with resonance, remembrance.
And then there were those eyes, which in her later films could speak volumes even without a line of dialogue, expressing anger, pain, indignation, suffering, inexplicable joy. Where she learned to exploit these singular features no one knows, for save for one or two workshops much later in her career, she came to the movies raw and untested, receiving little by way of guidance when all her fans asked of her was to be herself.
And what a self it was! Nora Aunor was—and is—simply, the Filipina personified. She was not prettier or wealthier than her fans. She led a hard-scrabble life in Bicol, and even the controversy over her parentage mirrored the troubled lives of those most enthralled by her.
Before Nora, fans adored their idols from afar, keeping a respectful distance and expecting actresses, especially, to hew to standards of decorum and decency enforced by movie producers like Doc Perez. But in Nora Aunor, fans embraced someone just like them, embraced her for all her imperfections, and identified with the wild ups and downs of her life.
And she allowed them unprecedented entry into her existence. The story goes that one reason her former husband, actor Christopher de Leon, left their conjugal home was that he couldn’t find a moment’s peace, with the most loyal fans and factotums allowed access to the master bedroom at all hours of the day.
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Of late, Nora’s luster has dimmed a bit. Of course, she has grown older (and who hasn’t?), and even that magnificent voice has been irreparably damaged by a botched cosmetic procedure.
But in the intervening years, especially through her own efforts as a producer, she grew into her talent, appearing in films that not only won a slew of awards locally, but also gained honors for our filmmakers abroad, while receiving international accolades herself.
You don’t even have to be a fan to recite her most memorable, iconic characters: “Bona,” the exploited movie fan; Elsa, the ill-fated psychic healer in “Himala”; the woman falling in love with a Japanese officer during the war in “Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos”; the gritty survivor in “Bulaklak sa City Jail”; and the self-sacrificing midwife in “Thy Womb.”
Late last year, there were reports that Aunor had made it to the list of nominees for National Artist in the field of cinema. But since then, Malacañang has not seen fit to release the final list of honorees. There is scuttlebutt that some “cultural figures” have objected to Aunor’s selection because of her perceived personal flaws (and who doesn’t have one or two or more?).
But what or who are we honoring here? Is this a canonization? Are we looking for exemplary lives or outstanding achievements in the arts? For there is no doubt in my mind that Ate Guy deserves to be named National Artist—if only for showing the world, and Filipinos especially, that there is no shame in being small, dark and humble, that there is much to be said in rising above one’s station and exploring one’s gifts in as full, gratifying and enriching a manner as has Nora Aunor, long and forever “The Superstar.”