By Butch Francisco
Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino (MPP)
Although her magnificent voice initially served as her big ticket to superstardom, it was her performances in the movies that enshrined Nora Aunor as the biggest female iconic figure in Philippine show business.
Films have always been a part of her life – first as a young movie fan who watched Vilma Santos’ Trudis Liit five times at the flea-infested Allan Theater in her hometown of Iriga. “I have always been Vilma’s fan,” she says of the actress-turned-politician, who had been her archrival in showbiz for close to half a century.
When – at age 12 – she moved to Manila in search of her big break, possibly as a singer on radio, it was in her agenda to see in person and hopefully get the autograph of Vilma, who by then had become her girl crush. She got this chance when she auditioned in the radio show of Ike Lozada and German Moreno and to her delight found out that Vilma was among the featured guests in the program. That could have been the happiest day of her life, except that Moreno, who later would become her biggest showbiz drumbeater, chose another aspiring singer over her.
There had been other rejections prior to that. That had been one of the better days, in fact. At least, she was admitted to the studio – at MBC on Taft Avenue. Once, she fell into a manhole after she was accidentally pushed away by an overzealous guard in charge of crowd control.
Her 1967 Tawag ng Tanghalan win changed all that. All of a sudden, she had showbiz offers, including the chance to be part of the Araneta Coliseum concert of Timi Yuro, who had wanted to adopt her and bring her to the United States – an option Nora seriously considered.
In the movies, it was the legendary star-builder, Dr. Jose Perez of Sampaguita Pictures, who first gambled on her. Sampaguita signed her up to a four-year contract, which, according to Nora, stipulated that “by her fourth film, she would be elevated to lead star status.”
The terms of her contract were unimaginable at that time. Although she had beautiful expressive eyes and the perfect Asian nose, she was dark and at 14 wasn’t likely to shoot up beyond 5 feet. Only the year before, Rosemarie Sonora and Gina Pareño, gorgeous mestizas both, were launched by Sampaguita as part of the studio’s much-heralded Stars of ’66.
Sampaguita had to test the waters with her first. In All Over the World, Nora was merely asked to sing in one sequence. She was even surprised when she was required by the studio to be at the lobby of Life Theater on opening day. Dwarfed by her taller and fairer co-stars, she retreated to one corner and was hardly recognized by movie fans. However, when the movie got to the part where she sings, she heard clapping from a visibly pleased audience. For her initial film, Nora got paid P200.
Her talent fee was upped to P400 in her next film project, Sitting in the Park, which starred mostly members of Stars’ 66. Then came Pogi and Ang Pangarap Ko’y Ikaw. Somewhere along the way, she got teamed up with Tirso Cruz III – a tandem that instantly built a solid fan base.
Nora undeniably became popular not only with the masses, but also with a curious A-B crowd wondering how a dark, diminutive girl could possess such singing talent and charisma.
In the eyes of producers, she was a gold mine, who could carry a film by herself and earn big bucks at the box-office. But then, she legally belonged to Sampaguita, which decided to stick to its tradition of carefully molding its contract stars first until they’ve reached their full potential.
She wasn’t even halfway done with her commitment with Dr. Perez when Artemio Marquez, who had directed some of her films for Sampaguita, saw a loophole in her contract. “Dapat daw kasi bida na ako in my fourth film, which didn’t happen,” recalls Nora of this episode early in her career.
Since Nora was still a minor, it was her Aunt Belen who signed the Sampaguita contract on her behalf. What Marquez did was to seek out her biological mother, Antonia, to get a legal consent that enabled him to produce under his own Tower Productions Nora’s first solo picture, Musical Teenage Idol that true enough became a blockbuster hit – done on a shoestring budget. Her take-home pay was P15,000, a huge part of it spent treating out classmates at the Centro Escolar in Parañaque, where she later collected her high school diploma. (It was also in this school where friends started calling her Guy, a nickname she formulated for herself with the help of her tough girl gang-mates.)
Nora didn’t have much time to enjoy her box-office success because her camp had been sued by Sampaguita for breach of contract. The case went on for years and eventually was decided in favor of Sampaguita by the Court of First Instance, under Judge Ulpiano Sarmiento in 1974. The ruling allowed Sampaguita to garnish P1.3-M of Nora’s existing properties. To show that they were only fighting for principles, the Vera-Perez family didn’t even bother to go that length. “Basta pinatawad na lang ako ni Manay Ichu,” Nora claims, referring to the long talk she had with Dr. Perez’ eldest child Marichu Maceda after the case was settled.
Nora didn’t sever ties with Sampaguita and its sister company VP Pictures even at the height of their legal battle. Since the litigation process took long, she was allowed to make movies both for Sampaguita and Tower.
For Sampaguita, she did Guy & Pip, Always in My Heart, Nasaan Ka, Inay and My Blue Hawaii, all of which were blockbusters. Mrs. Maceda saw for herself how the actress was regarded practically as an object of idolatry (“like a religious image in church”) by her followers. She remembers how Nora would descend the famed Vera-Perez staircase – to be met below by adoring fans who knelt down to kiss the hemline of her long gown. “She was THAT popular,” shares Mrs. Maceda.
Over at Tower Productions, she was given a new leading man – the dashing Manny de Leon, who lost no time winning her heart. Although she still cared very much for Tirso Cruz III, her first and true love, Nora decided to get into a romantic relationship with De Leon after she felt the pressure from family members who all favored the new suitor – “maybe because of the gifts of perfume and liquor he gave them,” she now laughs.
Oh, but it was a stormy affair they had – “kasi ang dami niyang ibang babae.” Once, she bought a small pistol that gun collectors refer to as señorita and this she actually fired at him, except that the shot was a dud and the bullet just flew off and mercifully missed the target.
Their arguments got so tiresome to the point that an exasperated De Leon had to tell Nora to her face – “na hindi naman kita gusto at kaya lang kita niligawan kasi pinilit nila ako.” Yes, even in Hollywood, as depicted in The French Lieutenant’s Woman, the lead performers in romance films are encouraged to fall in love with each other for a more realistic registry onscreen. And here in Philippine setting – in the hope of better results at the box-office.
In Nora’s case and by her own admission, it helps that she is in love with her co-star on the set. Manny de Leon’s blunt confession that he didn’t love her left Nora emotionally devastated. Her ego was bruised and her pride badly wounded. Even her body ached from too much work and begged to rest.
She often noticed that at least three of her films would show simultaneously in different theaters. In 1970, Tomboy Nora opened on July 5. Two weeks later, on July 18, Hey There, Lonely Girl was shown, followed by I Dream of Nora 10 days after on July 28.
By her own calculation, she was being tasked to finish a film project in two and a half days, putting to shame the speed in which pito-pito movies were made in the late ‘90s by Regal Films.
The work setup was made convenient for her. She was put in an apartment in Natib St. in Cubao. Artemio Marquez lived nearby and Nora only had to cross the street to get to the producer-director’s house where practically all the films were shot.
There weren’t too many dialogues to memorize and deliver. Mostly, she was made to sing for the benefit of the camera songs from her album, which now entitles her to claim that she was ahead of the MTV era. “No wonder I was being made to do a recording every week (for Alpha Records) even if I was sick!”
She hardly slept in those days. And when she did, she would wake up to the nagging question: “Am I being made to do three films for the price of one?”
When she shot on location in her native Iriga one time, she remembers wrapping up work and saying goodbye to her co-stars – only to be roused from her sleep the following morning to find Ricky Belmonte waiting as her new leading man. Was he there for another movie project she didn’t know about?
Later that day, a train with three coaches was hired by production to be used as movie backdrop. During a lull in the shoot, Nora made known to everyone her desire to learn how to run a train. One of the engineers gladly volunteered to teach her – which was easy since she always had a knack for technology and mechanics.
Toward the end of the lessons, she was allowed to run the train for a few meters from the Iriga station. But to the horror of the train engineer, Nora just went on and on until they reached Sipocot, some six towns away. There was no way she was returning to the movie set and that was her chance to escape. After getting off the train, she and her assistant Dory boarded a Manila-bound bus where she was hardly noticed by her co-passengers under the cover of darkness.
Of course, Nora got it again from the press. By then she had gotten used to everyone calling her “indyanera” or no show. While she pled guilty to some of the accusations against her, she insisted that she wasn’t at fault all the time. “If ever I was late, that was done on purpose,” she says with conviction. “For instance, I don’t like it when the producer mistreats the crew.” She displayed her disapproval by showing up half a day late – like if the call time was 8 a.m. she would show up at 8 p.m. She wouldn’t work either if the producer who had earned her ire was on the set.
One time, a producer castigated the crew for engaging in a card game, “pusoy” – never mind if it was done during a break. The producer banned outright playing cards on the set. The next day, Nora brought her own mah-jong set and yes, several decks of playing cards.
In the early ‘70s, Nora also tried her hand at producing her own films under NV Productions – “because I wasn’t happy anymore with most of the offers coming my way.” Her first project was Carmela, which proved to be a relatively light experience for her since Sampaguita – even if they were in the middle of a legal tussle - assisted her, from the lending of equipment all the way to the movie’s theatrical release.
Most difficult was the epic project Banaue that in the end cost P3-M to produce. Although it was a huge hit, she never got to enjoy a centavo of its earnings because the entire profit was used to pay off debts incurred while doing the film.
No, she doesn’t regret producing Banaue – if only for the fact that it gave her the opportunity to work more lengthily with the future National Artist Gerardo De Leon. She was earlier directed by the film great in an episode of Fe, Esperanza, Caridad, a Premiere Productions project that also gave her the chance to work with another future National Artist Lamberto Avellana (in the Esperanza episode).
And what did she learn working with the two masters? “I learned to behave on the set,” she says with a hearty laughter. Although Fe ... proved to be a demanding role, Nora was still on her quest to find the right parts that would satisfy her thirst for artistry and eventual recognition as an actress.
Maybe unknown to her, she had already been noticed by eventually became the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino. Manunuri founding member Behn Cervantes may not have completely appreciated the comedy that was Batu-Bato sa Langit, but he still called Nora “a fine actress” in his Daily Express 1975 review.
The critics’ support must have inspired her to continue sharpening her acting skills further. Nora began experimenting in Lupita Concio’s Minsa’y Isang Gamu-gamo. She refused to read the script in its entirety and instead focused merely on the scene that was to be shot, while at the same time inquiring about what happened in the sequences before and after that. “I wanted to feel the moment without being burdened by scenes other than that.” With regard to the use of those famous dark, expressive eyes, she claims that “it just came along while I was in the process of improving my craft, without anyone in particular teaching her how to do it.”
For her performance in Minsa’y, another Manunuri founding member, Dr. Nicanor Tiongson, wrote in his Daily Express review in 1976: “Once again, Nora Aunor proves herself to be one of the finest actresses today, with an acting style that is both ‘raw’ and ‘fine,’ characterized by a disarming sincerity and force that can break into an unbelievable number of nuances, shades and colors of emotion.”
It was in Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos where she was officially recognized as the toast of the critics – having been crowned as the first ever best actress winner in the annual Gawad Urian. “I was so happy that I didn’t sleep for two days.” She just kept clutching the trophy around the house and did nothing else.
Nora won six more Urian best actress honors: Bona (1980), Bilangin ang Bituin sa Langit (1989), Andrea, Paano Ba Maging Isang Ina? (1990), The Flor Contemplacion Story (1995), Bakit May Kahapon Pa? (1996) and Thy Womb (2012).
She did Thy Womb because she got curious about indie movies during the period she was in the US. When she came back in 2011, she began inquiring about directors doing in indie films. The late showbiz writer William Reyes recommended Adolf Alix and Brillante Mendoza, who promptly paid her a visit during a shoot of her TV 5 soap.
She almost didn’t finish doing Thy Womb because she felt nothing was happening while working on the film.
“Walang mabigat na eksena – puro laot lang,” she recalls. Even co-star Bembol Roco felt the same. There was a script, all right, but Mendoza wouldn’t show it – “para daw natural ang acting.” She only stayed on because her manager and confidante Boy Palma kept watching the monitor and assured Nora that “they were doing something beautiful and different.” Although devoid of heavy dramatic confrontations, her performance in Thy Womb is one of the finest in her career.
Nora is now having the time of her life doing indie movies – “if only for the artistic freedom and wide choice of roles it offers,” she points out. She easily adapted to the different working style in indies because Nora is one of the few movie queens who was never afraid of changes.
In fact, much early on, she busted the myth that only Grecian goddess-like actresses could play lead roles on the big screen.
She also dissolved the prejudice against the bakya crowd – so-called because in the ‘60s market vendors trooped to movie houses to watch Tagalog features in their wooden clogs. Her almost unequalled talent, charisma and all-encompassing appeal became the great equalizer – with the elite beginning to appreciate Nora Aunor films (once patronized only by the masses), particularly those done in collaboration with top directors.
Of course, in the ‘70s, from bakya, she was called “baduy” (poor taste), but that was only for a while and she eventually surpassed that phase of her career. Today, a Nora Aunor film is always associated with prestige.
It helped that she had the power to choose film projects and directors and used her clout to come up with some of the best Filipino movies of all time. After the ‘50s golden age, it is said that 1976 and 1982 were the golden years of Philippine movies. In 1976, Nora had Minsa’y Isang Gamu-Gamo and Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos and in 1982, she starred in the epic Himala.
Truly, Nora Aunor played an important role in changing – for the better - the taste of the Filipino moviegoer.
This year, she is the recipient of the Manunuri’s highest honor – the Natatanging Gawad Urian. She joins the ranks of previous winners, some of whom have since been named National Artists. For some reason, maybe political, such honor was denied her.
She richly deserves to be named National Artist for all her contributions to the local film industry. And yes, if only as a reward for her efforts in helping Filipino moviegoers gain a more critical view and better appreciation for true quality films.