By Tito Genova Valiente
September 23, 2015
ON September 17 Nora Aunor was given the highest honor the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) could give an artist. Consistency was the rule that the award enforced. Not one but a long line of excellent body of works is needed for an artist to be given this recognition. There is no doubt Nora Cabaltera Villamayor—or simply Nora Aunor to admirers past, present and future—more than fills up the requisites of the award.
A few minutes past 3 pm, the rites for the Gawad CCP Para sa Sining had not started yet. Someone in the back muttered, “Nora is not yet here. She is always late.” I turned around and briskly informed the elegantly dressed but ill-informed woman that Nora is not late, that she had been there backstage accommodating guests who wanted their photos taken with her. The lady quieted down.
That would be the spirit of the afternoon. There were a few people who were there waiting for Nora to fail again. And yet, there were people who were there to show their gratitude and love to this artist.
A few minutes after, a voice announced the parade of members of CCP Board of Trustees and past recipients of Gawad CCP Para sa Sining. They all walked down the left side of the CCP Main Theater. After them, the present recipients followed. Loud applause emanated from the theater. They all walked down. When the name “Nora Aunor” was mentioned, whistle and shouts and applause rose from the crowd. I shouted “Bravo!” I had a personal stake that afternoon. I was given the task and the honor to write the short bio of Nora Aunor and the citation that will be part of the program.
Herein follows the short life history of Nora Aunor that became part of that ceremony:
“Poverty and politics are the birthright of Nora Aunor. It does not matter really when she was born. That she was born very poor matters because, like in the many narratives of her films, she would rise from that squalor into a status that symbolizes and, at the same time, subverts social mobility in this nation. This is where politics enters into Nora Aunor’s birth: the person will form an actor and an acting style that may not be always explicitly about portrayals of inequality but subtle and succinct commentary on how power is used and misused in the societies of this republic.
“In the summer of 2015 Nora was honored with the honorary Nagueña Award. It is her fate that Nora Aunor would always stand for something bigger than where she physically came from, the town of Iriga then.
“Geography and genius would explain the influence of Nora Aunor on the cinema of the Philippines. Iriga was a small town when she joined an amateur contest in the city of Naga. That town is part of Rinconada, a term which means ‘corner’. In her career as an actor, Nora Aunor would portray characters who were either an outcast or in the outskirts of social groups. By being born in a town that was at the periphery of a region that was also not mainstream in the thought of the dominant culture of this country, she would have in her spirit a marginalization that is beyond compare.
“Nora Aunor would sing first and win a national singing competition: the respected Tawag ng Tanghalan. Gone was the girl who had to stretch out her neck to listen to the songs played over the radio of a neighbor. Gone was the girl who sang for food. On that stage, the wisp of a girl sang ‘Moonlight Becomes You,’ defeating singers more educated and with more capital to fund a better dress. She looked at the sky only she could see with those searing eyes and sang to the moon and the night and the music.
“Then there was the film industry beckoning her, a machinery that was built on actors and actresses that had the Caucasian features, the so-called mestizos and mestizas whose images resembled Hollywood celebrities. And yet, she would conquer this terrain and win over to her side a newly formed critics group called Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino. In 1976 she was the first Gawad Urian for Best Actress, a star and a thespian vanquishing those who ever doubted her. The film was Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos, where she played lead but, thematically, a villain. She was not only an actor in the film; she was also the producer.
“She would produce more and act in the films she funded: Bona would join other films as the best in the world, to cite just one example. She would portray Elsa, a reluctant faith healer, in Himala, a film that would be declared the best in Asia by CNN-Asia Pacific Screen Awards in 2008. The performance has been lauded and written about by film scholars attributing the mystique of her portrayal to the fact that Nora’s fandom parallels the fanaticism and faith of people. Iconic is perhaps the most abused term writers can give to a celebrity but in Himala, Nora as Elsa becomes the icon around which doubt and belief circumnavigated, in which religion becomes not a refuge but a refutation. One can safely say that if an actor can give a hundred shades of black and white, a magnificent canvas of chiaroscuro describes Nora’s Elsa: timid, manipulative, victim, aggressor, confronting and retreating—in sorrow or in joy, it is an art to behold and a trial to witness to those who believe that cinema is not merely images on the flickering silver screen.
“Nora Aunor would win awards in several continents. The label ‘Superstar’ is never ridiculous when attached to her name. Lately, she is being called ‘The Grand Dame of Philippine Movies,’ indicating not her age but her wisdom, not really her longevity but the amazing perpetuity of the acting acumen that has brought forth women whose decisions about loyalty and love, self and nationalism have been questioned. In Nora, these women responded back.
“Formidable are the characters that Nora has fleshed out through many decades. She slept with the enemy in Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos and lived in the home of the enemy she planned to kill in Bakit May Kahapon Pa. She lived in ‘Merika and made us think of those decisions to stay in a foreign land all for economic survival; she offered us the terrible options to go to America even if some soldiers of that land could mistake our brothers for pigs in Minsa’y Isang Gamu-Gamo. She looked in the eye of the storm in Taklub and only saw our sense of self; and collected umbilical cords in Thy Womb because she could not produce one herself. She, in fact, played mothers and lovers whose duplicity enabled us to not to gaze at morality but at the complexity of humanity.
“She has won all the acting awards. She has been elevated to many Halls of Fame. The world has seen her and bestowed accolades on her because Nora Aunor holds the oar and she freely navigates the sea of humanity, ferrying us from the shores of ignorance to some afterlife of knowledge through a genius in performance that could only come from poverty, politics and geography, the schools of acting that have given Nora Aunor the boon to share with the many who believe in her.”
Writing the citation was terribly difficult, as I was asked to compress in mere paragraphs the decades-long sterling records of Nora Aunor. I must confess that this citation went through rewrites. Hermie Beltran of the CCP had to push me, at a certain point, to complete the citation. After several cups of coffee with Nora Aunor songs playing endlessly, interspersed only with songs by Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, Eva Cassidy and Ella Fitzgerald, I completed the citation on August 22, just a few weeks before the awarding.
Here is the citation, which was translated also into Filipino:
“Nora Aunor began her life in the 1960s as a singer singing songs from varied sources and initiating the resurgence of a different vocal music. She knew how to be hungry before her golden voice brought her to the attention of the nation.
“Her journey from a young girl selling water in the train station to someone providing the wishes and hopes of the nation’s masses is no less than epic.
“Nora would join TV and cinema and with that entry, she would change our colonial perspective about physical beauty. She starred in musicals and melodramas that would serve as escape to many looking to her for inspiration.
“Soon, she would make films that subverted politics and politicize subversion. In her many films, she helped us escape from the stereotypical women to flesh out the possibilities of Filipino womanhood.
“Nora Aunor would perform theater pieces that would prove the legitimacy of that genius. In plays and in films, she played characters that were current in the country’s crisis and concerns: migrant labor, rebels and ambitious lovers.
“Nora’s acting style would create a massive shift in the performance traditions that were already entrenched. Nora would change all that, with her portrayal of characters that were marginalized but—with the strength and conviction of her skills—became central in the imagination of the nation. If one is to consider Nora Aunor’s legacy to the nation’s film industry, it is in those expressions on a magnificent face that can show triumphs and defeats, pains and joys, all at the same time in silence and subtlety that are as disturbing, as enduring and as endearing as the struggles of our nation.”