Legends and Icons
August 20, 2020
CAUGHT as we all are by the menacing Covid-19 pandemic, we barely have a moment to grieve the passing of our local cinema’s national treasures: Peque Gallaga, Liberty Ilagan, Lilia Dizon and Anita Linda. Add to these tremendous losses the earlier death of Kirk Douglas in February and in July, director Alan Parker and the last of the greats of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Olivia de Havilland.
Sidney Poitier and Sophia Loren are the last survivors from the American Film Institute’s list of greatest actors and actresses. But world cinema still has Angela Lansbury, Betty White, Eva Marie Saint, Cicely Tyson, Harry Belafonte, Gina Lollobrigida, Tippi Hedren, Christopher Plummer, Clint Eastwood, Joanne Woodward and Gena Rowlands. All in their 90s.
Late last year, the Film Development Council of the Philippines collaborated with the National Commission for Culture and Arts to celebrate the centennial of Philippine cinema. A glossy feature in Agung, the NCCA magazine, was conceptualized through the NCCA’s Public Affairs and Information Office, headed by Rene Napeñas.
I was enlisted by my friend, Roel Hoang Manipon, the executive editor of the project, to write profiles of some of the most iconic, inspiring and influential personalities that have graced our screens. The legends must have made their celluloid debuts in the 1960s or earlier. And they must still be alive at the time of writing.
Sadly, Amalia Fuentes and Eddie Garcia did not make the cut. The special issue was supposed to be launched in June but the pandemic ruined the plans. Sadder still, Liberty, Lilia and Anita never got to read their special tributes. So, I might as well give a glimpse of the legendary ladies that I profiled in Agung.
Tessie Agana embodied the wide-eyed innocence of a child in a post-war world. At a tug of her pigtails, she can cry buckets of tears. But with a smile from this chubby-cheeked wunderkind, your worries will fade away. That’s why she was called “The Shirley Temple of the Philippines.”
When LVN Pictures launched a nationwide search for a “Good Girl” for its 1957 film, Bad Boy, with Lou Salvador Jr., the “James Dean of the Philippines,” the radiant Mary Ann Respall Blanch was chosen from among 300 hopefuls. She became the dazzling beauty Marita Zobel.
The LVN matriarch, Narcisa Buencamino-de León, took Milagros Bernardo under her wing and nurtured her to screen stardom like she did Nida Blanca, Delia Razon and Charito Solis and gave her the name Luz Valdez. When mestizas reigned supreme at the local cinemas, along came a morena who challenged the status quo. Caridad Sanchez was already a recognizable name in show business in her native Cebu before she broke barriers in Manila.
An underrated but in-demand character actress, Eva Darren has endured the shifting tides of show business and continues to work to this day. She is considered a pioneer in soap operas, having started in the drama/fantasy Hiwaga.
When France was being beguiled by Brigitte Bardot, Italy being captivated by Claudia Cardinale and Hollywood being mesmerized by Marilyn Monroe, the Philippines was being seduced by Stella Suarez. When Ursula Andress, as Honey Rider in Dr. No (1962), emerged from the Carribbean Sea wearing only a white bikini, it became an iconic moment in film and fashion history. Here, the daring Divina Valencia made a loud splash at the Montalban River in Kardong Kidlat.
Rosanna Ortiz used the sexy-to-serious actress playbook, originated by Charito Solis. Meanwhile, a dainty beauty, Daisy Romualdez quickly starred with the biggest names and the most prolific directors at Sampaguita Pictures.
True to her name, Nova Villa became an instant star on her first movie, Daniel Barrion (1964). That it starred Fernando Poe Jr. and was produced by one of his companies, Jafere Productions, propelled the 18-year-old’s ambition to become a movie star.
A veteran and versatile character actress, acting coach and dubbing supervisor, Vangie Labalan began her entertainment career as a radio talent in her native Bacolod City in 1962. National Artist Ishmael Bernal, Labalan once proudly recalled having “discovered” her innate acting talent.
Liza Lorena was a born actress. What’s more important, she could be made into a good one. That she was classy, statuesque and with cheekbones so chiseled, the Kapampangan was also bound to be a star. In 1966, she joined Binibining Pilipinas and finished first runner-up to Clarinda Soriano, who placed in the Top 15 at Miss Universe.
Sophisticated, articulate and stylish, Celia Rodriguez is a cinematic archetype. Since her beginnings as an ingenue in late 1950s films, Rodriguez has endured as a glamorous—if domineering—figure onscreen.
From wild card to acclaimed actress, Gina Pareño is one of local cinema’s most unpredictable, irrepressible personalities. She burst into the scene in the 1960s as one of the prized stars at Sampaguita Pictures, became a sex symbol in the 1970s, a character actress in the 1980s and 1990s, and an international acting sensation in the 2000s.
The Queen of Philippine Movies, Susan Roces is “The Face That Refreshes.” As Lola Flora Borja-de Leon in ABS-CBN’s FPJ’s Ang Probinsyano, Roces remains not only to be a refreshing—and reassuring—presence.
The most enduring of the movie queens of the Philippines, Gloria Romero is as active today as when she ruled show business in the 1950s. “I’ll retire when I can’t memorize [my lines],” said Gloria, the gold standard for anyone who wants to be successful in show business, with a legacy of greatness, gravitas and glamour. She is the actress against whom all succeeding movie queens should live up to in terms of pulchritude, star quality and acting ability.