TOAST OF THE MANUNURI ON 40TH YEAR IS BRILLIANT ACTRESS AND UNFADING STAR
IT TOOK HER almost a decade to win her first acting trophy from the Gawad Urian from the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino (MPP) which was created in 1976. Vilma Santos got her first Urian best actress award in 1982 (for Relasyon) – when both Nora Aunor and Gina Alajar had already won two trophies each. Vilma was already a superstar and a much-awarded actress then. The long wait gave her the impression that she wasn’t a “Manunuri favorite.”
“But it was only after I got the award from the Manunuri that I felt na actor na ako,” reveals Vilma. “Totoo ‘yan!”
She never could have guessed then that after her initial victory she was going to set a record by winning the Urian best actress award three years in a row and now holds the distinction of having the most number of Urian trophies: 11 in all – eight as best actress race, two as best actress of two decades and one as producer of the 1978 best picture, Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak.
And as the MPP turns 40, Vilma Santos is given the organization’s highest honor, the Natatanging Gawad Urian – a fitting tribute to an actress who has displayed unparalleled excellence in her movies.
She is not the first in her clan to make it big in show business. Forties and Fifties superstar Carmen Rosales, like her, a legendary movie queen, was a grandaunt on her father’s side (esteemed movie journalist Ronald Constantino is also an uncle).
Vilma fondly remembers how Ms. Rosales – a recluse in her late years – would visit her at her Magallanes illage home in the ‘70’s. “Lola mo ‘ko, ha,” Carmen would remind Vilma, who was always all ears, listening to her grandaunt’s tales and tips on “how to choose the right men.”
Oddly enough, the two women were unable to trace familial roots while they were both in Sampaguita Pictures, and Carmen, then one of the most influential women in showbiz, had no hand in Vilma’s entry to the movies.
It was cinematographe Amaury Agra who was instrumental in bringing Vilma to Sampaguita. The ace lensman, noted for his expertise with the hand-held Arriflex ccamera, was a regular guest at the Santos home during the La Loma fiesta. He noticed Vilma’s eagerness to perform before her parents’ visitors. Would she care to come with him to Sampaguita and get an audience with star-builder Dr. Jose Perez? The studio was about to start another drama, Anak, ang Iyong Ina. Maybe Vilma, then nine, ould get a part in the film.
Her parents initially weren’t receptive to the idea. They didn’t’ see Vilma working at such an early age. They weren’t rich, but they ould provide for their children’s needs, especially since both of them were gainfully employed. Vilma’s father, Amado, was working for the GSIS, while her mother, the former Milagros Tuazon, had a stable job at Aguinaldo’s department store (today’s version of Rustan’s). Eventually, they agreed to indulge the daughter’s dream of joining show business.
As per Agra’s instruction, Vilma was simply to present herself to Dr. Perez, who was going to check her out for a possible part in Anak, ang Iyong Ina. When she and her mother reached the Sampaguita compound, there was a long line and Vilma joined the queue along with the other children, who were trying out for a small melodrama Trudis Liit.
She didn’t stay in the long line, though. Vilma even then already stood out from the rest of the crowd and was plucked from that long queue by the audition masters Bella Flores, Boy Alano and Dr. Perez himself. Vilma was made to ry and was instructed to memorize a dialogue. “Not only did I deliver the line. Nag-adlib pa ‘ko!”
For playing the title role in Trudis Liit, Vilma was paid P700. Part of the package included a whole fried chicken for lunch, plus an apple.
Vilma also shot Anak, ang Iyong Ina with Rita Gomez and, later, went to Premiere Productions to play another title role – Ging, with the studio’s resident villainess Carol Varga and comedians Aruray and Georgie Quizon.
While studying with the RVM nuns at St. Mary’s, Vilma appeared in the TV soap, Mga Batong Buhay, and co-starred with Katharine Ross and Doug McLure in the Hollywood B-movie The Longest Hundred Miles, which had principal location in Bicol.
In 1965, she was cast as First Daughter Imee Marcos in the Ferdinand Marcos biopic Iginuhit ng Tadhana and in 1969 the sequel, Pinagbuklod ng Langit.
In between, she appeared mostly as the teenage daughter of lead stars in dramatic movies and received a best supporting actress prize (for Kasalanan Kaya) in a film event organized by San Beda College.
By the late ‘60s, Nora Aunor had paved the way for a new generation of young female stars: petite and not necessarily of Castilian extraction. Nora was so popular that she was given two leading mean: Tirso Cruz III and Edgar Mortiz. Maybe because Nora and Tirso were truly in love with each other, Edgar was shut out from this love triange. Edgar needed a new leading lady and it was Cornelia “Angge” Lee, a studio hanger-on back then, who suggested the name of Vilma.
Not quite 16, Vilma was chubby, had baby fat, but was gifted with translucent fair skin. More importantly, she had charisma. She was then doing radio with teen partner Jay Ilagan. “Nagtampo pa nga si Jay nu’n. He said: ‘Di ba tayo ang mag-partner? Bakit ka sasama du’n?’” Vilma recalls their parting.
The Vilma-Edgar tandem developed its own following and was pitted against Nora and Tirso. The rivalry was so intense between the two love teams that during the staging of one Mr. & Miss RP Movies tilt (the forerunner of today’s Box-Office Awards) at the Araneta Coliseum, Vilma was horrified to see fans hurling chairs and empty bottles at one another. At one premier night, she was pricked with a pin by a fan, obviously from the rival camp.
Although Vilma admittedly was behind Nora in terms of popularity, he people running her career made sure she stayed in the race. Nora’s obvious edge over Vilma then was in the field of singing and singing was never Vilma’s forte. But she was made to wax records anyway – which all sold! “Never underestimate this voice! Naka-gold record ‘to!” Vilma says, laughing at herself.
After a string of Vilma-Edgar movie hits, producers tried pairing her with other leading men – with equal success. Her FAMAS win as best actress for the 1972 film Dama de Noche helped boost her stock even further. It wasn’t long before she reached Nora’s level of popularity.
Vilma started attracting moviegoers who did not necessarily belong to the so-called “bakya crowd” (hoi polloi). The Filipino middle class who otherwise would not be caught dead watching Tagalog pictures patronized her Takbo, Vilma series, Dyesebel, and several editions of her Darna, movies. At an early age, she was a master of reinvention.
Viewers admiwhere she romances with an older, married man) and Tag-ulan sa Tag-araw (about kissing cousins) signaled a fully grownup mature actress who appealed strongly to Filipino women who were still tradition-bound in spite of the women’s liberation movement that was sweeping western countries.
She was then ready for the most daring role of her career – that of a burlesque dancer and stripteaser in Celso Ad. Castillo’s Burlesk Queen. “That was the most difficult movie I ever did,” says Vilma.
The finale, reshot four times and using multiple camers, showed her gyrating on stage in a bikini for several agonizing minutes until she bleeds to death. It is a delicate scene that has her dancing half-naked in front of an all-male audience. The location was a theater in Cubao that featured real stripteasers.
That scene caused delays in production. Vilma kept begging off. Her mother mediated on her behalf: “Maybe my daughter is still young to do that!” The producer promised her everything – the moon, the stars, plus a brand-new Mercedes Benz – just for her to do the scene. The answer was still no. She relented when she was threatened with a lawsuit.
In the end, the film turned out to be the turning point of her career. It was box-office bonanza and she won as best actress at the 1977 Metro Manila Film Festival and gained the reputation of a serious performer. As for the Mercedes Benz, it was never delivered, prompting her to buy a blue Benz for herself.
The following year, she hoped for a two-in-a-row win as filmfest best actress. Her entry was Lino Brocka’s Rubia Servios, where she plays a rape victim.
Everyone said she was a shoo-in for best actress. Even fortune tellers were unanimous in saying this at a gossip show on television. Her producer, Marichu Maceda, was so sure of her victory that she gifted the actress with a P10,000 dress to wear during the Gabi ng Parangal, an amount that could cover an entire bridal entourage.
But come awards night, Mrs. Maceda got hold of a copy of the winners before the show and broke to her the news: “Talo ka.” At the moment, she still had the option to leave, but graciously stayed on to watch archrival Nora Aunor ascend the stage as the winner (for Atsay). After the show, she and Mrs. Maceda proceeded to the actress’ Makati condo and got drunk on champagne.
Things went downhill from there. Her career was rocked with a Betamax scandal which wouldn’t raise eyebrows in the more jaded early 21st century. Supposedly the video was in wide circulation but nobody really saw it. No cop ever surfaced because there was never one. Ironically, years later, Vilma truly became a Betamax Queen when videos of her Viva and Regal movies became the best sellers in video shops here and in Filipino communities in the US.
After the Betamax issue, she went through another trial: she found herself buried in debt. Vilma always had faith in real estate and had invested well in choice properties but dipping her hands into movie producing was a faux pas. While proud of her movie venture Pagputi, the production cost of the film wiped out her finances. For one, it took the director, Celso Ad. Castillo, three years to finish the project. “First time kong nagkaroon ng kaaway – at nabato ko pa si Celso,” grimaces Vilma.
And tthen, an aide she thought could trust mishandled her finances. Bills that were supposed to be settled remained unpaid – until the interest started accumulating. And in the meantime, BIR duties were neglected. She mortgaged properties, only later to be repossessed. Her posh Dasma residence, house in Marikina and Tahanan Village, plus a three-hectare lot in Tanay that had 52 mango trees – were all taken away from her. The Magallanes Village home where she lived that time was saved – “pero may utang pa rin du’n.” She lost even her blue Mercedes.
It was Mrs. Maceda and he late Atty. Espiridion Laxa who helped fix her money mess. First, the P80,000 monthly household was trimmed down to P5,000. “I practically measured even the patis (fish sauce) she used in the kitchen,” volunteers Mrs. Maceda, who also trafficked all talent fees from Vilma’s projects. “Many Ichu would only show me my cheques: ‘O, this was what you earned from making this movie.’ And then derecho pambayad na ng utang ‘yun. Never ko na-enjoy ‘yung kinita ko doing those films,” recalls Vilma of that dark period that went on for years.
By God’s grace, she remained a bankable star all throughout. There was even a bright light in this chapter of her life: She met her first husband and father of her first child.
It was the height of the disco craze when she was introduced to Edu Manzano. She and director Elwood Perez had gone discoing that night and had repaired to the Manila Pen for an early breakfast. Edu, a top model then, asked Elwood to introduce him to Vilma.
A short courtship followed until Edu, then already an actor, followed Vilma to the US (where she was doing two movies) and proposed marriage. “Edu arrived in LA, rented a car and off we went to Las Vegas to get married.”
While honeymooning in the US, they did one movie together (Romansa) before returning to Manila where Edu bade the movies goodbye in favor of office work. While Edu did not exactly expect Vilma to quit showbiz, he expressed his wish for her to at least slow down a bit. But how could she when she still had to settle her debts that by then had ballooned to about P8-M due to compounded interest?
To her relief, she never lost her fans in spite of the fact that she was already married with one kid (Luis, currently the busiest host on TV). She did Relasyon not only because she liked the story (about the sacrficies of a mistress), but also because – “pambayad din ng utang ‘yun.”
“And I won my first Urian there,” Vilma says with pride.
Although it was a grand-slam win for her, “pinaka-precious sa akin ‘yung Urian.” To her frustration, she wasn’t even able to deliver an acceptance speech. She had come from Celebrity Sports Plaza where she was crowned Box-office Queen. Hosts Behn Cervantes and Tessie Tomas were already wrapping up the show by the time her car pulled over at the Manila Film Center where the Urian was held. As soon as she entered the hall, the earth shook – literally – from some minor tremors. She was unfazed by the earthquake and as she charged in, she kept crying: “Bernie! Bernie!” (her director in Relasyon) sand cried on his shoulder.
Her marriage to Manzano had already totally collapsed by the time she worked on Broken Marriage, which gave her her second Urian. Vilma was still deep in debt that time and had to continue working. There was no time for domestic bliss, except to attend to the needs of her child, Luis.
To be fair to Edu, he offered to help settle her debts, but his income from office work was not enough to solve his wife’s financial problems. (He only returned to the movies in 1984, finally tasting showbiz success via Bernal’s Working Girls.)
By the mid-‘80s, Vilma could already command a salary of P700,000 per film. For Mayro J. de Los Reyes’ Tagos ng Dugo, she was paid a million pesos.
Although her financial recovery was already in sight, she still smarted from her broken marriage – until she decided to snap out of it. While getting ready for her VIP variety show one Sunday, she waited for Luis to come home from a father-son bonding with Edu. Rushing into her arms, Luis reported to his mother his pizza date with his father – “and some tita.” “Hmm, so there is already a tita,” Vilma muttered to herself.
After her show that evening, she decided “to have some fun” – clean fun, actually, since her dates were Charito Solis, long-time confidante Chit Guerrero and her VIP staff. They met up at the King Kong disco of Maarilou Abaya and Ishmael Bernal, probably the most wholesome watering place that time since it was right across St. Paul College at Doña Hemady corner Aurora Boulevard.
Early in the night, a 21-year old La Salle college student approached Vilma and introduced himself as Ralph Recto. May he dance her? Vilma gave her a curt “later.”
Ralph kept coming back to her table every hour, but her answer was the same. At 4 a.m., a sleepy and exasperated Charito told Vilma: “Isayaw mon a nga para makauwi na tayo!” Ralph lost no time wooing her after.
All throughout the courtship, Ralph would watch over Vilma during shoots that lasted till the wee hours of the morning. They waited till Ralph had finished school and had himself elected as Batangas congressman before they got married – in grand fashion at the Lipa Cathedral in 1992.
The year after, she did The Dolzura Cortez Story and the experience was a bittersweet one for her. Sweet because she got the Urian one more time and eventually ended up with another grand-slam. It was bitter because she lost a baby (a case of ectopic pregnancy) while doing the movie.
The next time she got pregnant, she gave up all her work including her award-winning Vilma show, and stayed in bed for five months. That sacrifice gave her and her husband a very healthy boy they named Ryan Christian, now 21 and graduating from college.
In 1998, she entered politics, first as Lipa mayor, a job that kept her away from the movies and even posed a threat to her life. When the 2nd Urian anthology (with her on the cover) was launched in 2002, Vilma was all set to grace the event. But shortly before the affair, she had a shabu laboratory raided (with the help of the DILG). It was a major drug bust that yielded P1.5-B worth of shabu. She received a death threat and was not allowed to go out in public for quite some time and, was in fact, forbidden to talk about the incident.
After three terms as mayor, she completed another three terms as Batangas governor. In 2016, she was elected congresswoman representing the 6th district of the province. She humbly admits, “It was only when I was already a politician that I began to fully appreciate my lines in Sister Stella L.” In the Mike de Leon film, she played the role of a timid nun who grows into a militant labor activist.
As a public official, her name has remained untainted. In the movies, she is forever admired and respected for her artistry and her immeasurable contribution to the industry.
Screenwriter Ricardo Lee, a staunch Noranian, once shared how Vilma would hand him a cheque, telling him: “Ricky, para sa (writing) workshop mo.”
As a superstar, she lent her clout in the industry to make it possible for local directors to attain their dream projects, a lot of which turned out to be among cinema’s best. In fact, seven of her films were Urian best picture winners.
And even while at the throes of financial distress, she risked essaying roles that were not necessarily viable at the box-office, but gave her the chance to create fresh and strong characters, mostly championing the rights of women.
She agreed to do Sister Stella L, a film with strong anti-establishment sentiments, even while Marcos was still in power. Vilma also agreed to do something that was a-no-no in star vehicles – die in Pahiram ng Isang Umaga and in Dolzura Cortez, two films about death and illnesses, subjects that never appealed to moviegoers. Playing the mother of an autistic child in Ipagpatawad Mo was also a gamble given its depressing story.
During the few and rare times she had the opportunity to make movies, given her punishing schedule as a public servant, instead of choosing surefire box-office formulas, she experimented with sociopolitical films like, Bata, Bata, Paano Ka Ginawa and Deka 70, both of which earned her more Urian best actress awards.
For the acting brilliance she displayed in all those films – from Relasyon, Tagos Ng Dugo, and Sister Stella L, to Deka 70 and the more recent Ekstra – she enjoys the Manunuri accolade as best actress both officially and unofficially, raising the level of film acting to unprecedented heights.
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