Unlike Nora la Dolorosa, the durable Vi Santos has made happiness her career By Quijano De Manila
Durable is a word that shifts nuance when applied to Vilma Santos. Yes, you can say that, for instance, Gloria Romero, Nida Blanca and Charito Solis are durable because they are still on view as performers, if no longer at center stage. But when you say that Vilma Santos is durable you mean she is still at center, in front, on top. Now that’s phenomenal because in Philippine cinema 10 years seems to be the limit for female stardom. After 10 years you slip to character and supporting roles. But Vilma is on her 28th year in showbiz and the spotlight is hers yet as leading lady, the only one to match the record of Dolphy and Ronnie Poe. When she started out, Amalia Fuentes and Susan Roces were the glamour queens. Then she and Nora outshone them. Today, after several changings of the guard, the prima donnas are Sharon Cuneta and Gretchen Barretto. Nora Aunor is no longer in the running, at least not at the moment. But Vilma is. Very much so. And she can romance a whole new generation of leading men like Gabby Concepcion and Richard Gomez with no sense of strain or disparity.
Ishmael Bernal, who claims to have directed Vilma’s best pictures, believes she has endured because she has physical, emotion and mental endurance. ‘She could work for 24 hours straight without getting tired, without flagging in her acting. There were times when we had to shoot for three or four successive days, getting very little sleep, but there Vilma would be: fresh, enthusiastic, rarin’ to go. Physical endurance is very important to a star. Another thing I noticed was her strong sense of competition. At that time, though of course, she didn’t say so, it was Nora she wanted to beat. Vilma was out to be the bigger star, the better actress. And so she geared her career for a zoom to the top.” Bernal first directed her in Inspiration (1971), produced by Tagalog Ilang-Ilang from a script by Nestor Torre. ‘This was at the height of the Nora-Vilma rivalry and the competing love teams were Nora-Tirso[Cruz] and Vilma-Edgar[Mortiz]. But in Inspiration, Atty. Laxa decided to pair Vilma with a rising new star: Jay Ilagan. That early, I noted that Vilma had the potential to become a great dramatic star. At that time she was not yet doing actress roles, only juvenile fan movies. Her assets were the expressiveness of her eyes, very important for the camera; the creaminess of her complexion, very important on the screen; and the ability to make her audience sympathize if not identify with her. Another thing I noticed was that she’s perfectly relaxed in front of the camera: no sense of compulsion. She just stands there and with a flick of the eye, a movement of the hand, she communicates whatever emotion has to be communicated to the audience. Unlike theater actors who feel they have to use the entire body to communicate, she achieves her effects with the simplest gestures. She already had perfect timing.”
Inspiration was a comedy and Vilma, to Bernal’s delight, needed very little rehearsal. ‘She didn’t enjoy too much rehearsing, preferring to give all on take one, confident in her spontaneity. Which was what her director wanted. Another thing I remember about the early Vilma: she was a travelling department store. She had a van that looked like the fourth floor of Rustan’s filled with clothes, clothes, clothes, and hundreds of shoes, hats, bras, panties, and costume jewels, all of them nursed by loving alalays who followed her everywhere she went. If the director required an evening gown, a negligee, a pajama top, she had it in her van.” Bernal next worked with Vilma in 1972, on Now and Forever, scripted by Rolando Tinio and co-starring her with Edgar Mortiz and Tommy Abuel. It was a dismal flop, says Ishmael Bernal: ‘So let’s not talk about it.” It wasn’t until six years later that he and Vilma worked together again, on Dalawang Pugad, Isang Ibon. ‘It was written by Jose Nadal Carreon, the former police reporter and UP literary apprentice, and currently one of our best directors. It was an adult film and it started a new trend for Vilma: playing the other woman. The film was very hot copy because it was the comeback vehicle of Romeo Vasquez, with whom she was then having an affair. I found Vilma different: she had already matured. She must have been around 23 or 24. She was up in the clouds, being very much in love with Romeo Vasquez, and having already beaten Nora in the game of Who’s No. 1? This was in 1978. Nora was doing action movies like Super Gee that were flopping miserably. But Vilma’s career had taken a new path: heavy drama.”
The change in Vilma was not all to be good. ‘I noticed that she was often tired, often had difficulty keeping up her energy or concentration. The message projected was that the business of acting and the pressures of showbiz in general were beginning to tell on her.” The prime reason was the exhausting affair with Romeo Vasquez. ‘That affair was blown up by the press to scandalous proportions and I could feel that she was under pressure. Still, she tried to keep up a brave front, to be always polite: the smiling professional, and to hide from the public her inner turmoil. She was getting a bad press because of this affair with an older man, a notorious playboy, but the affair was a big factor in the maturing of Vilma Santos. When she made Dalawang Pugad, Isang Ibon she was saying goodbye to adolescence. She was saying: ‘I am a woman, I am entitled to happiness, I am entitled to the love of the man I want to love!’ It was during this period she uttered the most famous of Vilma quotes when she said of those who were bad-mouthing her: ‘To hell with all of them!’ this was her declaration of independence, of adulthood, of resistance. The film proved to be a very big success, nominated for various awards, though she didn’t gain an acting award.”
Vilma’s next Bernal film was 1978’s Ikaw ay Akin, again scripted by Joe Carreon, and starring Vilma and Nora together, with Christopher de Leon as their leading man. In this film, says Bernal, was set the persona Vilma would portray in a series of sex melodramas. ‘She played a liberated woman who had grown up in the States: very witty, very nervous, very aggressive, a chain smoker and fast talker, who’s trying to steal Christopher de Leon from Nora Aunor. Her character was neurotic, a free spirit, unpredictable; and I noticed again that Vilma herself was on edge from too much hard work. I could understand her arriving late on the set because I knew she was doing four or five movies at the same time. She would just sleep in the car while rushing from one location to another and she would arrive looking groggy and exhausted. Sometimes she would just give up and beg that the shooting be postponed because her body just couldn’t take it any more.”
She was then the top box-office queen and the top dramatic actress and it’s always a strain to keep on top. But the ‘glad girl” that’s the basic Vilma Santos continued to shine through the murk of those harrowing days, as Bernie Bernal recalls. ‘However tired or sleepy, she remained carinosa, always polite, and all smiles to the crew. She would buy them merienda and at the end of shooting would throw a feast for them: lechon and pancit. She was always considerate with the crew.
Some movie stars get carried away by a sense of their importance: they know they are carrying the movie, are responsible for its success, are making big money for their producers. And so they become temperamental. Vilma is quite aware of her importance and make no mistake about it: she has the qualities needed for survival in a cruel ungrateful world. She is a fighter, she has a killer instinct. All movie stars, especially the superstars, necessarily have this instinct. But in Vilma it goes with a real concern for others. And she wants her public image to be positive.”
So, even in a time of crisis, Vilma preserved her image as a glad girl – while Nora was busy setting herself up, or down, as la Dolorosa. If Vilma works at happiness, Nora has made a career of masochism. Bernal says that in Ikaw ay Akin Vilma was already conscious of her own particular style of acting, which can be described as minimal: less is more. The fewer and simpler the gestures, the greater the effect. The stripped style won her a grandslam when she did Relasyon with Bernie, which he rates as her most memorable film. It got her all the awards on the market. ‘In Relasyon Vilma made the character of a mistress very human and sympathetic, not just a contravida. The film was her comeback after her pregnancy. She and Edu Manzano had just had their baby boy, Lucky. Her next film, Broken Marriage, set another trend for her; the role of a modern urban working girl, as sophisticated as her Makati office and her personal problems. Her fans are growing up and Vilma’s image is becoming more and more complicated.
But it was in the last film we did together, 1988’s Pahiram ng Isang Umaga, that I noticed the big change in Vilma. She had become an artist. She was no longer just a movie star following the director’s instructions. She was very hyper, very high, eager to experiment: a cooperative and mature actress. She had studied the script in advance and she had sensible suggestions about it. I felt I was no longer working with a movie star but that she and I were two artists collaborating on an objective statement about life and death and human relationships.” How did a girl who began as purely ‘pang-masa” develop into so fine an artist? Vilma herself gives the credit to her willingness to learn. The process was sometimes painful but, says Vilma, she knew it was all part of her education. I am now 28 years in this business and everything I have learned has made me a stronger woman. Even the troubles, the intrigues – they have made me a stronger woman. I’m always learning. For example, there was a part of my career that was for me a very expensive education.” She had set up a production company of her own that, it turned out, was mostly producing debts.‘ That was about 15 years ago. I tried producing and I made about five movies for VS Films, my own outfit. It was managed by my mother, not by me personally, and Mama is so good people take advantage of her. Before I knew it I was drowning in debt. I was pregnant at the time, 1980, when I learned I had a debt of six million pesos! And I didn’t even know if, after giving birth, audiences would still accept me. How was I to survive? I prayed; I told God I was willing to work, sarado ang mata, just to pay off all those debts. And with his blessings I was given a second chance. After giving birth to my son, my career got a second chance and became even more successful: not only did I continue to be box-office but I was winning awards right and left.”
Before Lucky’s birth she had no contract with any studio but after his birth the two leading studios, Regal and Viva, asked to place her under contract and she signed up with both! ‘It was arranged that everything they paid me went straight to the banks, to pay off my debts. Not a centavo of my movie earnings passed through my hands. We lived on my television earnings. I had been offered this TV show, VIP Vilma in Person. It was a Sunday show and Sunday was the only day I could spend with my family but I had to sacrifice my day with them because that weekly show provided us with maintenance money. Unfortunately, my marriage suffered because of that. At that time, Edu wasn’t active in the movies yet; he was working in an office and, of course, his schedules and my schedules were in conflict. I think he suffered some kind of culture shock. Oh, he tried to be understanding but imagine him coming home at seven o’clock in the evening and me coming home at four o’clock in the morning. That won’t work – but I had to work.” She says
she didn’t feel guilty about the marriage breaking up. ‘Definitely not. If that was bound to happen to our life, what could I do? Even if I had just stayed at home, our marriage would have suffered, because of all my debts. And what would have happened to us without any money?” She knows the importance of money because she grew up in security and has learned that insecurity is being without money. ‘I wasn’t born poor but I wasn’t born rich either. I had a comfortable childhood. I went to a private school, St. Mary’s Academy, and I had a new pair of shoes whenever the school year opened. We could buy what we liked and though our house wasn’t very big it was a cozy home.” Her father was in the government service and she had an uncle, Maurie Agra, who was a cameraman for Sampaguita Pictures.
It was this uncle who got her to audition for Sampaguita when she was only nine years old. ‘Whenever he came to the house I’d sing and dance for him. I loved to watch TV and listen to radio dramas and at school I was always on the programs. Once, my uncle watched me imitating Pilita Corrales, a white sheet all over me for evening gown, and he asked would I be interested in going into showbiz and I said I’d just love to become an artista.” The role she was called to Sampaguita to test for was as Rita Gomez’s daughter in Anak, ang Iyong Ina, but on the same day Sampaguita was testing about a hundred other children for the role of Trudis Liit, a komiks character. The little Vilma kept wandering into that larger group where, as her mother kept telling her, she didn’t belong. But here was Doc Perez himself, head of Sampaguita, beckoning to the child. ‘Mama says I don’t belong there,”said the little Vilma. ‘But I want you,” said Doc Perez. Ang Mama consenting, Vilma took the test for Trudis Liit: speaking a line or two of dialogue, crying out when hit by Bella Flores, even ad-libbing already. ‘And I was chosen to play Trudis Liit! So, my first time in movies, I was into two movies right away: Trudis Liit and Anak, ang Iyong Ina. And I got the Tessie Agana treatment: chicken and apples every lunch. Sampaguita was very nice to me. I was its baby.”
And she was its No. 1 fan, gaping to see Gloria Romero passing by and chasing after Amalia Fuentes for her autograph. ‘Ate Nena snubbed me. She just said: ‘Later!’ But I loved her and we’re very close now.” Vilma the child star was in a string of movies playing the daughter of Lolita Rodriguez or Luis Gonzales or Dolphy. And she was also in the TV soap opera Larawan ng Pag-ibig with Rosita Noble, Willie Sotelo and Eva Darren. That six o’clock p.m. tearjerker rose to No. 1 in the ratings. Meanwhile, what was happening to Vilma the growing girl? ‘What was happening was a lot of school absences and a lot of special exams. The Sisters at St. Mary’s were very understanding: if I had too many absences, they gave me special exams. But when I was in fourth year high school I was practically not attending classes any more because that was the height of the Nora-Vilma competition. What was done, with the permission of the Bureau of Education, was that I had a tutor during shootings and then I was given the test for the last grading period. Thanks to God, I passed it and I got my high school diploma. But there could be no thought of going on to college.” She had by then graduated from child star to teenage superstar.
‘Despite showbiz, I was able to enjoy my childhood. It was my teens that suffered. Those were the days of jam sessions (no discos yet) and I missed them. I was dying to attend but I couldn’t. I was too busy promoting my love team with Bobot Mortiz. So I didn’t have the chance to be a teenager. But when I reached my 20s that was when I experienced iyong being a woman: going out on dates, candlelight dinners, enjoying life. I enjoyed my 20s.” During her teens she was mostly a song-and-dance girl on the screen, but after seeing The Miracle Worker she dreamed of tackling roles like the one done by Patty Duke in that film. However, she felt her true line was dancing: ‘Definitely not singing; I sing just for the sake of my fans.” Doing pop teen movies by the score, would she ever have a chance to act like Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker?
Loveteams were then the wheels of teenage superstardom. Vilma and Edgar Mortiz were a prize pair of wheels. The Nora-Tirso tandem formed the rival pair of wheels. It was an endless frenzied race. Vilma says that during her Bobot Mortiz phase she was doing multiple movies at the same time. ‘Actually Edgar didn’t start with me. He started with Nora and Tirso: they were a triangle. My loveteam then was with Jay Ilagan: we were doing Operetang Putol-Putol on the radio and going out on personal appearances for the fans. Jay was still slim then, very good-looking. Bobot was already chubby but not as fat as he would become later: he was guapo and moreno. Tirso was truly the mestizo type. Nora was even shorter than me though I think she’s older by a year; she was very thin then, with long hair. It’s our complexion that’s usually compared: she is kayumanggi and they say I am fair. Edgar dropped out from their triangle when it was noted that the public preferred Nora to be paired with Tirso. And Jay Ilagan dropped out when I was paired with Edgar. So when we all went on TV, on rival programs, it was the loveteam of Bobot and me versus the loveteam of Guy and Pip. That was in 1967.”
Inevitably, Bobot Mortiz came to share more than the spotlight with Vilma. ‘He was my first boyfriend, though ours was no more than puppy love. He’s a nice guy, very intelligent. In fact, I suspect that the ideas in Going Bananas are mostly his. No, we never talked marriage. We were a team for about five years. Then I did movies solo.” More serious was her next love affair, with Ronnie Henares, son of the famed news columnist. ‘I met Ronnie on TV, when he was guesting on shows with Jojit Paredes. He started courting me – this was in the early ‘70s – and our relationship had the blessings of our families. His family and mine became very close. We planned to marry but I felt I was not ready yet: I was still too concentrated on my career – though at the time the movies I was doing were merely pang-masa, nonsense musical like Lets’ Do the Salsa. I was not yet very conscious of artistic cinema: I wanted my movies to be for the boxoffice, Ronnie was the kind of boyfriend who gifts you not with rings or flowers but with books. I never went to college but Ronnie was a good equivalent: I learned a lot from him. He corrected my English, improved my pronunciation, and introduced me to new words, all through the use of cue cards that he made for me and made me read aloud to him. He gave me books to read and helped me understand them by explaining their meaning. Our relationship lasted a year and a half. We had our lover’s quarrels and the sweet thing is that even during our breaks our families stayed close. And Ronnie and I are still friends today. He composed a song for me.”
Tantamount to the Erap episode in Nora’s life is Vilma’s moment of appasionata with Romeo Vasquez, an older man with a past. ‘Romeo Vasquez was a turning point in my personal life. I really gambled with my life when I fell in love with him. He had come back to the country after being away for years. He was already separated from Amalia. Then I met him and we were offered a movie to do together: Nag-aapoy na Damdamin, for the Santiagos. The time we were together he was okay. We also did Dalawang Pugad, Isang Ibon, and Pulot-gata. And the movie that had him and me together with Nora nad Tirso: Pinagbuklod ng Pag-ibig. Our relationship lasted two years. Even after we parted, we still did a movie together.”
Vilma dismisses as mere chismis the rumor that Ronnie Poe became wildly enamored of her after they did Batya’t Palupalo and Bato sa Buhangin. But local cinema legend has the King coming to blows with Romeo Vasquez because of this jealous rivalry. Even the scene of the duel is specified: the lawns of a Joseph Estrada abode, during an Erap birthday party. An amused Vilma, however, shakes her head in denial. ‘Fernando Poe and I became close but we did not have any relationship. I’ll admit I was very impressed by him when we made our movies together. Totoong humanga ako sa kanya. He knows how to ‘carry’ people, how to deal with them in such a way as to command their respect. He is really the King. We became very very close: he’d send me food, like a dish of fish, during shootings. But that was all.”
While recovering from Romeo Vasquez, Vilma became a disco habitue, and in these excursions to the haunts of night people she often bumped into a young man who thus became a nodding acquaintance: someone she knew by face long before she knew him by name. One movie she did during this period was Yakapin Mo Ako, Lalaking Matapang, with Lito Lapid, which was shot in Cebu City. And as usual at night she went disco-hopping. And one night, at one disco, there he was again, this young man who had become a nodding acquaintance: Edu Manzano. ‘That was the first time we had a chance to talk. He’s really a charming guy and very handsome. We danced, we chatted, we danced – gano’n. Then I went back to my hotel.” She was getting ready for bed when the phone rang: Mr. Edu Manzano calling. ‘But how did you get my number?” ‘You know me, I’m resourceful. When do you go back to Manila?” ‘Tomorrow,” said Vilma. ‘What time is your flight?” ‘Two o’clock. What time is your flight?” ‘Three o’clock,” said Edu. ‘Bon voyage. And good night.” Next day, loaded with the mandatory hojaldres and rosquillos, she boarded the afternoon plane for Manila. And who should be sitting across the aisle from her but Mr. Manzano. Well! He really was resourceful. But they couldn’t converse. She was sitting beside Lito Lapid; Edu was sitting beside an Iranian. Only upon landing could they snatch a moment of exchange. Of course he wanted to know if he could date her. “Can I invite you out or do you have a boyfriend?” “No.” “No, I can’t take you out?” “No, I don’t have a boyfriend.”
But a week passed; two weeks; a whole month – and no word from Edu. He’s not taking me seriously, shrugged Vilma. ‘Ako naman, at that time,” she says now, ‘I wasn’t taking him seriously either.” Then one night, at the Alibi Bar, she saw him again. But she was with a date with whom she went nightclub-hopping until four in the morning. When she came back to her hotel, there was a note from Edu: he was waiting in the lobby. She went down to see him, and he invited her to breakfast. What a terrific topping for the night before and her morning after. ‘So we stepped out again and had breakfast at the Manila Hotel. We talked and talked until daylight. Then he brought me back to my hotel. And that was how it started. After that, we were seeing each other every day.” During the Grand Passion that was Romeo Vasquez, her critics had hooted that she was Vilma the mad girl. But La Belle, La Perfectly swell, Romance with Edu Manzano was the real coming-out party for Vilma the Glad Girl. Miss twinkletoes had met the boy next door. Of the men in her life, Vilma Santos says it was Edu Manzano who had the most stunning style of courtship. He didn’t treat her like the superstar, the love goddess, the sex symbol, the glamour queen that she was; he treated her as if she was an ordinary kanto girl.‘ He didn’t take me to dine at five-star hotels; we ate at small pizza houses. We didn’t go dancing at elegant ballrooms; he took me to little discos. It was completely the opposite of how I had been treated by other suitors: kabaligtaran ng lahat. And how I loved it! Once, early in our relationship, he invited me to lunch. I assumed we would be going to a luxury bistro and so I dressed to the teeth. But he arrived on a motorcycle, wearing Levi’s and rubber shoes. When he saw me in all my finery, he flipped. He told me to go back up and change. So I change to jeans and rubbers. And off we sped on his motorcycle, me behind clinging to him.” Naturally, all those who spotted her – bus passengers, street vendors, pedestrians on the sidewalks – could hardly believe their eyes. ‘Si Vilma! Si Vilma!” they cried in amazement. And there indeed was the superstar, the love goddess, the sex symbol, the glamour queen, in jeans and rubber shoes, riding bumper on a motorcycle. Vilma says it was as if she had moved into another world. ‘I really enjoyed it: riding on his motorcycle, walking in the rain. And then, after three months, he asked me to marry him. This was in 1980.” She was about to leave for the United States, to shoot a movie. She said to him: ‘Let’s give ourselves time, let’s test each other. This movie will take two months to do over there. If after two months we still feel this way, then we are really meant for each other. And we’ll get married. But not now, not right now when I’m going away.”
The decision was to make no decision yet. And Vilma left for California. She really was testing herself, for the stateside movie she was doing was with Romeo Vasquez. Had she really and truly got over him? Was she really and truly in love with Edu? The answer hit her like a bolt from the blue when Edu Manzano suddenly showed up on location and she felt, not annoyed, but enraptured, though he had broken their agreement to stay apart for two months. That he had so impulsively followed her bespoke ardor on his part. She did wonder if her producer, Atty. Espiridion Laxa, had anything to do with the surprise. But: ‘Definitely, it pleased me!” The news that lover boy Edu had leapt across the Pacific to join his lady love had Philippine moviedom ga-ga with the thought of how bigger a blockbuster than a Vilma-Romeo movie would be a Vilma-Edu picture.
The Vilmanians, as her fans are tagged when arrayed against la Aunor’s Noranians, were clamoring for a view of their glamour queen’s consort. Vilma, ever astute as businesswoman, was only too glad to deliver. ‘But before making that movie, we got married in the States.” Actually, it was an elopement. ‘My Mama didn’t know about it. Edu and I simply ran away. We got wedded in Las Vegas and we honeymooned in Disneyland and at Knottsberry Farm. Two weeks we were in hiding. Then we went back to Los Angeles. And that was when we broke the news to Mama. She cried. Oh, my Mama is good: sobrang bait nga. She was never a stage mother – except in the matter of singing, which she was always pushing me into. ‘Go ahead, sing,’ she would tell me, even if I didn’t want to. Maybe I used to be too dependent on her, as in the time of VS Films, when her goodness was being abused and when I learned about that it was too late. One thing about my marriage; there were never any differences between Mama and Edu.”
In Los Angeles Vilma really worked at housekeeping. ‘Edu and I made a home for ourselves, just for the two of us. And I was a real housewife. I made the beds, I swept the floor, I did the cooking, or tried to. But in the States you can buy everything ready to cook. I had to be housewife because Edu is conservative and I had to be the kind of wife he wants for a wife. He called me Babes, I called him Doods.” She says that as a husband Edu was ‘mabait’. ‘He had already done a movie, Alaga, but was not yet well known. I promised him that on returning home I would lie low as movie star and just attend to being housewife. Unfortunately, on arriving in Manila, I found I was pregnant: Lucky is a honeymoon baby. At the same time I learned I had a six-million -peso debt. I told Edu about it and he said he would find some way we could work it out. But there was really not much he could do about so huge a debt. So, after giving birth to my son, I returned to work. Of course, that meant I had little time for my husband and my baby. There was a yaya to take care of the baby and as much as possible I tried to mother him but of course I couldn’t give him one hundred percent attention. Edu wanted me to be home at least by ten o’clock in the evening but it was oftener four o’clock in the morning before I could rush home.” With her feeling so exhausted and him feeling so neglected, impatience could not but become their ambiance during their four years of marriage.‘
In fairness to Edu, he did try to understand the situation. And he did care for me. But I simply couldn’t give up my career until I had paid off my debts. I only finished paying in 1987. And by that time Edu had left.” Possibly, for Edu Manzano, the real cruz of the marriage was having to suffer being Mr. Vilma Santos. But she says that theirs was a very loving parting. ‘We had a beautiful talk, the two of us. We agreed that our love was still there but, because we kept clashing, we shouldn’t wait until we started hating each other. We should give ourselves time to breathe and to think, apart from each other. That was already our fifth separation; the first, second, third and fourth had all ended within two months. I was expecting the fifth to end just as quickly but when it had lasted eight months already I wondered if we had not indeed gone our separate ways. Kanya-kanyang buhay na. Then I learned he had a girlfriend. He was first.” If she had hoped for a happy ending to their fifth separation it was for the sake of their son. ‘ Before Edu and I parted, we stepped out, the three of us: Lucky was then four years old. And we explained to him what was happening. We felt it was better to be honest with the child: when he grew up he would understand. He himself would not be affected: Edu and I assured him that both of us would take care that he was not affected. He is nine years old now and his name is Louis Philippe Manzano. He weighed 7.7 pounds when he was born on April 21 – and 21 is a multiple of 7. That’s why we call him Lucky.”
Vilma says she felt bad when she heard that Edu was running around with another girl. ‘I said to myself: ‘My God, why should I go on suffering like this: I’ll only grow old.’ I decided I’d like to run around too, enjoy myself. So I went out but I chose a safe place: King Kong, a club frequented by movie people, owned by Marilou Diaz-Abaya. That was the first time I had stepped out since the separation and that was the first time I met Ralph Recto. He’s a nice young man, very intelligent, very down to earh. He has a degree in economics and is taking his masters now, at the UP. I learn a lot from him, my substitute for college, like Ronnie Henares. He is very interested in politics but I don’t meddle in his politics. Our relationship is now on its sixth year. When we met, Lucky was only four and now he is nine. Lucky and Ralph are very close. No, we don’t talk marriage.” The decade since her marriage has seen Vilma developing, as Ishmael Bernal says, into an artist. Vilma smiles to recall that she started out just wanting to dance. What’s singular about Vilma’s career is that, as a child star, she went through no awkward age, and now, as superstar, she seems to have been set no deadline.
The nine-year-old who starred in Trudis Liit had a steady four years of playing little daughter of Lolita Rodriguez and Marlene Dauden but never suffered an ugly-duckling phase of no-longer-a-child and not-yet-a-teener. The difficult 13-14-15 period was smoothly bridged by roles like that of Imee Marcos in Iginuhit ng Tadhana and Pinagbuklod ng Langit. And right afterwards she became the teen queen in the pop entertainments she did with Bobot Mortiz. Then at 19 she began to veer towards heavy drama. ‘I was 19 when I made a film with Eddie Rodriguez, playing a girl falling in love with an older married man. The wife was Barbara Perez. If I remember right, that was the first time I wore a bikini.” Nary a hitch in the Vilma career; no pauses in the action as she grows up from child to girl, or from sweet young thing to red-hot mama. Or from innocuous movies to daring films. ‘Compared to my teenage partners, Eddie Rodriguez was far and away the leading man, the actor, the gentleman. Very different in manner, in the way he moved, the way he carried his clothes. He helped me refine my acting and little by little I learned poise.”
The decisive divergence is Burlesk Queen. ‘I took a risk playing Burlesk Queen, Celso Ad. Castillo directing. I was 24. My American manager, William Leary, had persuaded me to accept the role. He had been my manager since he convinced me to do a record, Sixteen, that made good. I was no longer with Sampaguita but I went back there from time to time to make sweet sweet movies or musicals. That was my style. Then I did Burlesk Queen. It turned out to be a turning point. I won an acting award. Suddenly I was the drama queen. Celso Ad. Castillo is really good. In a way it was that film that made me a real actress. It changed my sweet image. And it made good at the boxoffice. ”However, later relations with Castillo proved to be painful. ‘I already had my production company, VS Films, and I got him as director for Pagputi ng Uwak. He really gave me a hard time on that film: it was two years in the making! And it sank VS Films into debt. Celso and I had a fight. As a director he’s very good but as an artist he has his quirks: merong sumpong. I hear he now works in Malaysia: sayang, he was good for Philippine movies. Pagputi ng Uwak nearly ruined me, financially and mentally, but it turned out to be a firstrate film and it won a lot of awards, it won VS Films a lot of prestige. But I still prefer Burlesk Queen.” The five productions of VS Films, which included Rosas sa Putikan, directed by Maning Borlaza, and Halik sa Paa, Halik sa Kamay, costarring Vilma with Eddie Rodriguez, all made money, including Pagputi ng Uwak. Nevertheless, by the time she had to shut it down, VS Films had her drowning in six million pesos’ worth of red ink. It took her some seven years to pay off that montrous debt. And it meant having to go back to making movies that were ‘pambata at pangmasa” movies like Darna and Dyesebel and Wonder Vi.
Still, this ‘comeback’ period (after the birth of Lucky) was also the start of a series of vintage pictures, beginning with Relasyon, where she played a free soul living in with her lover. The lover was played by her most compatible co-star, Christopher de Leon. ‘Christopher, of all my leading men, is the one I’m most comfortable with. We really make a team. And yet we never had any relationship, except on the screen. Just how comfortable I am with him can be seen in the fact that it’s with him I have made the biggest number of movies: around 18 or 20. There was a year when we made four movies together! So often did we play opposite each other that we felt we had to vary the situations, to avoid becoming monotonous. We’d say: Let’s sit down and think of a new situation in which to find ourselves. But there came a time when we simply could no longer think of anything new for us to play. We seemed to have exhausted all the possible love angles. And that’s when we decided to stop teaming up for a while. I went on to trying other leading men. Actually it’s not I who choose my leading men but the producers. I just accept whoever they pick for me.” A kind of homage is paid her when she’s paired with younger stars like Eric Quizon and Aga Muhlach.
‘Definitely, I feel flattered. But then I feel very very secure in my age and with myself. It’s a matter of self-confidence, of knowing that when they look at you they see a woman, period. Age doesn’t matter: I have no insecurities about it.” She knows she can look as young as, or younger than, her new leading men – as long as she herself feels young inside. Her effect on the folk around her has been most graphically expressed by, of all people, director Lino Brocka, who directed her in three of her most applauded vehicles: Rubia Servios, Adultery and Hahamakin Lahat. ‘When you work with Vilma,” says Brocka, ‘you get this feeling of having just emerged from a bath and of being drenched all over with Johnson’s baby cologne. You feel so fresh, so youthful.” He adds that when they first worked together she seemed scared of him. Now he gushes: ‘Ang sarap niyang katrabaho.” The chief reason, of course, is: ‘She has matured and grown up as an actress. At this point of her career, she is very good, she is really big. Before, she had a hard time making herself cry, but now how fast she can do it. And she has become sensitive to direction: in that repect she has overtaken Nora.” Brocka says that the sensitivity he noticed at once in Nora Aunor was what he missed when he started directing Vilma. ‘So I assumed that, as an actress, she was really just second to Nora. But Vilma takes good care of herself not only physically – there’s always this aura about her – but intellectually too: so she grows and develops tremendously. The second time I worked with her, in Adultery, I realized she had become as good as Nora, or better. And by the time of Hahamakin Lahat there was the complete sensibility already – a difference in the way she expressed pain and hurt. Talent was welling out like spring water, and flowing from her most naturally, no longer courtesy of Vicks or whatever.”
What would explain this outburst of talent? ‘Possibly her coming of age as a woman. She had become more sure of herself. And this self-confidence grew as her private life became calmer, as she found herself with fewer problems, both financially and emotionally. How a director would feel about her at the moment is that he can do anything with her now. She has become so supple that his tendency would be to challenge her still further, make her come up still higher, open up more doors. She can give you so much more now.” Brocka snorts at the complaint Vilma is currently making: that so utterly has she done all the roles she can do there’s no new role left for her to do. ‘She can do the same role over and over again as long as, with the right direction, she does it always a bit more profoundly than the last time and makes it a bit more complex than the last time. She should have no problem at all with roles. In fact, I would advise her now to play roles that are not glamorous. Yes, she’s too associated with glamour to do that. But maybe in another year or two she can afford to take off her make up and act her age. Then she’ll really be on par with Nora, whose chief concern is seldom her looks. With Nora, it’s not her face that’s on sale. The problem with Vilma is that she feels she has to live up to her image as The Glamour Girl. I’m waiting for the day when glamour will have no truck -walang pakialam! – with the acting.
Bemusing how up to now Vilma continues to be bracketed together with Nora, so that to speak of Vilma is to speak of Nora. They have been rivals, opponents, antagonists for so long that it’s impossible to tell their careers apart. Spur to each other from the start, they have realized they need each other as goad and goal, the achievement of one goading the other to an equal, or greater, achievement. Vilma-Nora is the back-to-back monster of Pinoy showbiz. Vilma sees it as sibling rivalry. ‘If Vilma is there, Nora is there. There was a point in our career [note that Vilma uses the collective singular] when we were both so affected that the rivalry became a personal feud between us. There was even a point in our career when we were fighting each other – for honors, for awards, for acting prizes. But there also came a point in our career when we realized we were not getting any younger and we started becoming very close. I think that was the time her father died and I went to the wake. We hadn’t been together since we did a movie together when we were feuding hotly: no talking to each other during the shooting; she stayed on one side with her fans, and I stayed on the other side with my fans: no communication. But when I attended her father’s wake, that was when we realized we could be friends. And we started helping each other: she’d invite me to guest on her TV show, and vice-versa. Then her mother died and again I went to the wake. And that was the time when Nora and I became so close we were telling each other the most intimate details of our life.”
And the details range from ledger to boudoir. ‘Today Nora and I are still competing but it’s a friendly competition now; in fact, I’m the godmother of her adopted child. We want that there should still be a competing between us, but with nothing personal to it. So it has become a healthy competition. Nora is a very sensitive person. Me, I’m not very sensitive. But make no mistake about Nora: she is also a strong woman. What I know of Nora: though there may be many advising her, ultimately it’s her own feelings she follows. She does what she wants to do; it’s herself she obeys: that’s her attitude. I guess what she needs at present is the right person. Nora is 37 years old now. I am 36 – a true friend who loves her. A friend who will love her whether she’s down, whether she’s up, or whatever.”
What puzzles is the difference in image between Nora la Dolorosa and Vilma the Glad Girl despite the fact that actually both of them underwent very similar experiences: rash infatuations, career ups-and-downs, a failed marriage, business fiascos, the heavy cross of huge debts. Why did such ordeals produce the sad look in one but a glad look in the other? To be sure, there are those who say that Vilma’s image as the Glad Girl is just that: an image; and that the reality behind it may not be quite as pleasant. The real Vilma, aver these know-it-all’s, is cold-blooded: sweet na sweet pero deadly; nothing matters to her but her career. She was playing herself ruthless in films like Hahamakin Lahat. When she found she couldn’t displace Nora as the nation’s sweetheart, she did violence to her own persona by enacting Burlesk Queen, the kind of role Nora cannot do: she risked her career because that was the only way to beat Nora. Vilma herself shrugs off such misreadings of her history with the remark that the intrigues of others only help her become ‘a stronger woman.” Even the world’s malice can’t be made useful in building up character. ‘I am Rosa Vilma Santos, who grew up in Bambang, Trozo, and then in La Loma, and my life is an open book. What people say about me – that’s a problem I must live with. I guess it’s the price I pay for my career: the price of no privacy. I can’t do anything about that anymore. However I may want to keep my personal life private, it’s impossible: lalabas at lalabas talaga. However discreet I may try to be, I’m sure to be found out.” So she chooses to let it all hang out. ‘Of course, I hate having no privacy: I’m really suffering from that. Sometimes I wish I were an ordinary person so I can go where I like, go shopping for groceries with my son, go for a walk and enjoy it. But how can you enjoy it when you’re always getting mobbed? But, as I said, that’s the price you pay.” And certainly she has no intention of retiring just to gain that precious privacy. ‘Nor no plans either of getting married. Not yet. maybe someday, yes. As of now, I’m very comfortable and happy with my personal life. But another marriage? I’m not prepared for that.”
What she’s prepared for right now is more career. ‘I have reached a position when I’m not contented with just acting: I’d like to experience all the other works of moviemaking. But most of all I want to be a director. I want to be given a chance to direct a movie. So that this time I myself will be the captain. I have ideas I want to try out.” She confounds the Cassandras by expressing hope and confidence in the Philippine cinema. ‘There has been progress, there has been improvement. We started in black-and-white: now we’re in color. Yes, there are frustrations. It’s frustrating to come up with a film of relevance, to upgrade the cinema in general, and see it fail at the box-office. A painful experience – like my movie Sister Stella L. I felt bad when it didn’t make good because I like that movie very much. It wasn’t my first time to do a quality movie that had to be yanked out in seven days. You can’t blame the producers: it’s their money at stake. If I were in their place, would I risk my money on something that won’t sell? And yet how I wish there were some producers willing to risk their money on movies with significance… I hear even the scriptwriters are feeling frustrated because, when they do a quality script, they only see it changed into something with lots of shrieking and slapping. But those are the movies that sell.” Nevertheless, she looks forward to a classier tomorrow for Philippine cinema.
‘And what’s tomorrow for Vilma Santos? I’m trying to be more stable because I know that show business is not stable. I’m planning to produce a movie next year. This time I’ll manage production myself. I’ve already started with telemovies. The first was Lamat sa Kristal, with Richard Gomez. Next was Katuparan, directed by Marilou Diaz-Abaya. And the third is this one I’m doing right now with Aga Muhlach, Once There Was a Love, directed by Maryo J. delos Reyes.” Her own TV show just celebrated its 10th anniversary – and with a scandal yet. It got kicked out of its usual venue, the Metropolitan Theater, because, complained the Met honchos, Vilma’s live audiences wrought havoc with the Met’s upholstery. Which, to take the Pollyanna, or Glad girl, approach, proves that Vilma’s audiences today are not matrons and seniors but still the young, the wild, the reb. She says she has no hang ups about age. But how does she keep herself looking young? ‘I don’t know. I don’t do anything special. I used to swim but I don’t have the time now. I don’t cut down on anything. I drink occasionally but I’m not really a drinker. My true enemy is tobacco:
I smoke. Aside from that, I know no other vices. On facing the camera, whether movie or TV, I put on make up. But Vilma Santos the person, when in her house, puts nothing on her face.” She is positive it’s not make-up that makes her go over on the little or big screen as young-looking. ‘But like the old beauties of Sampaguita Studios. I know that someday I will be the ex-superstar. When that time arrives, I hope I’ll be stable – financially stable enough to ensure a future for my son, present comfort for my family, and for myself a personal life that’s tranquil because I have a stable business and a comfortable income. Those are my dreams now that I am 36.” Not that she has any complaints about the present tense. ‘More than half of my life has been spent in show business,” says the Glad Girl. ‘For all the blessings I am enjoying, I should be thankful!” Happiness, Inc.
Publisher’s Note: Quijano de Manila (Nick Joaquin) is a National Artist for Literature, while both Ishmael Bernal and Lino Brocka are National Artist for Film. Our cover story is about the indestructible and unfading screen beauty, Vilma Santos, who has become even more accomplished and seductive as the years pass. Quijano de Manila (Nick Joaquin in journalistic disguise) captures the secrets and the charms of this enduring beauty, a triumph of art over time. – Juan P. Dayang
Source: Written by Quijano De Manila (Nick Joaquin), Philippine Graphic Magazine 05 November 1990
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