From the chubby faced cry baby of TRUDIS LIIT in 1962 to the chinky eyed teener of THE SENSATIONS fame ululating the words of “Sweet 16” and “Sad Movies Make Me Cry”, Vilma Santos blossomed into an actress, star and entertainer in her own right. She finally emerged from the overpowering shadow of her touted arch rival, the Superstar, when she gyrated her way to immortality via the definitive Celso Ad. Castillo masterpiece BURLESK QUEEN.
Then she paired up with Christopher de Leon, and together they produced a string of box office and critical triumphs. Among them were RELASYON and BROKEN MARRIAGE, Ishmael Bernal’s paeans to domestic turmoil, and roles which earned her back-to-back Urian Best Actress Awards, and forever ingrained her image as the archetype of the long-suffering wife in the consciousness of Filipino moviegoers. True, the rest of the 80s would be no picnic for Vilma. However, she had also entered the field of variety and drama anthology television and was determined to keep up the pace of her achievements.
Vilma Santos is among the last of the real stars. Unlike the celebrities of today, she never needed the packaging, the publicity blitz or even the programmed gimmickry to keep the public interested in her. With more than 36 dozen acting citations to her credit, she continues to remind one and all that talent must be deeply rooted, developed, nurtured and disciplined. Above all, she never sat back and accepted the appellation that she was only number 2. Vilma is Vilma — a star of the first magnitude, brilliant, glamorous enough to hold her own against anybody else. Out of her struggles in the cruel world of showbusiness, she emerged a resilient, confident lady. It would only be fitting to say that she carved her own throne – not to be better than anyone else but because she knew that film artistry is the very essence of her being, the why and wherefore of her existence. None of this was for the fans but for her own completion and fulfilment.
Yet like everyone else, she longed for greater meaning. After her marriage with Edu Manzano failed, she had to find once more the man of her dreams, the man who was worth giving up even her career in entertainment. It all climaxed in a storybook wedding in Lipa Cathedral. Then another chance at mother hood required some great sacrifices including her withdrawal from the Friday night variety program, Vilma. Time was of the essence. Motherhood overrode the mundane details of a showbiz career. Time slowed for Vilma as she bowed out of the limelight. It was not the death of a career but a pregnant pause – waiting for something bigger and better in the coming days.
Then Vilma returned, a mother. She tried television for 13 weeks, but that was far more than her pace as woman, mother and star can carry her through. Was the star for all seasons ready for a truly big comeback? Sadly, the answer was: not yet. She paired up once more with Christopher de Leon and then action king Fernando Poe Jr in a two lackluster hits that only confirmed that it was not yet time to return. In the wake of those forgettable films, the tragedy of Nana Rosa, WWII comfort woman, whose story with all the makings of a grand masterpiece was slowly taking shape only to be shelved in the end. It really wasn’t meant to be, but she needed an ace to show all that she still has the touch of an actress. Strident and confident as she is, she kept all these things in her and bided her time. People hardly expected it, but another facet of Vilma was about to show itself.
Vilma, wife of a prominent congressman, had allowed the reality of the unshod masses in her adopted home of Lipa City to touch her heart. From her heart came the fount of compassion. “This was not playing big actress on the silver screen,” she declared. “This was coming face to face with a reality on a day to day basis. You literally have to learn to deal with the children who walked around barefoot, naked and dirty,” she went on. The national elections of 1998 were fast approaching, and Vilma was each day strengthening her chances of taking over City Hall. “People tend to look up to you because you are a star in their eyes, the one who embodies their dreams and aspirations” she explained. There was no escaping that reality, reluctant as she was to take on the challenge of populist politics where she and many others were jeered at as brainless entertainers who cannot think up pro-people programs, ready to be forgotten after the last meeting de avance.
Yet she was not to be easily dismissed. After all, experience counted for something. Neither was she intellectually gifted to handle the finer rudiments of ward politics – like the Umali family which had kept a stranglehold on the mayorship of Lipa and who now treated her as a potentially dangerous rival in their continuing quest for political control. It was not her entertaining skills that ruffled their feathers. It was the very fact that Vilma had faced the people and begun winning their hearts through her kindness, notwithstanding her limited resources as a congressman’s spouse.
As she touched the hearts of her fellow Lipenos, the acclaim for her to sit as the new mayor grew. Even rival political parties from out of town thought nothing about asking for her endorsement. She was never interested in endorsements; all she knew was that she wanted to serve the people of Lipa City. “It was these people who asked for medicine, food, even money to keep their small businesses going. You had to face them, to know who they are and to be wise because being accommodating to everyone is not necessarily good for everyone. If someone holds an unfair advantage over everyone else, I was willing to fight tooth and nail for the common good of all. This is the heart of my mission,” announced Vilma. True enough, she kept the faith with her people. She was keenly aware of her limits, but she knew that nothing could make her fail to respond to their needs the way she can.
Then in the middle of all this came BATA, BATA PAANO KA GINAWA? from Lualhati Bautista’s classic novel. The role seemed to embody everything she has lived through the years. It’s not a perfect film, but one that will surely reinforce her legacy as woman, mother, wife, politician and actress. Surely, the most meticulous preparations went in this Star Cinema production. We can be certain though that the one thing that will emerge is Vilma, glistening like a diamond on her cosmic throne. This time the stakes are far deeper than just thepopularity polls and awards derbies. It will be Vilma Santos the person who will be shining through. And truly, it will be a fitting urrah! – Written by Alex Jimenez, Newsflash