Queen Vi (Repost)

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Scene: struggling with her emotion, she kneels beside the bed where her father lies dead. The crippled old man couldn ’t accept the fact that his daughter was dancing for a living. Earlier, they had a quarrel and when she left the house, the old man had killed himself. “Bakit naman hindi n’yo ako hinintay?” she’s now whispering to him in remorse, “hindi naman talaga ako galit sa ‘yo, a. Di ba kayo rin kung minsan nakapagsasalita kayo ng masakit sa akin pero naintindihan kita dahil alam ko galit ka at hindi mo sinasadya. Dapat naman sana naintindihan mo rin ako,” she continues, breaking into sobs, “dadalawa na nga lang tayo sa buhay iniwanan mo pa ako. Hindi naman tama ‘yon!” And with the camera fixed on her in a semi-closeup shot, she weeps through her kilometric dialogues with startling spontaneity, the scene lasting all of ten minutes.

The scene is one of Vilma Santos’ high moments in Burlesk Queen, Celso Ad. Castillo’s magnum opus which earned for Vilma the Best Actress award in the Metro Manila Film Festival concluded last week. It’s a difficult scene and an actress of lesser skill could have buckled along the way and wasted rolls of precious film, but not Vilma who acquitted herself beautifully well in just one take. “Halos wala kaming rehearsal,” Vilma recalls, “kasi si Direk ayaw ng masyadong rehearsal dahil nagiging mechanical daw ang labas. Gusto niya after one rehearsal, take na kaagad because he believes that the first take is always the best.” Then she adds as an afterthought: “Nakakapagod ang eksenang ‘yon. Emotionally, that is.” Had she done the role of a burlesque dancer three years ago, Vilma would have stirred a big hornet’s nest among her loyal diehards… she would have been burned in effigies in indignant rallies all over the country… but no such untoward reaction happened, thank heavens. “My fans have grown up with me,” Vilma says, “they have matured. Besides, I’m already 24 and I’m not getting any younger. Ayoko naman nang palagi na lang akong naka-ribbon sa buhok at nalo-lollipop. Hindi na ako ang dating sweet-sweet. Come to think of it, mas mahirap mag-maintain ng sweet image dahil kaunting mali mo lang nama-magnify na kaagad, pinalalaki kaagad.”

Her metamorphosis began in late 1976 when she agreed to be kissed by Rudy Fernandez in Makahiya at Talahib. It was a “feeler” of sort and when the public clacked its tongue in obvious approval, Vilma shelved her lollipops-and-roses image and proved that she, too, could be a woman – a wise move indeed because at that time her career was on a downswing and her movies were not making money. Then she did Mga Rosas sa Putikan for her own VS Films where she played a country girl forced into prostitution in the big city. The movie did fairly well at the tills. Good sign. And came her romance with Romeo Vasquez, boosting both their stocks at the box office (thier two starrers, Nag-aapoy na Damdamin and Pulot-Gata where Vilma did her own wet style, were big moneymakers). The tandem, although it did help Vilma, actually helped Vasquez more in re-establishing himself at the box office (without Vilma, his movies with other leading ladies hardly create any ripple). In Susan Kelly, Edad 20, Vilma played a notorious-woman role that required her to wear skimpy bikini briefs in some scenes, following it up with two giant sizzlers (Dalawang Pugad, Isang Ibon and Masarap, Masakit ang Umibig) that catapulted her as the newest Bold Queen. Then came Burlesk Queen.

Scene: she comes home one night to find the mother of her week-old husband packing his clothes. He has eloped with her but he’s a Mama’s boy, a backbone-less guy when face-to-face with his mother, and he has now agreed to go home with Mama. She couldn’t persuade him to stay. As mother and son descend the long flight of stairs, the burlesk queen is left all alone in her room, in tears, with nothing and no one to clutch on to. At first she pleads with him but realizing the futility of it all, she proceeds to mock him and humiliate him, “Sige, she yells at him, “magsama na kayong dalawa, magsiping pa kayong dalawa, wala na akong pakialam. Ikaw, Jessie, wala ka namang paninindigan. Sige, magsama na kayo ng mama mo. Sige, gawin mong babae si Jessie, gawin mo siyang bakla!” Vilma’s change of image is part of her newly-found “liberation.” Liberation from what? “From many things,” Vilma answers. “From fear of being criticized, from fear of what people would say about me, from certain restrictions and inhibitions, from everything that was slowly choking me.” That exactly was how she felt early last year: all choked up.

So she slipped into a private hole after a quarrel with her Mama, refusing to be seen in public and thus setting off speculations that she was in hiding because she was on the family way. “No such thing,” says Vilma who had posed in a pair of bikinis to disprove the rumor. “Na-rumor pa na nagpa- abort daw ako at kung anu-ano pa, na nagwawala na raw ako. Pero ako naman hindi ko na iniintindi ang mga tsismis, bale wala na sa akin. Basta ako, I tell the truth and if people don’t believe me, okay lang. Dati-rati, nagri-react kaagad ako, pero ngayon, sanay na ako.” She was so confused and depressed at that time, “so filled up to my neck with problems and the pressure of too much work,” that Vilma was all set to kiss the movies goodbye. “Nakahanda na akong mamuhay ng tahimik noon, as an ordinary person.”

And how was he able to overcome that blue period? “Well, when they let me alone, nang payagan akong magsarili, that’s when everything seemed to loosen up. That’s the time I really felt free. Now, I have all the privacy I want, sa bahay ko, that is.” Although she now lives by herself in a single-girl’s pad, Vilma still runs home to Mama and Papa when she has to make important decisions. When Burlesk Queen was offered to her, Vilma bided her time until she talked with her parents. “Okay,” her Mama agreed, “as long as the sexy scenes would be treated well.” Says Vilma: “I am liberated in the sense that I have moved out of the family residence. Why did I do it? Because I feel I am old enough to take care of myself, gusto ko namang masubukan ang independence. I feel that I am old enough to know what I want. “Ngayon,” she adds, “anu’t-ano pa man ang mangyari, buhay ko na ito. Kung madapa man ako, sisikapin ko nang bumangon ng sarili ko.” Her kind of liberation includes freedom to choose her dates and to go out unchaperoned. To criticisms about her going out with a married man, Vilma snorts: “Ako naman, I don’t care whether a man is a sinner or a saint. Basta niri-respeto niya ako at ang pamilya ko, niri-respeto ko rin siya.”

Scene: She emerges on stage in a lace gown and, gradually, as the music gets hotter and hotter and the audience’s applause louder and louder, she unwraps herself and starts the greatest performance of her life. She has lost her father and her lover Jessie and she has nothing more to live for. The baby in her womb has to go, there shouldn’t be any memory of Jessie. And she dances on and on and on until she collapses in a bloody heap. The dance lasts for 17 minutes. It is her dance of death. Vilma almost backed out of the tree-fourths finished movie when she learned about the finale sequence. No, she wouldn’t do it, she couldn’t do it. She ignored call slips and went into hiding. Poor Celso, he was drowning in his own tears of desperation and banging his head against the wall.

Burlesk Queen was his “last card”, he wanted to retrieve his dwindling popularity, he wanted to save face and if he didn’t get what he wanted now, he would be finished. Finally one day, he received a basketful of fruits – “Peace offering,” Celso calls it, “from Vilma.” “It took us almost seven nights, shooting straight, to finish that sequence. I learned the dance from an expert real-life burlesque dancer. During shootings, palaging close-door. My God, I couldn’t have done it with so many people around.” She had to take several shots of brandy before the shooting. “Otherwise, I could have died from nervousness. ”According to Romy Ching, producer of Burlesk Queen, he didn’t really have the Metro Filmfest in mind because he had a November 25 playdate. But when he saw the rushes, he changed plans. “Hindi ka magsisisi na tinanggap mo ito,” he told Vilma, “it will be worth it.” Says Vilma: “I didn’t expect to win, although marami ang nagsasabi sa akin na malaki ang pag-asa ko. Ako naman, I don’t believe anything unless talagang nangyayari. Kasi noon, I expected to win, sa film festival din sa Quezon City, but somebody else did. I was very disappointed. Noong awards night nga, I wasn’t convinced I would win hanggang hindi ko pa hawak ‘yong trophy.”

After the award, Vilma has understandably upped her asking price.  She’s now worth only P300,000, may kaunting tawad pa if the role is good and the director is good. That business-and pleasure trip to Europe with Vasquez shall have to wait while Vilma is fulfilling her previous commitments. The morning after the awards night, tempting offers swamped Vilma, P300,000 and all, but she is not about to grab them all. She wants first to resume the shooting of her own outfit’s much delayed project, Pagputi ng Uwak, Pag-itim ng Tagak, where she co-stars with Bembol Roco and has for director, yes, Celso Ad. Castillo. “We want to make it as good as, if not better than, Burlesk Queen,” Vilma and Celso promise. It better be. – Ricardo F. Lo, Expressweek Magazine January 19, 1978