A Star for All Seasons

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The year 1962 was a time of birh and rebirth as well as occassion for celebration. In Hollywood, preparations were being made to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the super comic hero Superman and his fairy-tale queen counterpart, Snow White. At the same time, Hollywood welcomed the birth of a new movie hero in the character of super spy James Bond. Also at about the same time, a Hollywood legend – Marilyn Monroe – died only to be “reborn” a bigger legend. In England, the legendary musical quartet, The Beatles, had begun its universal conquest as the world stomped to the new rock “n” roll best. In the Philippines a star was born. It was in the nature of her coming that she did not have to start at the bottom. Perhaps, it was providential that Vilma Santos was born to the Philippine cinema at a time when the local movies was on the brink of its so-called Golden Age. She had to start a new era. That year the late Filipino master, Gerry de Leon, had just finished the filmization of Jose Rizal’s other noverl, El Filibusterismo – a film classic that won the year’s best picture and best director award. On Nov. 12, 1962, a frail-looking child barely nine days after her ninth birthday walked into the world of her dreams trying to find her own place in the sun; instead, she was found. Accompanied by her mother she auditioned for a movie that was then in the making and which, they were told, was in need of a child star. Elsewhere at the sprawling Sampaguita studio, a talent search for a new child star to portray the title role in a forthcoming movie, Trudis Liit, was ongoing. Prodded by a relative-friend, the aspiring young talent went from the set of the movie in progress to the auditin room of a movie yet to be made.

Before her, scores of other children had undergone screen tests; but it is said that the very first time the late star maker Dr. Jose Vera Perez set his eyes on her he at once knew he had found the star. Vilma, as the actress herself recalled years later, didn’t have to sing or dance. She didn’t even have to act; she just had to be there not unlike a heavenly body waiting to be discovered by an astronomer’s eyes. And like a shining star from the East, Vilma Santos had to follow a natural cosmic course in her career, without causing a phenomenal disturbance or effecting a meteoric rise, so to speak. The rest, as they say, is history. And like history Vilma Santos did not just unfold is a day, or in a week, or in a month, or in a year, or in a decade, or even in a score. Now, more than a quarter of a century later the star is still on the rise, still journeying on its natural course despite and against all odds. Early on, the child actress who was born on Nov. 3 in the Chinese year of the snake, had made an acting imprint on her public as if to serve notice of the greatest actress that she was to become someday. After Trudis Liit was shown, not only did Vilma become everybody’s darling but she also romped away with the FAMAS best child actress in 1963. From then on there was no stopping her, the young actress had found her home and school in the movies even as she tried to attain a certain degree of formal education like any normal growing child would. In between movies, she finished her high school (Since she started, there never was a year that she hasn’t made a movie).

To her, the movies did not only become a way of life, it was, is and will always be her life. And like life, Vilma Santos thrives in different stages. In the ’60s whenever one mentioned the name Vilma Santos one only referred to that talented, sweet and lovable child actress. She capped her childhood career when she won acting honors for her role in Kasalan Kaya? (1968) from the San Beda Awards for Movies Arts and Sciences. In the early ’70s the former child actress evolved into a talented, sweet lovable teenage star, raring to explode another stage in her career. At this point, a widely-publicized phenomenon had burst into the movie scene, trailblazing an almost maniacal craze all her own. Throughout the fad though, Vilma persevered and remained undaunted, providing competition whenever and wherever necessary. At 19, Vilma Santos became the youngest major best actress awardee hereabouts when she won the FAMAS for her role of a lunatic in Maning Borlaza’s 1972 film Dama de Noche. That early artistic triumph paved the way for the actress’ impending superstardom. In March 1973, Vilma practically flew her way to the top as she vanquished her box-office rivals with Sine Pilipino’s trendsetting trilogy Lipad, Darna, Lipad, the year’s monumental hit. The blockbuster movie was shown simultaneously with Fernando Poe Jr.’s Esteban, which was badly beaten at the tills. A week later, Joseph Estrada and Nora Aunor’s initial team-up, Erap Is My Guy, was shown but nowhere did it come close to Darna’s record at the box office.

To prove that Darna was no fluke, in the Manila Film Festival held in June of the same year, the actress donned a mermaid’s suit and Dyesebel, in a manner of speaking, almost drowned all her filmfest competitors which as the time included such heavyweight entries as Fernando Poe Jr. and Joseph Estrada’s Ang Agila at ang Araw; Dolphy’s Dracula Goes to RP; Chiquito and Pilar Pilapil’s Inday ng Buhay Ko; Hilda Koronel and Dante Rivero’s Lupang Hinirang; Zaldy Zhornack and Vic Vargas’s Nueva Viscaya; Ramon Zamora’s Ang Mahiwagang Daigdig ni Pedro Penduko; Jun Aristorenas’ Johnny Joker; and Amalia Fuentes and Eddie Rodriguez’s Pagibig Mo…Buhay Ko (Vilma, by the way, is only the second actress – the first was a relative unknown, Eva Montes – to have portrayed Mars Ravelo’s two popular komiks characters, Darna and Dyesebel, and the most successful so far). A week after the filmfest, Nora Aunor and Tirso Cruz’s reunion (after almost a year) movie, Maalaala Mo Kaya? was shown but still Vilma’s Dyesebel provide stiff competition on its second-week run. From that time on, Vilma Santos finally established her supremacy as local cinema’s most bankable actress to reckon with. A stature which which up to the present is constantly challenged by stars and talents of lesser magnitude, but still to no avail. In fact, she is the only actress who has been officially acknowledged as the most bankable female star by the Kapisanan ng mga Sinehan sa Pilipinas (KASIPIL), the nationwide association of theater owners. In its recent fifth anniversary issue, Movie Flash, probably the most literate, if not credible fan magazine in town, has rated Vilma Santos as the top actress in teh country today – both in terms of achievements and box-office appeal.

That such singular honor is accorded her even after having been in the business for 25 years, and being on top for quite some time, should not come as a surprise to any thinking individual especially those who have seen her grow in the movies and have followed her career. Today, whatever she is and whatever she’s got, Vilma Santos can rightfully claim that she’s made it through sheer hard work, dedication and the right attitude – with, of course, a little help from her friends. Needless to say, everything that she is and she has now is well-deserved, even hard-earned – the very thing that separeates her from her peers, if there are any. Vilma’s enduring popularity, unlike those of instant superstars, is not a product of media hype and a well-oiled publicity machine. She does not deliberately resort to gimmickry to promote her career, whatever controversies surround her none of them is stage managed to generate interest in her. To be sure, Vilma is not a darling of the usual movie press, many members of whom profess their indiferrence towards her for reasons that are not unknow. Indeed, other superstars may have the movie presss at the palm of their hands. And yet, Vilma has got the edge: she has the publc. Proof of this is her continuing popularity at the box office and on TV, something which has been given up for good by many of her contemporaries. At first glance, Vilma Santos may not be a phenomenon, but to have survived, maintained and prevailed through these years, the onslaught of new an senstional stars – both pretenders and otherwise – notwithstanding, is something more phenomenal than anyone could ever hope for.

As an actress, Vilma has nurtured her talent through the years, taking time on its natural course but always unafraid to explore even heretofore unchartered horizons. In 1977, in a unprecendented display of artistic maturity, the 24-year old movie queen shed her sweet image to portray one of her boldest roles in her entire career in Celso Ad Castillo’s Burlesk Queen. The controversial film, which elicited critical acclaim and ran away as the year’s topgrosser in the annual Metro Manila Film Festival, heralded the dawning of a new Vilma Santos. A new phase in her career had indeed come and a more dedicated actress seeking newer heights had emerged. And soared to newer heights she did. In spite of a troubled marriage, BIR problems and as almost empty bank account, Vilma Santos reached the highest peak any actor or actress worth his/her salt could ever achieve. At 29, she handidly won all the best actress honors from all the award giving bodies for her moving performances in Ishmael Bernal’s Relasyon (1982). Winning the grand slam is a faily good year and over equally worthy contenders wa no mean feat. But winning it at a time when one is at the apex of one’s box-office popularity was indeed an achievement that would be hard to duplicate. Her vindication came like sweet revenge for someone who, for a time, many people called a poor second. But the fact is when Vilma Santos finally asserted her superiority and become No. 1 nobody was second. And in a business where a combined commercial and artistic success is as rare as oasis in a desert. Vilma proved to all and sundry that, until now, she alone could pull it through.

For rhe record, within barely one-and-a-half years, Vilma has won an unprecedented six major acting awards (Karma, MMFF Dec. 1981; Pakawalan Mo Ako, FAMAS, April 1982; Relasyon, Catholic Mass Media Awards, Feb. 1983; Relasyon, URIAN, Mar. 1983; Relasyon, Film Academy of the Philippines, April 1983; and Relasyon, FAMAS, May 1983) and three box-office trophies (Box Office Queen, Guillermo Mendoza Memorial Foundation, April 1983; First Cinehan awardee as Most Bankable Female Star, KASIPIL, January 1983; and Box Office Queen, GMMF, May 1983). As if that weren’t enough the consecutive Urian best actress awards (Relasyon, 1982; Broken Marriage, 1983; Sister Stella L, 1984), the only one so honored by the Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino, the country’s only film critics group. Vilma also hold a record of sorts with the oldest film award giving body, the FAMAS. So-far, she’s the only performer who has won various FAMAS awards in three categories, namely best child actress (Trudis Liit, 1963); best actress (Dama de Noche, 1972; Pakawalan Mo Ako, 1981; Relasyon, 1982) and best picture producer, VS Films’s “Pagputi ng Uwak, Pagitim ng Tagak,” 1978. For more than a decade now, Vilma Santos has been considered the highest-paid local actress, a stature that she also enjoys as a television superstar. Her affair with the public seems anywhere she goes – from movie to TV for instances – the actress has nowhere to go but up. Still and all, the actress continues to hone her craft while at the same time maintaining excellent rapport with her audience. Stars of various hues and magnitude have come and gone but Vilma has steadfastly remained on top, almost unperturbed.

People say one can never put a good man or woman down. In her case, it is true: she has weathered all kinds of storms – scandals and all – and has faced up to countless challenges. Almost always she comes out vindicated, scathed perhaps but far from spoiled. One does not succeed and stay on top using only one’s heart or one’s mind. One needs both. Likewise, one does not separate the person from the artist. If an artist is good she will make it; if she’s better she will prevail. The secret of Vilma Santos’ long-running success, if one could call it a secret at all, is an open heart and mind. She’s one person who does not hessitate to admit when she’s wrong or apologize when she makes a mistake; but on the other hand she will stand by her decision when she known she’s right. She’s also one person who comes to the rescue of a needing friend. While other stars have lost their glitter hers continues to shine even as she ages. And like life itself, her success goes from one stage to another – it is never static. As a matter of fact, the older she gets the better she becomes. Vilma Santos’ best legacy to the industry is herself – a shining example that good and positive values can still work in the cutthroat world of showbusiness. Once, in an earnest attempt to describe the actress, a writer called her the ultimate superstar. The fact is, Vilma Santos does not need say qualifier to belabor the obvious. There are seasonal superstars, yes, but there’s only one star for all seasons – Vilma Santos. (Script of Vilma Santos’ 25th anniversary celebration on GMA-7 held at the PICC, Nov. 13, 1987) – Ed Usapdin, Manila Standard, Nov 28, 1987 (READ MORE)