Suddenly there is sadness.
Amidst the brouhaha about the MetroManila Film Festival that opens in three weeks --- and people getting really pissed off because an actor has made a spectacle of himself (again) by literally pissing on a co-actor, death crept quietly on the other side of the planet and stole one of the living treasures of Philippine cinema and theater.
Perhaps only a few of the young and upbeat Gen X and Millennial cinema enthusiasts remember her. The name is bound to be familiar for no discussion of 20th century Philippine movies can ever be dignified without the mention of her name. She was, after all, an actress par excellance. She was the sort of stuff that comes rarely in generations --- and what mattered most about her was that she was an artist far beyond being a mere celebrity.
Although she was a product of the earlier studio system where actors and actresses were trained, primped and presented to the public in picture-perfect personas, she made it known that these so-called perks were only peripheral to her choices. She was an actress and she made sure everybody knew that.
What even made her stature of legendary proportions was that she disappeared. Whereas others would choose to remain in the spotlight or stand by the wings to appear in a movie or two or do television, she opted to leave everything behind and move to the United States to become a farmer's wife. It was a choice she made not out of some wild publicity stunt that the media whores of today could so well do just to be talked about. Oh, no: that was precisely what she shied away from --- the prying eyes, the preoccupation for the personal life rather than the scrutiny given to the art and the craft.
There were attempt to lure her home to make another film but all these efforts failed. After Mel Chionglo's Lucia (1993), she chose to hide herself from the public and find her bliss in the simple life that she chose half a planet away. But regardless of her determination to fade into anonymity, those blessed with the stuff of legends cannot and will never be forgotten.
On the 28th of November, 2016 California time, perhaps one of the greatest Filipina actresses died. She was 81 years old and her screen name (as she will always be remembered) was Lolita Rodriguez.
Before there was Nora Aunor, Vilma Santos, Hilda Koronel and now Jaclyn Jose --- there were stars whose brilliance of not only beauty but talent blinded the heavens of Philippine cinema with sheer star power. No, they were not pre-packaged media products, honed and designed and even motorized by media blitz and manipulation. Even if there was a strong studio system existing until the mid-1990s, stars were stars there. And actresses were authentic artists whose performances when viewed even today will elicit awe from the younger generations.
But it is sad indeed in this country of ours: we have no culture of memory.
We are not even talking about selective amnesia --- or how the two words moving on means forget even without forgiveness but just get on with your life. It is the absence of being rooted even in our sense of popular culture that the younger generations do not even know the significance of the great stars we had from the 1950's to the 1980's.
Lolita Rodriguez to that league of great actresses--- together with Charito Solis, Nida Blanca and the eternal Gloria Romero.
She belonged to that generation of performers honed to love their work not because of the fringe benefits of popularity (or even wealth) but because of the sheer determination to be better. Her earlier works included tearjerker melodramas very much like what was recently shown by a major studio fifty plus more years after the release of Armando Garces' Sapagkat Kami'y Tao Lamang.
But it was her works with National Artist Lino Brocka that will guarantee Ms. Rodriguez' position in the pantheon of great Filipino performers.
Who could forget her as the demented and tormented Kuala in Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang? Or the suppressed yet obedient daughter in the episode Bukas, Madilim Bukas in the trilogy Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa? Or the traumatized wife in Tubog sa Ginto? Or as the returning sister in Ina, Kapatid, Anak (1979 --- and not to be mistaken for the TV series of the same title) where Rodriguez went head-on with another great actress, Charito Solis?
While the Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) prepared to celebrate its golden jubilee, its roster of great works --- and performances --- can never be complete without including the Brocka-directed Larawan --- and theatrical adaptation of Nick Joaquin's Portrait of the Artist as Filipino where (again) Ms. Rodriguez played Candida to Ms. Solis' Paula.
One of the fondest memories of one of my best friends, Manny Castaneda, was watching Ms. Rodriguez during the rehearsals of the play at the Rajah Sulaiman Theater at Fort Santiago. Ms. Rodriguez would move across the stage, miming her blocking and practically whispering her lines as if going on auto-record mode which somehow discombobulated the more theatrically trained co-performers.
But the moment she went onstage for the performances, Manny said that there was this luminosity --- this power in her very being that draws you into her, like a magnet onstage. She sheds being Lolita Rodriguez and becomes Candida --- a complete contrast to the characterization of Paula given by Ms. Solis. Very few screen actresses can make a similar claim as Rodriguez and Solis onstage in the legendary shows of PETA. Maybe Laurice Guillen in the Orlando Nadres adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire (entitled Flores Para Los Muertos) was at par with these greats ... but then again, they don't make actresses like these any more.
Today the cineastes are grieving. We have lost a living legend. An age has come to pass. As the vicious wheels of time continue to turn, generations come ... generations go. And they only leave footprints if not images on celluloid or voices on vinyl to remind us once upon a great time they were here with us and showed us what true greatness was all about.
And even as we grieve for yet another loss we know deep in our hearts ... and our very hungry minds that such greatness as what they showed and taught us can be achieved if we only had the nobility of mind and determination in our hearts to be better than what we are today.
To Lolita Rodriguez ... and all the other great cinema artists who have left us with the awesome legacy to continue and improve, maraming maraming salamat po.
This generation of film artists and actors and actresses are closer in reaching for the stars because they stand on the shoulders of legends who have given their lives to show us the long, painful yet beautiful journey to achieve elusive perfection.