COVER STORY

Two hours in traffic with Nora Aunor

At 63 years old, Nora Aunor is still the most formidable Filipino actress working today. With decades’ worth of films, a stellar career, and a future ahead of her, is there anything else left to say about her?



Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Nora Aunor had been fighting off a bit of malaise since the shoot began. Five hours later, when everything’s wrapped up, she hurries to the van taking her home, lights a cigarette against an open window, and proceeds to smoke despite the coughing fits that would only be more pronounced later. No one in the van tells her to do otherwise, either out of respect or because the Superstar will do as she pleases anyway. There are six of us in the van, two being Aunor’s assistant and a close associate, and the other three from CNN Philippines. The rain beats hard on the roof as we make our way from the director Brillante Mendoza’s compound in Mandaluyong to Aunor’s home in Quezon City. It’s six in the evening and traffic is slowly building up. It’s going to be a long ride.

My plan had been perfect: to interview Ate Guy — Aunor’s famous moniker — during the van ride home. I figured she would probably need some time to rest after the three-hour shoot with Mitzi Borromeo and the rest of CNN Philippines’s “Profiles” team. She had been hurrying to head home right after the shoot; her brother Buboy, known to the general public as the former teen idol Eddie Villamayor, has been in the hospital for a few days and she wants to make it home as early as she can so she can take a few hours’ rest and go back to the hospital and take care of her brother. “Ano na yung interview mo, hijo?” she asks me after she finishes a cigarette. I tell her she can rest for a few more minutes, seeing as her cough has gotten more frequent. Later, she moves to the back of the van. “Baka mahawa ko kayo.” I tell her I don’t mind.

Nora Aunor Nora Aunor's films make up a stunning list of masterpieces that form the cornerstone of our cinematic history, from Lino Brocka’s “Bona,” to Ishmael Bernal’s “Himala,” to Mario O’Hara’s “Bulaklak sa City Jail.” Photos by BJ PASCUAL  

If the Superstar were to transmit her germs to me, it would be an honor. I don’t tell her this, of course. She smiles politely, straining as she suppresses another coughing fit. She’s been tired running errands and shooting all day. She settles in the last seat at the back, sitting there for the rest of the ride home.

A balm and a tempest

The Ate Guy in the van is a stark contrast to what I’d seen during the shoot. It’s easy to equate her punchy demeanor with the presence of cameras, recording each of her gestures, facial expressions, and proclamations of delight and sadness. She’s an actress; it’s her job to play it up — or down — once the lights start flashing bright. In this case, it’s really just because she’s not feeling well.

It doesn’t hurt that Borromeo had been a charming host, guiding her along the topography of her life’s work question by question. Her film “Taklub,” directed by Mendoza, continues to be screened at different film festivals around the world, a year after it premiered at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. Last March, the film won another prize at a film festival in Lorient, France. “Pagka may napapanalunan ang isang proyekto na ginagawa mo, lalo na pagka sa ibang bansa nanggaling yung panalo, eh hindi mo maipaliwanag yung saya na dapat mong maramdaman,” she tells Borromeo during the interview.

This is hardly her most prestigious win, given the long list of awards and recognitions she’s received since her acting career began. She has seven Gawad Urian awards, five FAMAS awards, and five from the Film Academy of the Philippines, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1993. Yet her recent body of work has proved how she’s warranted her status in the competitive playing field of today’s film industry. She need not stoop down to play second fiddle to budding starlets — she’s worked with some of them, and despite the contestable meat of her roles in those respectable films, she still commands the entirety of the whole film. Her presence is both a balm and a tempest, an ingenuity that can only be honed through several decades of work, with some of the most formidable Filipino directors.

Her films make up a stunning list of masterpieces that form the cornerstone of our cinematic history, from Lino Brocka’s “Bona,” to Ishmael Bernal’s “Himala,” to Mario O’Hara’s “Bulaklak sa City Jail.” Her recent films have amassed plaudits mostly for her performance, but none have achieved such status as her most recognizable films have — at least for now, until some film critic in the future would deem her post-2000s work worthy of being called “classics.”

 

Nora Aunor The film “Taklub,” directed by Mendoza, which Nora Aunor topbills, continues to be screened at different film festivals around the world, a year after it premiered at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. In March, the film won another prize at a film festival in Lorient, France. Photo by BJ PASCUAL  

 

Si Direk Lino kasi, at saka si Mario O’Hara halos magkapareho ng style,” she recalls, when asked about some of the most memorable people she’s worked with. “Pero mas down-to-earth pag gumawa si Lino. [Yung] ‘Ina Ka ng Anak Mo,’ isa yun sa paborito kong pelikula nga pala, yung kami ni Lolita Rodriguez.”

She recalls being starstruck working with Rodriguez. “Ang isang gusto ko doon kay Lolita, habang umaarte ako, ako'ng kinukunan, talagang nagre-react siya. Mas lalo akong naganahan sa ginagawa ko. Kaya yun ang isang artista na, wala na, nakita ko na hindi mapagkait. Yun yung artista na tumutulong sa kapwa-artista niya para mapaganda ang isang eksena. Tumutulong siya kung ano yung dapat, yung kung anong gagawin niya, ginagawa niya talaga habang kinukunan yung eksena.”

These days, it’s the young actors who will probably kill just to work with her. Among the ones she’s worked with are Jasmine Curtis-Smith in “Dementia,” Alden Richards in the short film “Kinabukasan,” and Barbie Forteza in the upcoming “Tuos,” a finalist in this year’s Cinemalaya Film Festival.

It took almost a decade before she finally got to work in films again. After filming “Naglalayag” in 2004, she took an eight-year hiatus in the U.S., turning out minimal work and a few concerts. She finally returned to the Philippines in 2011, though she had lost her voice during a surgical procedure, a malady she intends to correct by undergoing another procedure this month. Upon her return, she asked who the Brockas and Bernals were in the new generation of directors. One of the names that were mentioned to her was Mendoza. In the span of a few years, their films “Thy Womb” (2012) and last year’s “Taklub” would compete in international film festivals, including Venice and Cannes, a testament to her enduring skill as an actress.

A bottle of brandy

As her interview with “Profiles” was coming to a close, she’d requested one thing, to maybe fuel her for the last few questions. It was almost 6 p.m., and she’d had a long day. “Request ko lang, may brandy sana!” And she had laughed and said it was just a joke. Later, Mendoza had come to the set with a bottle of brandy. Someone had opened the bottle, and she had taken a shot and passed the glass to the others. “Sino’ng may gusto?” she had asked. A member of the camera crew had taken a drink. No one else had budged. But I had volunteered — it’s shaping up to be a long day for me as well. I’d reached out for the glass and drunk its remaining contents. Cheering had ensued, and she grew even more lively for the rest of the interview.

Nora Aunor "Mahalin mo yung mga fans," says Nora Aunor of her supporters. "Ang mga fans ang talagang magbibigay sa isang artista ng talagang [saya], ‘di ba? ‘Pag hindi ka mahal ng mga fans, sino’ng magkakagulo sa iyo?" Photo by BJ PASCUAL  

Once in the van, she says, “Akala ko gagaling ako sa brandy.” She’s now slumped into her corner of the van, fussing over the details of her brother’s hospitalization. It’s disheartening to see someone of her stature worry about having to pay for medical bills and asking so many people to help her take care of her brother. She’s now feeling even more sick; maybe she can’t go to the hospital, after all. She tells her assistant to buy a few things for her brother, including prepaid credits so she can call whoever’s in the hospital. Even Sen. Loren Legarda, who was one of the principal advocates of “Taklub,” extended help for Aunor’s brother. There are also some Noranians — as her fans are commonly called — willing to help out, transcending their roles as mere spectators. Aunor’s journey is their own, as well, and they’ll do whatever they can to help her out.

“‘Wag mong kakalimutan kung saan ka nagmula,” she says during the interview. “At maging malapit sa mga fans. Mahalin mo yung mga fans. Ang mga fans ang talagang magbibigay sa isang artista ng talagang [saya], ‘di ba? ‘Pag hindi ka mahal ng mga fans, sino’ng magkakagulo sa iyo? Eh, minsan nga yung mga fans ko, bilib na bilib ako kasi minsan nagagalit ako sa kanila. Pero kahit anong pagalit, o anong pinagsasabihan ko sa kanila, mahal pa rin nila ako. Yung ganun. May nagtatanong sa akin, ‘Ano ba ang sikreto mo? Bakit yung mga fans, malapit sa ‘yo?’ Isa lang iyan siguro. Lumaki ako sa hirap. So ang mga fans, masa eh. Nakita nila yung sarili nila sa akin. Kaya siguro naging malapit sila sa akin.”

Her brother would pass away on June 27, almost two weeks after the interview. They both starred in the film “Minsa’y Isang Gamu-Gamo,” where the line “My brother is not a pig!” came from. He was 56 years old.

A mere footnote

I never get to talk to her during the trip. I wouldn’t get to ask her anything. Nothing, not even small talk. Just some polite exchanges: “Hijo, pakihinaan naman ang aircon.” “Saan na tayo?” “Malapit na ba tayo?” I never get to ask her about her brother, or even send some well-wishes. In my mind, anything from me would just be another bother in her long list of worries. What else is there to talk about, anyway? Whatever I ask will just be a mere footnote to her legend. She isn’t called a “superstar” for nothing. She shines on her own, no matter what happens.

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The second part of the Nora Aunor episode of “Profiles” airs on Wednesday, July 8, at 9:30 p.m., with replays on Thursday, July 7, at 8:30 a.m., Saturday, July 9, at 10:30 a.m., Sunday, July 10 at 11:30 a.m., and Monday, July 11 at 1:30 p.m.