Susan Roces, yo!

HERE'S THE SCORE - Teodoro C. Benigno -
Columnists like me are drawn to major events like the war in Iraq, the tsunami in South Asia, the macabre killing of 23 Abu Sayyaf terrorists, the whys and wherefores of a Philippine society gone gadawful goofy. Seldom do we tune in on individuals. Unless like Ninoy Aquino they have the wing spread of a soaring eagle or Didagen Dilangalen who has the circumscribed wisdom of a court jester, and the antics of a circus clown. In either case, we fulfill our role as journalists out to inform and enlighten the cognoscenti or entertain the madding crowd.

But there are some in-between unique individuals who have the gift of turning us around. We are almost helpless as they perform their magic with words. Without any great credits to their name or without playing the fool, they have an enchantment that holds you in thrall. It’s the personality in full regalia, I suppose, pulled from a secret recess..

Such a one is Susan Roces.

In the company of movie mogul Marichu Maceda, she had me riveted for hours the same way she had the nation in her grasp many weeks ago by putting the word pangarap on the poor man’s pedestal. What would the poor Filipino be, she asked, if the powers-that-be killed his hopes, his dreams, his pangarap. They could rob him of his money, that could be replaced, but not the pangarap that oozed through his being and kept him alive. That statement was terrific. It had to take a movie actress, elevated by events, to say that.

Susan Roces was of course referring to the "defeat" in the May 10 presidential elections of her husband Fernando Poe Jr. And subsequently his death, many said, of "heartbreak" because he was massively cheated and couldn’t do much about it. You don’t stone City Hall and get away with it.

What was striking about this woman was that she wrapped her pain and anguish in gossamer, not for once fulminating in anger when she had all the right to fume in anger and unconcealed disgust. Susan Roces was, to say the least, Susan Roces. She did not pretend to be anybody else. She declined the cloak of the avenger, spurned the dagger, even as inside her fire still flared and the blood curdled from the bitter electoral experience. If she had been anybody else, a Medea or an Imelda maybe, there would be bedlam.

Yes, Susan admitted she had cried and cried and cried. And till this day, she would weep in private on how the Fates had cruelly taken Ronnie away from her. Before this columnist and two other ladies in attendance, she held herself like a church steeple, unbending with the winds, not once betraying her grief. Why indeed would she add the Furies to post-election Furies that had already spent themselves?

Her finely chiseled face recoiled in a split-second – as though tears began to brim – as again she asked "Why did they take Ronnie away so early , he was so alive, so young, and he could have done a lot for the country?" But the tears never came. A giant finger seemed to have slipped over to spare her lips of any bile, any carramba gone wild. I suppose FPJ was also like that. He was all metal outside, all towering Panday, not once giving in to the feral cry of a bloodshot cutthroat. He would dispense justice with the cold eye of the blindfolded lady. He was a man of a few words.

"How do you cope, it must be very hard," I asked.

If Susan Roces had anything, it was poise. It was complete control. It was dominating all the angry, jangling wires that bound her person. Her answer was that she hardly went out at all to socialize and forget. She prayed a lot, contemplated a lot. She would invoke the muses of silence and contemplation not the muses of the festive Roman baths with their silken robes dancing with mad abandon .

"Is there life after FPJ?" I asked again.

After all, I figured, she was still young, physically alluring, with a radiant beauty all her own. She did merit the appellation First Lady of Philippine cinema. "Would you ever date men again?" She ignored the last question as though I never asked it. But she said "Indeed there is life after FPJ." But it was the life of the mind and a caring heart. And always she would try to lighten the burdens of the poor, speak in their behalf, keep plodding till someday they could perhaps be liberated..

"Ronnie always thought of them," she said, "and that was why he decided to run for president. If he had won, his first act would be to open all the books and accounts of the republic for everybody to see." The people would then know how their money was spent or misspent. Small wonder. Da King would bring his Panday to Malacañang and bang his hammer on the anvil. This struck nameless fear among the thieves and the politicians and that was why FPJ had to be stopped at all costs.

She talked about electoral fraud. She said the government was so scared of being found out they refused to open even just one Certificate of Canvas. She talked about how FPJ was brazenly stripped bare of his votes in a number of places. But in no case, did she roar and thunder. The voice was also even and temperate as in mid-piano.It was still Susan in complete control of Susan. And you looked at her as in a trance, wondering if ever she was really Susan, the movie actress acting this one out, or Susan in disguise from a Vedic reincarnated past, the unperturbable Lady of the Lake.

What hurt to the bone was all that apocalyptic din about his not being a "natural citizen." The truth was that FPJ was more Filipino than all his critics. And so this back-fired. But the dogs had been unleashed on the citizenship issue, predatory dogs that almost devoured FPJ. The damage had been done.

There was no doubt that a highly critical media had left their mark on FPJ and Susan. They felt media had been very unfair, biased, because "ang tingin nila kay Ronnie ay isang artista lang." They didn’t know Ronnie, she said, "he had dedicated his life to the poor, and that was all that mattered." Was anybody capable of doing that? Artista? Artistang may puso. Marangal na artista na nagmamahal ng kapwa were the unsaid words.

What also hurt was the incident involving GMA-7’s reporter Sandra Aguinaldo. FPJ had done nothing, Susan said, but to address the audience from the stage which was properly his. But there was Sandra Aguinaldo bawling out her reportage beside him on the same stage. Was that fair? FPJ protested, but the whole of broadcast media sided with Sandra. They even called FPJ uncouth, ungentlemanly, impolite.

That was media at its worst.

Against all odds, why did FPJ decide to run? Didn’t they expect he would be robbed? Yes they did. But the fat was already in the fire and it was too late to turn back. To boot, they still believed FPJ’s phenomenal popularity could carry him through. So they stuck. And so Da King fought and fought and fought, Susan at his side never flinching. She was always the invisible carpet on which he lay when spent and bone-weary. She was , as Joseph Campbell said, "the vehicle of life", the "giving of birth and the giving of nourishment," the cool bandage on FPJ’s fevered brow.

Two light moments crossed her face during the interview.

Susan remembered that during the period of courtship, "Ronnie didn’t pay much attention to me. I resented that." Her feminity was hurt – and challenged. But it was precisely Ronnie’s perceived lack of attention "that attracted me" and "I drew closer to him. Before long, they got engaged and were married.

During the campaign, Susan asked her husband how much he would earn as president. Told he would pull down only P50,000 a month, Susan got shocked." How could we live on that?" Many of the gowns she wore cost more than P50,000 each. Anyway, FPJ remarked casually, "Do not worry, we will manage, if we have to economize to the bone." They had their savings, of course.

It was towards the end of the interview that Susan Roces, in obvious reference to President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, said: "This is not the time to feed one’s ego. I will not pick up after her mess." That was scathing. Till then, she had avoided mentioning GMA’s name. Even if said sedately, that was a spider, a black poisonous spider flung at la Gloria.

Then came another high hard one. The previous pieces of conversation had to do with the times, the very turbulent times of worsening poverty, high prices, more crime, more violence. Maybe Susan Roces had reserved this as her last comment:

"It is caused by her illegality, her illegitimacy."

Bang! We were not expecting this. But I suppose that Susan Roces, who had climaxed and triumphed in hundreds of movies with the last word, the last cold, coruscating glare of her eyes, the last slap on the cheek, the last verbal stab in the villainess’ heart, gave it her best shot. Her timing was perfect. This was royalty of the cinema virtually telling the royalty of Malacanang to screw it. Up your ass!

It was an extraordinary performance. In the end, Susan Roces boomed with a silencer: "I am woman!" And she was.











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