Nora of Iriga
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - May 23, 2020 - 12:00am

In honor of film and TV actress Nora Aunor’s birthday last May 21, I would like to print here an essay from my book, Ranga: Works from Bikol, published by the Ateneo de Naga University Press last year. Rightly so, many critics have pointed out that books and essays here and abroad have been published about her and her manifold achievements in film, on TV and in music. This is a humble contribution to the homage given to the only Superstar of Philippine movies and the Filipina actress most known among international award-giving bodies.

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Everybody I know was rushing home last Wednesday, Nov. 17. Furiously flagging down taxis or jumping into jeepneys, we were all running home to watch the first telecast of “Superstar Beyond Time.” We wanted to go to the UP Theater to catch the show live, but word got around that people had been lining up for their tickets since noon. The show would not begin until 7 p.m.

I got home 10 minutes after 7:00, threw my bag on the bed, and then switched on the TV set. And there was Nora Aunor, winding up with her first song. Then she segued into her own version of “Windmills of your Mind.” This was one of the songs she sang in her SRO lounge acts at the Manila Mandarin last July. And tonight, she sang it with a depth of feeling unmatched by anyone in recent memory: the great, sad eyes and the lovely contralto, the color and tone of that voice, and how did she learn to phrase those lines so well?

Nora Aunor is, indeed, back. Lionized by the economic elite at Mandarin, she held her first monthly special at the heart of academe. And I know professors, unforgettable bitches in the classroom, who talked excitedly about Nora’s concert and queued up gladly to catch it live. I have some students, whose term papers are about the films of Nora Aunor, or whose discussion on the Second Golden Age of Philippine Movies (mid-1970s to 1980s) always centered on her filmography.

Thus, embraced by both the economic and cultural elite, Nora has returned, like an angel of vengeance.

She has a new album, “Langit Pala ang Umibig,” produced by Freddie Aguilar and now out in the market. She is winding up on her role as a storyteller in “Modern Romances.” She will make two movies in the next few months – Demolisyon and Henerala. The first is about the lives of informal settlers; the second a film about the braveheart Gabriela Silang. That night Freddie Aguilar sang with her. The man with the mane and the golden cane sang well that night. He sang the title song of Nora’s album, then had a duet with her in the middle of the song, a rousing piece about never giving up, for the taste of heaven is as sweet as the taste of success.

All throughout that night, Nora’s eyes were filmy with tears. Eight years ago, her program called “Superstar” was unceremoniously booted out of the station. Then she refused to work in the movies that began spilling out of the garbage bins in the last 1980s. Instead, she turned to theater. She played Corazon in the PETA version of “Minsa’y Isang Gamu-gamo.” Then she essayed four roles in the play “D.H.” written by Ricky Lee. Her most memorable romp was that of a quick-witted, footloose domestic helper in Hong Kong, who moonlights as a sex worker aboard the ships in the harbor. That showed her considerable comic talent, timing, and pacing on the dot. She also appeared in the TV series “Spotlight”: for which she won a Best Actress Award for Television from Star Awards.

In short, she was never really gone. She is our Edith Piaf. Or Edith Piaf was the Nora Aunor of Paris. And like that diminutive chanteuse from Paris, whose roller coaster emotional ride turned her songs into diamonds of pain, Nora is singing again, that voice now dipping into a husky whisper, now soaring cleanly into the air. She sings, “If I were a bird, I’d warm you with my wings. . .”

National Artist Nick Joaquin, writing as the journalist Quijano de Manila, said: “Nora Aunor has broken the color line in Philippine movies, where the rule used to be that heroines must be fair of skin and chiseled of profile. Though neither fair nor statuesque, Nora has bloomed into a beauty and all the more fascinating because it’s not standard. Seen up close, her complexion shows fine gold tints, her features reveal a delicacy of outline, and her large liquid eyes are lovely. Her speaking voice is soft but always sounds full of emotion, even if she’s only asking you to sit down. Nobody who was been watching the local trend towards sexy and ever sexier stars would have predicted that the next pop goddess to dominate the scene would be a simple, demure country girl.”

Quijano de Manila wrote that in July 1970. Sure, Nora’s no longer demure. She bared her breasts in Banaue and shouted herself hoarse in a few movies. The face has more visible laugh lines; dark circles ring her eyes. But those eloquent eyes – they still speak a language of their own.

In the past, the fans of Nora Aunor used to swamp her with leis of sampaguita hung around her neck, layer upon layer that it became a wreath that threatened to choke her mouth and clog her nose. And tonight, it was no different. For after the show, they walked up the stage, offering bouquets of roses – red and white and yellow – pressing them onto her hand while they chanted her name. It reminds you of the last scene in the now-iconic film Himala. And then suddenly, the tears that Nora Aunor had been holding back for two hours finally fell, streaking the roses in her hands.

(Danton Remoto is the Head of School, English, at the University of Nottingham in Malaysia, where he is also a Professor of Creative Writing).

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