As a young girl, Nora Aunor was so indigent that she sold water in plastic containers to weary travelers in a train station and collected metal scraps to augment provisions for her family. She eventually went to the big city to seek her luck by singing in contests. A few years later, Nora Aunor was a star, a “superstar” as a matter of fact, the biggest the Philippines had produced.
A Cinderella-like figure, as a number of cultural observers have invoked, Aunor, unlike the fairy tale's heroine, did not marry a prince to bring her fame and fortune.
She was a gawky teenager when she stepped into the national consciousness by winning the Grand National Champion trophy of the popular talent show, Tawag Ng Tanghalan (Call of the Stage) in 1967.
Dubbed as “The Golden Voice,” Nora Aunor became one of the local music recording industry’s biggest stars at the time. Her version of the Hawaiian ditty “Pearly Shells” remains one of the most commercially successful recordings in the industry. Not long afterwards, the movies beckoned and Aunor became the film industry’s biggest star, sparking unprecedented mass adulation that perhaps cannot be duplicated in our time.
Her emergence as star in the late ‘60s signified the rise of the brown ideal: she was the first major female film star whose features are distinctly Malayan. It was also the time of extreme social unrest and revived nationalism, as well as the height of the Marcos era and the martial law years. The confluence provoked sociological questions, and Nora Aunor became truly a national phenomenon.
In 1972, the year martial law was declared, she was at her prime: the movies’ biggest box-office draw; recording’s best-selling artist; television’s only musical-variety star. Her TV show, “Superstar,” was the only program allowed to broadcast when Ferdinand Marcos imposed a clampdown on all media.
Aunor’s rival, Vilma Santos, made several attempts to wrest the crown from her with hugely successful adaptations of popular komiks heroes, like “Lipad, Darna, Lipad” (Fly, Darna, Fly) and “Dyesebel.” Aunor took a different course, producing films considered serious and non-commercial acting vehicles: Danny Holmsen’s “Carmela,” where she played a haunted woman, and George Rowe’s “Paruparong Itim” (Black Butterfly), where she played an oppressed blind girl.
Two other films – the omnibus “Fe, Esperanza, Caridad” (Faith, Hope, Charity) (1974) directed by the masters Lamberto Avellana and Gerardo de Leon and then, de Leon’s “Banaue” (1975) – foreshadowed the emergence of a major acting talent in 1976 with films of definite significance. Other monumental movies included Lupita Aquino-Concio’s (now Kashiwahara) “Magandang Gabi Sa Inyong Lahat” (Good Evening, Everyone) and “Minsa’y Isang Gamugamo” (Once, A Moth). Mario O’Hara’s monumental film on World War II, “Tatlong Taong Walang Diyos” (Three Godless Years), won Aunor the Gawad Urian’s (Society of Film Critics) first Best Actress trophy for her role as a village girl who fell in love with a collaborator.
As Aunor immersed herself in films with substance in later years, her box office standing slid, suffering from the melodramas and change of image, and threatened by the rise of new stars like Maricel Soriano and Sharon Cuneta. Family troubles, entanglements with the Bureau of Internal Revenue and unfortunate love affairs wore her down.
Nonetheless, the martial law years saw the growth of Aunor’s talent, with a body of work that showed an actress of consummate skills and singular taste. She was the wronged daughter in Lino Brocka’s “Ina Ka Ng Anak Mo” (You Are The Mother Of Your Daughter) (1979); the lesbian lawyer in Danny Zialcita’s “T-Bird At Ako” (T-Bird [slang for lesbian] and Me) (1981); the expatriate nurse in Gil Portes’ “‘Merika” (1983); and the prison inmate in O’Hara’s “Bulaklak Sa City Jail” (Flower of the City Jail) (1984). These performances remain unparalleled in their intensity. Most of her roles, including as the movie star groupie in Brocka’s “Bona” (1980) and the visionary faith healer in Ishmael Bernal’s “Himala” (Miracle) (1982), now considered classics, are marked by an economy of movement – her legendary eyes speak of life’s complexities in a multitude of ways – and a strong, timeless presence.
Sadly however, these incursions into serious cinema led Nora Aunor astray, far from her mass audience, which was still steeped in the lush sentimentalism of komiks, melodramas and mindless pursuit of star trivia. Refusing to heed the temper of the times, for example, she stood steadfastly by her political patrons, the Marcoses. Her near-lynching at the gates of Camp Aguinaldo at the outbreak of the EDSA revolt in 1986 signaled not only the beginning of the end for the Marcos reign, but also the passing of the Nora Aunor era in the movies.
In the ensuing years, Aunor saw herself embroiled in the political tumult of the post-EDSA period; the regimes of Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo returned her to the spotlight. She had a few sparks of cinematic achievement to show for, notably the commercial and the critical success of the biographical film, Joel Lamangan’s “The Flor Contemplacion Story” (1995) where she played the tragic domestic worker executed in Singapore. This earned her the Best Actress award at the Cairo International Film Festival, the first such honor given to a Filipino actor in a major foreign film festival.
Her eventual falling out of the grace with Macapagal-Arroyo led her to immigrate to the United States in 2004. She decided at the time to live the simple life of an immigrant dependent on her income as singer-performer. Sadly a botched throat operation sometime in 2010 affected her singing career, making her take stock of her life and work. Through the urging of a few close friends, Aunor made a startling return to the Philippines, reclaiming her premier position as the country’s best actor, bar none.
In Brillante Mendoza’s “Thy Womb” (2012), Aunor plays a barren Bajau housewife who has to give up her husband for a younger woman so he will be able to have a child. The film earned plaudits at the Venice International Film Festival where she earned Best Actress honors, the Bisato d’Oro award from an independent Italian critics group.
With the critical success of the film, Aunor found a new, younger audience, now part of the resurgent independent film movement in the country, thereby allowing her to appear in quick succession in critically acclaimed films. All are independent works, where she gets to speak in other Philippine languages: Ilokano in Mes de Guzman’s “Ang Kwento Ni Mabuti” (The Story Of Mabuti) (2013); Kinaray-a in Derrick Cabrido’s “Tuos” (2016) and in her native Bicol language in Kristian Sendon Cordero’s “Hinulid” (2016).
Nora Aunor has indeed emerged triumphant, despite the odds and life’s adversities. Now her career is distinguished by critical and popular acclaim: she’s the only Filipino actor whose films have been honored across five continents; she’s well-respected by the country’s culturati and intelligentsia (the only Filipino actress singled out as one of the 100 most influential Filipinos in the last century, recently awarded the Gawad Plaridel by the University of the Philippines; and the Natatanging Gawad Urian/Lifetime Achievement Award by the Filipino Film Critics Society); she was considered one of the world’s best actors by CNN in the early ‘90s and most recently, the Southeast Asian Film Festival’s Lifetime Achievement award.
With a career that spans five decades in multiple media forms -- radio, music recording, film, television, theater and stage concertizing -- and a career trajectory that saw the evolution from an extremely popular matinee idol to a critically lauded actor whose works, both as performer and producer, have been widely celebrated, Nora Aunor has been central to the vitality and dynamism of popular culture in the Philippines. She also remains a staunch advocate of causes dear to her heart, championing Filipino independent cinema, and of late, fighting for the rights and welfare of Filipino migrant workers,
Her continuing story compels a more critical assessment of her art, life and work. Nora Aunor has ceased to become her fans’ mere escape mechanism from the turbulent world; she has evolved into a symbol of her people – hopefully, a liberating one.
Mauro Feria Tumbocon, Jr., cultural worker and writer/journalist, has written extensively on Filipino cinema and popular culture for more than three decades, both in the United States and in the Philippines. He is founder and current director of FACINE or Filipino Arts & Cinema, International (formerly known as Filipino American cineArts), a nonprofit media arts group that aims to promote and develop transnational Filipino cinemas. FACINE has continuously held the annual Filipino international cine festival for more than 20 years; in October, 2017, the festival will celebrate its 24th year. He works in a nonprofit organization that provides social services to individuals who are formerly homeless in San Francisco.