I had written my last column for last week before Dolphy crossed over to the great beyond. The days that followed were devoted to mourning his death and celebrating his life in equal measure. The outpouring of grief and love has been overwhelming and warms the heart. I cannot let his passing go without saying something, if only in passing.
Much has been said about Dolphy being the Pinoy Everyman, the one character in reel and real life the ordinary man could relate to, and it’s true. Of course there are limits to being able to identify with him in real life: Not everyone can go through life sharing it with some of the most beautiful women on earth. It’s Everyman only in the sense that it’s every man’s fantasy. But for the most part, yes, the simplest folk could identify with him body and soul.
Not least because he was a simple man himself, he came from humble beginnings. Need compelled him to drop out of high school and work early in life. And only sheer talent allowed him to get past adversity, indeed to conquer it and be crowned king of comedy. But more than that, it was the roles he played in the movies and TV, especially TV with his characters of John Puruntong in “John en Marsha” and Kevin Cosme in “Home Along Da Riles,” that allowed the, well, shanty-dwelling denizens along the railroad tracks to glimpse a bit of themselves. What inspired names, John Puruntong and Kevin Cosme with their clash of high and low, coniotic and barriotic, dream and reality. The Pinoy condition all by itself.
The only other time I saw an actor throw this country into a frenzy of loss and love was when Fernando Poe Jr. died toward Christmas of 2004. His death however carried political overtones, many people already suspecting at that point (which would be driven home less than a year later by “Hello Garci”) that Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had stolen the presidency from him. But there was still a throng that remembered him not for his brief fling with politics but for his lifetime of marriage to the movies. I was one of them.
In many ways, Dolphy and FPJ were cut from the same cloth. Not least both touched people inside and outside the movie industry by being generous to a fault. Both could not say no to those who needed help, giving without demanding gratitude or reciprocity, without making a fuss about it. When FPJ died, the public would be astonished to learn he had a whole bodega of relief goods to give the victims of the mudslides in Infanta, none of the cartons, by his strict orders, carrying his name as the source of beneficence. When Dolphy died, a whole tribe came out to talk about how he had helped them in their time of need; they had turned out in turn to give whatever they could of themselves to the loved ones he left behind. It’s wonderfully inspiring, particularly for a country that has gotten jaded with politics and the wayward ways of politicians, or with entertainment and the hustling ways of entertainers.
More than that, both had a career that spanned decades. Both were prolific, both had an incredible output, though a great deal of it was uneven, no small thanks to the resolute commercialism of the studios then and now. FPJ became the king of action, Dolphy became the king of comedy. That is also their great difference.
The difference does not just lie in the genres, it lies in how they dealt with them. FPJ was the quintessential hero of movies, mythical, archetypal, larger than life. Whether he was doing westerns, war movies or crime, he was on heroic mode, someone we admired but couldn’t really reach, couldn’t really identify with. When he died, the people wept, but they wept for someone who had gone to join the Great Hero In the Sky, someone who was not like us mere mortals. When Dolphy died, the people wept, but they wept for someone who was one of us, someone who might as well have been our neighbor or friend or kuya. He was vulnerable, he was accessible, he was someone we knew up close and personal.
That was what his roles made him, and that was what he made of his roles. He was seldom on heroic mode, even his roles in the days of the secret-agent movies were satirical and self-deprecating, Secret Agent U-2-10. He was the simple man trying his best to get by in life with a big heart and an even bigger wit. Not unlike every Filipino, however less the heart and however even lesser the wit. He knew whereof he spoke, or acted. He stamped his life on the role, and the role stamped itself on him.
It was not because his characters lacked ambition that they did not always get ahead, notwithstanding Dely Atay-Atayan’s constant nagging, “Kaya John, magsumikap ka.” It was that they had a different view of getting ahead, one that did not entail corruption, one that did not measure success in terms of money. That was how he lived, that was how he died. He became an immense success in ways that had little to do with money. Not least, he died without leaving behind rancor and ill-will, not even from past relationships. That is a feat in itself, given the number of those relationships.
Does he really need the National Artist Award? Lotis Key, one of those who loved him deeply and well, gives a good perspective on things. She said in a tweet: “He’s gone. For this or that reason they say he may not be eligible for the coveted national recognition. I’m sure he would laugh at the thought. For over 60 years he’s possessed the biggest award his country has had to offer. One a politician, businessman, or preacher has yet to win—the unconditional love of the Filipino people.”
Marcos’ face is carved out in the mountain of Agoo, Dolphy’s in the hearts of his people. Guess who has the grander award, guess who has reaped the greater honor.
Guess which monument will last longer.
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