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  • Sharon's Noranian Turn:Stardom, Embodiment, and Language in Philippine Cinema
  • Bliss Cua Lim (bio)

Writing in 1965 under the pseudonym Quijano de Manila, National Artist Nick Joaquin vividly describes an era when the decline of the great Philippine film studios spawned an unbridled "star system still in apogee." In the 1960s, star worship fuels the popular cinema and feeds "the avarice of the independent producer." The middle-class lament that mainstream Filipino movies are hardly "quality" pictures, Joaquin writes impatiently, misses the point: "The movie fans crowd to a local movie not because they expect a sensible story or expert acting or even good entertainment"; instead, they go to the movies to see the stars they adore—action film kings Fernando Poe Jr. and Joseph Estrada, glamour goddesses Amalia Fuentes and Susan Roces. "Our movie idols remain idolized, whatever the quality of their vehicles, as long as they remain impossibly young, impossibly glamorous, impossibly beautiful"1 (figure 1). This is a form of star worship that, in its emphasis on an unrealizable world, ends by preventing audience identification. The spectatorial pleasures offered by the star system of the early to mid-1960s, Joaquin argues, are not driven by identification but by wonder, idolatry practiced from afar.

In many ways, the superstardom of Nora Aunor represents both a departure from and an intensification of the star system of that decade. Arriving on the movie scene from nationwide success [End Page 318] on radio and television as an amateur singer in 1967, Nora Aunor was emblematic of the limit-point of the star system in the post–studio era. Film historian Nicanor Tiongson remarks, "[M]ovies then made money simply because they had superstar Nora Aunor" in them.2 Nora Aunor solicited a new horizon of spectatorial devotion from legions of devoted followers—her Noranian fans—by embodying a new kind of non-impossible stardom.

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Figure 1.

Movie star Susan Roces embodied the "impossible glamour" of mestiza stardom in the 1960s. From Sunday Times Magazine, 17 April 1965, 43.

Courtesy of the Rizal Library Filipiniana periodicals collection, Ateneo de Manila University.

Joaquin calls her the "lowly morenita from Iriga," a little brown-skinned girl who rose to superstardom from an impoverished provincial childhood. The daughter of a cargador (train porter) in the Bicol Express, the twelve-year-old Nora Cabaltera Villamayor won a regional amateur singing contest while wearing a secondhand dress her mother had altered. Her destitute family listened on a neighbor's radio as her victory was announced; the twenty pesos in prize money she won that first evening was for an older sister's tuition.3 In 1967, at the age of fourteen, Nora Aunor won the grand finals of the nationally televised singing contest, Tawag Ng Tanghalan (Call of the Stage), holding her own against other contenders in a twelve-week victory run. In the years that followed, Nora emerged as a pop-music sensation on radio, television, and film (figure 2). Nora Aunor's [End Page 319]

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Figure 2.

In the late 1960s, Nora Aunor emerged as the Philippines' first superstar, a pop-music sensation who crossed over into television and film. From Asia-Philippines Leader 1, no. 3 (1971).

Courtesy of the Rizal Library Filipiniana periodicals collection, Ateneo de Manila University.

[End Page 320]

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Figure 3.

Nora Aunor's iconic role as a maltreated but long-suffering female domestic servant in Atsay (Housemaid, dir. Eddie Garcia, 1978).

string of enormously profitable record albums "changed the history of the [Philippine] recording industry" by proving that local music artists—not just foreign acts like the Beatles and the Everly Brothers—could make money.4 Nora embarked on a decades-long movie career that began with early teen musicals in the late 1960s, turning to serious prestige projects and commercial melodramas from the mid-1970s to the present. Her work in the 1982 New Cinema film Himala has been justly hailed as the finest performance of the period and of Philippine cinema itself.5

It is axiomatic for cultural critics that Nora's biographical mythology as "Cinderella...


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