DOWN MEMORY LANE 3: ROSA ROSAL: PHILIPPINES' GREATEST CHARACTER ACTRESS
When I was a child in the late 60s, I moved to the Bicol region. The first time I set foot in this little town in Sorsogon, culture shock engulfed my whole being. It was an extremely drastic change from the bright lights of the roaring city of Manila to the graveyard-like quiescent of a small town — a ranch to be exact. But soon, I discovered so many fun things to do in this little town: the pristine river, the clean ocean, the warm people, the cool weather. What’s more, this place showed me how beautiful its moonlit nights were, and how majestic, albeit lonely, its sunsets. Unlike Manila with all the amenities of modern living, this place offers not much in terms of entertainment: radio, komiks, and, thank God, the movies.
There were two movie houses in this town. One had 16mm screen, while the other one was considered more state-of-the-art because it had 35mm with a Cinemascope lens to boot — but both were showing older movies. Mostly double or triple bills, usually
a mixture of Hollywood and Tagalog films — that the newest would be at least seven to ten years old!
But to my advantage, because without these old movies, I wouldn’t have had the chance to see great spectacular classics such as the ones directed by Cecil de Mille, Willy Wyler and David Lean; or the heart-rending neo-realist films by Antonioni, Visconti, Rossellini, Puccini, Zavattini, De Santis, De Sica, Fellini, Pasolini, Truffaut. Nor the wonderful Tagalog neo-realist films by Lamberto Avellana, Gerry de Leon; and the biting sarcasm of Manuel Conde’s political satires.
I went to the movies regularly, and read komiks like there were no more tomorrow. Soon, I became interested in drawing and writing. Back then, Tagalog films were done mostly by Sampaguita Pictures, LVN Pictures and Premier Productions. Many were fantasy, adventures, and majority were love stories and domestic drama tear-jerkers.
But, the local films that left some indellible images in my mind were the ones made by Avellana and de Leon. They were less maudlin, more cerebral, and truly entertaining. They also used the crème de la crème actors of Tagalog movies.
And through the films of Avellana, I came to know the acting caliber of a thespian named ROSA ROSAL.
Delicately beautiful and radiating with presence on screen, Rosa Rosal is obviously the epitome of what defines a true performer. She utilizes with precision, her voice and body to tackle a role, and watching her (as a child who didn’t know a thing about acting or filmmaking), I felt the authenticity of every scene that she appeared in. I find every dialog she delivered extremely convincing and absolutely believable. Yet, what really makes her special is her high-caliber use of acting techniques coupled with her masterful layering of characterization.
Flash forward to mid-70s. A newly Mass Comm graduate and was writing barely a year for Alma Moreno’s weekly drama anthology ALINDOG, when Channel 2 offered me to write another weekly drama anthology. Rosa Rosal would be the mainstay actress in a show called ULILA. Without batting an eyelid, I accepted the network’s offer. I already knew how good Rosa Rosal is from the movies I had seen in my childhood, and now I will have the chance to write scripts for her.
The first time we’ve met during a production meeting, I immediately realized that this fabulous actress was not only a very good thespian, but is also a wonderful person: friendly, highly-intelligent, and quite down-to-earth. And there is another thing: she’s a pace-setter just like what a true artist is. And, I should not forget one more thing: she’s highly-principled especially when it involves a person’s civil rights. I remember the advice she told me in one of our many conversations:
“Joe, don’t let anyone step on you. No one has the right to step on anyone. And don’t let anybody in showbiz use you.”
For an eighteen year old, that advice sort of gave me a head's up for what Philippine Showbiz is all about.
I knew right there and then that it would be fun to work with her.
And was I ever right with my first impression. She made sure that she gets her script a week early so that she can study and build the characterization of the role she was going to play for that particular episode. And during tapings, she was way ahead of the other guest performers to come to the studio. She inquired about the full characterization of the role. She makes sure that she knew the complete background of the character she was playing. Then she slowly opens this character like a book, turning pages that builds up the character as the story progresses, making sure that she knew by heart every nook and cranny of the story where her character meets head-on all the obstacles and triumphs, building it logically and dramatically, thus delivering a tour de force performance every week..
Rosa Rosal’s generosity is always there. Helping the poor and the sick is her passion. Being exposed to many incidents in this type of endeavor, she has seen a lot of pain and suffering, of heroism and cowardice, of good and evil. And because of this, she has a wealth of amazing stories that needed to be told. She told me many, many of these stories, true-to-life incidents that I turned into episodes and episodes of ULILA, then TRUE STORY, BATA, SENOR STO. NINO and PEPING ANG MUNTING ANGHEL. Many were heart-rending, yet there were others that were equally exalting to one’s spirits, and many more were truly inspiring. Every week was a trip to terra incognita, a world that only Rosa Rosal had visited, and where she had interacted with true-to-life protagonists and antagonists – and the aftermath of their crossing paths. Every week, while I work for the PR Office of Imelda Marcos, I eagerly awaited Rosa Rosal’s phone call, hoping to hear another true-to-life story that I couldn’t wait to write for another teleplay.
What is so fun writing for Ulila, was the fact that Rosa Rosal isn’t only an extremely brilliant actress, she is also a character with unquestionable integrity in real life. That was a bonus for the show. People believe in her in real life, therefore it follows that they also believe her on TV. She oozes with humility and politeness. She doesn’t have the insolence of other big stars, especially the younger ones who think that they’re on top of the world just because they are well-known and adored by their fans. She worked like an honest-to-goodness artist, and every role she played gleamed and reflected truth - like a summer forest fire burning wildly, that as a viewer, you feel the heat and the blinding light right before your eyes.
Rosa Rosal, no doubt, is a unique Filipino actress.
Performers like her come few and far between. She is the epitome of what a true actress should be: beautiful, gregarious, polite, truthful, innovative, and without a doubt – a high-caliber performer that we see very rarely in Philippine Movies and Television. Rosa Rosal is the Philippines' greatest character actress to the truest sense of this word. A Philippine icon that all Filipinos should be proud of.