When Vilma Santos marked her 32nd birthday recently (Nov. 3) she was exactly 22 years, 8 months and 12 days in the dog-eat-dog world of showbusiness. Her very first movie as a waif in Trudis Liit (the same movie that gave her a best child actress award in the FAMAS) was shown in Manila on February 21, 1963 where all in all she made five films including Anak, Ang Iyong Ina, King and Queen for a Day, Duelo sa Sapang Bato, and Aninong Bakal in that same year. Vilma celebrated her natal day with a party at the Albergus (a catering service outfit adjacent to Broadcast City) with friends in and out of showbiz but minus estranged husband Edu Manzano, her mother, Mama Santos in the movie circle and current rumored beau, Ralph Recto. Beloved son, Lucky, was with the superstar celebrant though through most of the evening. For the record, Vilma celebrated two birthdays abroad. Her 20th in Las Vegas, USA and her 26th in Paris, France while shooting the movie, Miss X, in Europe in 1979. Vilma Santos has come a long, long way from her Trudis Liit days. Who would ever think that the former child star who portrayed the young Imee Marcos at the age 12 in Iginuhit ng Tadhana (1965) and at 16 in Pinagbuklod ng Langit (1969) will someday essay the role of a nun who underwent a political awakening in Mike de Leon’s breakthrough film, Sister Stella L., at 30. Vilma was a successful child star who became even more successful as an adult actress earning more accolades and respect both from her colleagues and others.
From a teary-eyed tyke, the young actress has blossomed into one of the most successful (if not the most) performers on screen collecting such titles on her road to superstardom Movie Queen, Box-Office Queen, Superstar, GrandSlam Winner, The Only 3-Time Successive URIAN Awardee, Superactress, Megastar, and now the reigning Video Queen. Her climb to the top was not easy, and that’s putting it mildly because her uphill struggle was stormy to say the least. During the early seventies the juvenile Vilma had to content herself playing second fiddle to the brown phenomenon. Like her arch rival, the young actress did and appeared most in nonsensical films with then favorite partner, Edgar Mortiz, giving the Guy and Pip loveteam a run for their money during the height of the bakya era. But until then Vilma was only generally considered a far second, almost like an afterthought to the then reigning Bicolana superstar. But things began to change as the years went by. It was only in 1973 when the movie Lipad, Darna, Lipad (another Mars Ravelo innovative remake) hit the screens and became a certified and recordbreaking blockbuster did people begin to take real notice of her potentials as a bankable star. The new box-office champion made two more Darna movies and the last one, Darna at Ding, the fourth, with Nino Muhlach was shown on February 8, 1980. Vilma made several fantasy movies that catered mostly for children. The movie Dyesebel, another remake like Darna, was an entry at the Manila Film Festival in 1973. At this stage in her career Vilma was already an acknowledged Box-Office Queen.
The controversial movie Burlesk Queen reasserted her boxoffice supremacy when it created a lot of controversies after the awards night of the Metro Manila Film Festival in 1977. The movie was so successful that on its fourth-week run, it was still showing in some 15 theaters! Quite a record and a feat for any movie both local and foreign. Then came the real turning point in the actress’ career. Her film, Rubia Servios megged by Lino Brocka, was another festival entry in 1978. Not a few were expecting (including Vilma herself) her to win the best actress plum at the awards night on January 3, 1979, held at the CCP. But she lost to Nora (for Atsay) but that defeat only made the moviegoers more curious as they came in droves to watch the film. And for several more weeks after the festival was over, Rubia Servios was still showing in downtown theaters long before all the other entries were already doing the rounds in the provincial circuits. As a proof of the producers and the public’s faith in the actress, she made 12 pictures in 1979. And from that year on, Vilma was a perennial absentee at the award giving ceremonies in the succeeding festival years. In fact, she doens’t seem to mind not having an entry movie at the festival.
Her last entry, the rated A, Haplos was shown in 1982. The birth of Vilma’s son, Lucky, on April 21, 1981 seemed to have harbored more luck for the actress’ career. After Lucky’s birth, more awards and blockbuster movies followed. Her movie Ex-Wife was shown the day after her son was born when all the newspapers in town were carrying Vilma’s delivery on the frontpage, and the movie was an instant hit. How’s that for perfect timing? The string of hits for that year included Pakawalan Mo Ako (where she won her second FAMAS best actress award; the first one for Dama de Noche she received several years earlier – in 1972), Hiwalay and Karma, a festival entry which won for her another best actress trophy. In July 1982, the movie Relasyon by Ishmael Bernal was shown. It was the film that won for her all acting awards for best actress in all major award-giving bodies in 1983. And thus, the grandslam. Vilma gave Viva Films its first biggest hit in Sinasamba Kita earning over P7M in Metro Manila alone. Then came T-Bird at Ako (a mild hit), Never Ever Say Goodbye (a sorry miss), Gaano Kadalas ang Minsan? (her biggest hit for that year) and Haplos. As early as January 20, 1983, Vilma began to reap several victories when she was awarded by the Metro Manila Theaters Association on their first Cinehan Awards together with Fernando Poe, Jr. held at the Philippine Plaza.
National Artist Nick Joaquin, in an article that came out in the Bulletin Today on February 11, 1983 wrote: “By emerging as box-office queen, Vilma Santos proved herself to be the Philippine Cinema’s Superstar – a title, it’s to be realized now, that can be bestowed only by the Cinehan.” So, on Cinehan Awards Night, Vilma was the very picture of the conquering heroine, drawing all eyes as she glowed and glittered, a rapture of radiance in her strapless white gown with lilac sash – and in white gloves yet! In her triumph joined both cinema and cinehan. Her pictures were all well done – and they also did very well at the box-office. In the same awards night, Ambassador Jaime Zobel de Ayala, another recipient of the Cinehan, upon receiving his award from Dean Lucresia Kasilag said: “I’m only a little bit sorry that Vilma didn’t give me the award. But it’s all right, I’ll try again next year. You’re my favorite star, you’re my muse! I’ll suffer in silence.” Vilma Santos won her first Catholic Mass Media Awards (CMMA) on February 29, 1983 for Relasyon. As a matter of fact, she won all these awards (her first URIAN, Film Academy and 3rd FAMAS) in the span of three months! She even won the Box-Office Queen trophy on the same night as the URIAN awards on April 15, 1983, she had to rush from the Celebrity Sports Plaza to the Film Center to get both trophies. And because the critically-acclaimed Relasyon was such a hit at the boxoffice, many producers thought that the public was ready at last for well-written, well-acted and well-crafted films. And not a few writers and directors rejoiced at the prospect of good films being accepted by the public finally. And so, Sister Stella L. was born amidst fears and speculations that it would have a hard time with the censors. But the film was passed and to top it all, it was given the nod as a movie for general patronage. SSL had two screenings on its premiere night at the Rizal Theater in Makati. All the hopes of good filmmakers were nipped-in-the-bud when the film failed miserably at the tills during its regular screen.
While it’s also true that SSL was shown for two weeks in Metro Manila, still many expected it to earn more than it did if only for Vilma who has a string of blockbuster movies to her credit before SSL. She has four rated A movies (Haplos, Broken Marriage, Adultery and SSL) to her name but SSL earned the least at the box-office. But the movie was invited and screened at the prestigious Venice Film Festival. It was also invited at the Cannes Film Festival, but the film didn’t arrive in time for its screening because of some problems with the censors. And so, Vilma and her producers are back to square one churning out comics rehash and light melodramas to regain lost grounds. Her first movie for this year, Muling Buksan ang Puso was again a hit and it proved once more that it’s the kind of movie the public wants to patronize. How sad. Vilma Santos is also the most successful actress-commercial model to date. She was made to endorse several products-from biscuits to radios to cough syrups to many other beauty products including her recent Eskinol Girl commercial to perk up their sales. But the most notable of these is the Lux commercial she did in 1974 under the helm of no less than the late Gerry de Leon himself. The wedding scene was shot in a very old church as backdrop and it was the most beautifully photographed TV and magazine layout of Vilma during her younger days. Her team-up with Christopher de Leon is considered the most successful in the movies if only for the fact that they do not only make commercial movies but also critically-acclaimed ones as well like Relasyon and Broken Marriage. They made 15 films in all. The last one was Minsan Pa Nating Hagkan ang Nakaraan during the latter part of 1983.
It’s been two years since then and the fans are eagerly awaiting their next team-up. Whatever the future holds for Vilma Santos, she’ll surely come out with flying colors. Right now, she’s twinkling brightly, free and easy, twirling sassily, more or less on top of her world of 21 seasons. But her parting words perhaps convey her true intentions: “I can only say I’m fulfilled when I’ve quit this business.” The superstar actress doesn’t have to prove anything anymore. Her achievements in the movies can no longer be ignored by anyone. And while she has her faults, like all human beings do, she’s not the type of person who will intentionally hurt the feelings of others or she will not have lasted this long in the movies. She has suffered a lot of tragedies in her life and still remained strong-willed and composed even in her most trying times. And so, to the strong woman who has served as an inspiration to a lot of people, many happy returns of the day. - Meg Mendoza, Prime Magazine, 14 Nov 1985