Persona

Susan Roces at 80: ‘I don’t really
like crying in real life’

Celebrating the birthday of the country’s beloved movie queen,
I remember why I’ve been a great fan and still am

Susan Roces celebrates her 80th birthday in a room filled with movie memorabilia. (From BK Jimenez collection)

FPJ and Susan Roces in 1968 wedding portrait: The Philippines’ most popular movie love team of the ’60s married on Christmas day. (From the Poe collection)

So how did movie queen Susan Roces spend her 80th birthday last July 28?

She spent it quietly, even if her living room and lanai were overflowing with flowers and birthday bouquets from friends and fans who remembered.

Outside the movies and teleserye, the movie queen is a certified plant lover. In her lanai is a modest harvest of fruits—santol and rambutan, among others—that she raised in her garden.

Movie writer Baby K. Jimenez, one of the movie queen’s best friends, describes her as a green thumb: “She has a way with plants and how to create a special environment for them. I remember when she was my house guest in LA, she planted some geraniums and zinnias in my backyard, and they bloomed beautifully!”

Susan Roces with Baby K. Jimenez: Best friends forever. (From BK Jimenez collection)

A few days before her 80th birthday, Susan was still busy living her role as Lola Kap in FPJ’s Ang Probinsyano. In one scene, she was tearfully begging her grandson Cardo Dalisay (Coco Martin) to stop being impulsive. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she implored him not to take the law into his own hands.

It is the former movie queen in her most active phase yet, in a blockbuster teleserye now on its sixth year. She is no stranger to teleserye, though. Some years back, still regal and charming in her 70s, she delighted in being installed as the “Lola Ng Bayan” with her assorted grandma roles on television.

She likes the exposure. “Let’s face it, some households have more than one TV set, and viewers watch you in the comfort of their living room, in their bedrooms. Even the maids have their own viewing sessions. We are watched even in sari-sari stores. They cheer the bida and hate the contrabida. Some of them even talk to the characters and warn them during chase scenes, ‘Dali, takbo, aabutan ka na.’ As a senior citizen, I find the teleserye is just one of my sources of relaxation, and I relate to it a lot. Believe it or not, I also cry when my favorite character is depressed.”

The past decade has been indeed one of top-rating teleserye for her. “As an actress, I find it an extra challenge doing teleserye. There are more cameras grinding around you, and the flow of your emotion is unhampered by continuous taping. Thus, I feel good not having to re-live the same sensitive emotion over and over again, the way they do it on film. I admit it is not easy for me to cry on television. Thus, my constant request from the director is to shoot all my crying scenes in one take. I don’t really like crying in real life.”

‘I have learned to treat Coco Martin not just as co-star, but as honest-to-goodness grandson

Some years back, broadcast journalist Cheche Lazaro came up with a TV special analyzing the evolution of the Filipino teleserye. Entitled Si Ser Chief, Si Maya at Ang Teleserye, the TV special gave both producers and audiences a bird’s-eye view of what kinds of soap operas would click with audiences, and which were likely to be ignored.

One such successful noontime teleserye called Be Careful With my Heart  had audience acceptance that cut across ages, gender, social classes, and race. Be Careful With My Heart business unit head Ginny Ocampo says that many things go into the making of a successful teleserye. “We have an active creative group that decides the direction in which the teleserye should go, and what episodes need to be developed or discarded depending on the feedback we get from the audience.”

Award-winning screenwriter Ricky Lee, one-time creative manager of ABS-CBN, says the story direction almost always depends on the audience feedback. “Yes, we write the story, but most of the inputs in the teleserye, we also get from the audience. The teleserye villain gains popular acceptance when he or she becomes widely hated.”

The TV special traced the Philippine teleserye to Gulong ng Palad in the 1950s, to the reign of Janice de Belen and Judy Ann Santos as child stars of Philippine teleserye, and the time Filipino soap operas invaded Brunei, Myanmar, China, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Singapore, Vietnam, Korea, and Taiwan. It also analyzed the impact of the invasion of the Mexican teleserye, Marimar.

Finding herself in a Coco Martin teleserye, Susan says she has learned to treat co-stars as relatives in real life. “Through the years I have learned to treat Coco not just as a co-star, but as honest-to-goodness grandson in real life. Imagine fearing for the safety of your grandson for six years now!”

Islanders were either pro-Susan Roces or pro-Amalia Fuentes

Susan Roces was born Jesusa Purificacion Levy Sonora at Harrison Hospital  in Pasay City on July 28, 1941. I first saw her movies in the ’60s in our island’s Catanduanes Theater. By then, islanders were either pro-Susan Roces or pro-Amalia Fuentes.

My being pro-Susan led me to the company of the number one fan and confidante of the movie queen, Baby K. Jimenez. Their friendship has lasted close to seven decades, and counting.

In 1963, first meeting of Susan Roces and combo player Baby K. Jimenez (with guitar) (From BK Jimenez collection)

Recounted Baby K: “I first met Susan in 1963 when I was still a student. I was a member of an-all girl combo called the Polka Dots, and we were invited to play at a party for her in her own home. Years later, I bumped into her in a TV station, and she remembered my name! I was pleasantly surprised. When I started writing for entertainment, it was easy to access her because of that.”

It was easy to like Susan in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. For Baby K, Susan is synonymous with being kind, sincere, thoughtful and intelligent. She likes to sum up Susan’s 80 years as glorious decades. “I can say she was blessed. But then, her name was also synonymous with humility. How she treats people is legendary. Talk of being kind and generous to a fault.”

FPJ and Susan Roces saying their wedding vows in 1968, the bride in a Pitoy Moreno gown  (Published photo)

One episode she will not forget was when she was asked to be one of the wedding sponsors in her 1968 wedding to action star Fernando Poe, Jr. Main sponsors were no less than President and Mrs. Ferdinand Marcos. The Susan Roces-FPJ nuptials in 1968 became the wedding of the year.

As the church bells rang to start the misa de gallo, Jesusa Levy Sonora officially became Mrs. Ronald Allan Poe in civil rites

Baby K still gets misty-eyed recalling her best friend’s wedding 53 years ago. “It was dawn of the season’s first simbang gabi. As the church bells rang to start the misa de gallo, Jesusa Levy Sonora officially became Mrs. Ronald Allan Poe in civil rites officiated by Mayor Gerry Angeles in Valenzuela, Bulacan. They first went to Mayor Norberto Amoranto of Quezon City, but he was not home.”

Meanwhile, at the Sonora residence, they wondered where Susan was—her bedroom was empty! They knew that the two had been together earlier in a basketball game at Araneta Coliseum, and Susan even went back home after that. Her mother, “Mommy Sonora,” was so worried. So Uncle Nes, Susan’s uncle-chaperone, decided to call the Poe residence—Is FPJ home? Do you know if he’s with Susan? The reply: “We also want to know his whereabouts, he’s not home either! Maybe they’re together?”

It turned out that after their civil wedding in Bulacan, the newlyweds drove to FPJ’s home in Antipolo.

Continues Baby K: “A few hours later, I was roused from sleep by a handcarried note from Susan written on a half-torn lined pad paper. The letter read: ‘My Dearest Babes: I am so happy right now and I want to share my happiness with you. Please see me as soon as possible, you have to help us with our church wedding plans!’”

Susan and Baby K rushed together to talk to Pitoy Moreno regarding the wedding ensemble, and later to Mila Dayrit for the rings. “Asia’s fashion czar” had barely seven days to work on the bride’s wedding gown. Baby K overheard Pitoy saying he would do a rush import of lace from Italy.

Yes, the King and Queen of Philippine Cinema eloped first week of December and had a rush civil wedding. A church wedding followed on Christmas Day, as no other dates were available.

Baby K’s recollection of that wedding of the year: “At 6 a.m. on December 25, 1968, I remember hurrying up to 226 Wilson St., San Juan, Rizal, the residence of Susan. It was her wedding day and Susan had told me that most of us (her bridal entourage) would all converge first in her residence before proceeding to Santuario de San Jose in Greenhills. Susan did not forget to remind me, ‘Babes, be slow in lighting up the candle ha, check the wick properly.” I was the candle sponsor.”

Reception was at the Presidential Hall of the Plaza. The lovebirds left in the afternoon for their honeymoon in Japan.

When I first set foot in Manila, I walked from East Avenue to Gilmore Avenue, to the gates of the Sampaguita Pictures studio, hoping to see Susan Roces in person

In the mid-’60s when I first set foot in Manila, I walked from East Avenue to Gilmore Avenue in Quezon City to do an afternoon vigil at the gates of the Sampaguita Pictures studio, hoping to see Susan Roces in person. I never had such luck; I saw everyone, from Boy Alano to Rosemarie Sonora, but never Susan Roces.

When Ricky Lo assigned me to interview Susan Roces in 1991, I replied with a triple “Yes!”

Waiting in the living room of her Lincoln Street home in Greenhills, I was actually very nervous. It was the feeling when the person you were about to interview was the same one you had hiked from East Avenue to Gilmore Avenue for—just to see her in person.

Her niece, Sheryl Cruz, appeared in the living room and told me “Swanee” would be around in a while. “Mukhang nininerbiyos. Baka daw mahihirap ang mga tanong mo,” she said, and I thought she was kidding. Actually, I was the one nervous (or maybe it was more due to excitement).

When Susan appeared, I thought I saw a saint descend into the living room. It took a while to break the ice, as I instantly recalled how I would frequent Catanduanes Theater in Virac every time there was a Susan Roces-FPJ starrer.

In that meeting in the early ’90s, I actually became more relaxed when she recalled her first audition at the Sampaguita studio.  One of the audition scenes she was made to re-enact was an attempted rape scene.

She recalled how she hollered “Saklolo!” as though her life depended on that scream. We ended up laughing because she said she was very naïve when she did that audition.

Later during the interview, she also recalled visiting the grave of a close relative and noticed what looked like snow all over the place. “Pablo, I thought finally nagka-snow na sa Pilipinas. But when I touched it, sabi ko, bakit hindi malamig?”

It turned out to be ash from Mt. Pinatubo, the eruption of which had sent ashes over Central Luzon. Again, we shared boisterous laughter, then I realized my movie idol was just as human as the girl next door.

Five years ago, it was my turn to reunite with Baby K and Susan Roces in an intimate dinner hosted by Carlitos Siguion-Reyna and Bibeth Orteza.

I was hushed into silence when the guests started arriving. First to arrive was movie queen Susan. Second was Nora Aunor (Ate Guy) and then another Bicolana, Boots Anson Roa, with husband King Rodrigo, Jr.

I was not done staring at Ate Guy when Tirso Cruz III arrived with wife, Lynn Ynchausti. Tirso and Nora were one of my first showbiz assignments in the pre-martial Graphic Magazine, while Susan (and husband FPJ) was the reason Catanduanes Theater was always full, especially on a Sunday, as moviegoers from all over the island trooped to the capital town to watch their idols.

First to arrive was movie queen Susan. Second was Nora Aunor, and then another Bicolana, Boots Anson Roa

Sharing one table, I found yourself listening intently to the conversations, only to discover that the stars were just as human as the rest of us.

Susan asked Boots’ husband what federalism was all about; Nora said the only musical instrument she knows is the guitar, and added, “Ouido lang” (I just play by ear).

Seated at one dinner table literally surrounded by stars, I remembered my days as movie fan. In this select crowd, I had time to gently approach my favorite stars.

Approaching Nora, I told her I voted for Sen. Grace Poe to ask for justice for her after she was dropped from the list of National Artists. Deep into the night, I had these stars all to myself as fellow dinner guests, and not as presscon personalities.

The sumptuous dinner was intimate, a fitting despedida for showbiz writer Baby K who was again leaving for Canada after campaigning for Sen. Grace Poe, she who grew up with the senator and the family of FPJ.

The stars and the non-stars have come to terms with their lives. As for me, that dinner date saw me come full circle as a movie fan. Now I shuttle between the arts and the movies, happily enjoying the best of both worlds.

How I wish Cecile Licad was there that very night playing for the stars, themselves fans of the world’s celebrated pianist. In that same living room was a grand piano where Licad would rehearse before her concerts.

Licad has links to the Philippine movie industry. Her mother, Rosario Buencamino Licad, grew up in the residential compound of LVN Studios, and noted filmmaker Mike de Leon is a close relative.

Looking at Susan Roces, Boots Anson Roa and Nora Aunor at the same dinner table, I couldn’t help recalling my happy days in the island, when I’d emerge fulfilled and amply rewarded with a double movie treat in the only theater there in the ’60s.

Susan Roces with the author in recent photo. (Pablo Tariman collection)

About author

Articles

He’s a freelance journalist who loves the opera, classical music and concerts, and who has had the privilege of meeting many of these artists of the performing arts and forging enviable friendships with them. Recently he’s been drawing readers to his poems in Facebook, getting known as the ‘Bard of Facebook.’

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