Out of Anita Linda’s several bouts of mixed fortunes, the fact that she survived into the internet era should count as her so-far final stroke of good luck. Tributes, recollections, even film excerpts regarding her excellence as performer flooded Pinas social media on the day she died, two days before Independence Day 2020 – a time when people are seeking fitting symbols of the nation to honor.
Linda would of course be the perfect embodiment. Dying in the early morning – or, in keeping with her professional approach, sleeping her last – she seemingly made sure that no schedule that required her for the day would be disrupted by any untoward drama in real life. Anything dramatic, for her, should be allowed to emerge only in her performances.
Anyone should be able to pick up the basic details by now, and a whole lot more might be added to her bio once historians of pop culture have finished combing through the many anecdotes her co-workers have been posting about her. Born in 1924 to an American father and Ilongga mother, Alice Lake was discovered while watching a stage show by Lamberto V. Avellana, and given her screen name by Avellana’s wife, the former Daisy Hontiveros. She expressed reluctance because of her difficulty with Tagalog, but Avellana was insistent and cast her in a non-speaking stage part.
World War II delayed the screening of her first film, Tiya Juana (1943), for LVN Pictures, Avellana’s home studio. Her next projects, however, came out four years later (because of the wartime suspension of production), for Premiere Productions: three films in 1947, five in 1948, seven in 1949. Premiere was where Gerardo de Leon worked, and Linda may have impressed him enough for him to cast her in a period project, Sisa, based on the tragic figure in Jose Rizal’s 1887 novel Noli Me Tangere, who in turn was partly based on the racist persecution of the hero’s Chinay mother by Spanish authorities. Most of the other evidence of Linda’s evolution as film actor may be impossible to source by now, since most of the Premiere holdings were burned in one of those warehouse fires that kept razing down combustible celluloid stock.
An added misfortune was political in nature. Linda, along with Patria Plata, supported a crewpersons’ strike at her home studio, led by soundperson Casimiro Padilla. The owners decided to shut down the production company, leaving the strikers stranded, the actresses included. (Based on their production credits, this would have occurred around the mid-1950s.) During this period, the studio system was also faltering from its top-heavy vertical integration and was facing challenges from more successful stars, who had enough of their own money to start producing their own films. Once more, this highly commercial catch-as-catch-can approach to production did not guarantee that many of the titles made by practitioners during that period could be preserved for posterity.
Fortunately for Linda’s most celebrated film role, Lino Brocka spearheaded a recovery program with a team whose members hunted down Gerry de Leon films from all over the country, starting with the most logical final destinations – provincial theaters where prints would usually be left to deteriorate or be cannibalized as caps and horns for Christmas and New Year merriment. The recovery of Sisa (1951) bowled over a new generation of observers, who had been earlier transfixed by a more recent performance, Lolita Rodriguez’s in Lino Brocka’s own Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang (1974).
Linda in Sisa deservedly took top spot as Pinas cinema’s most outstanding film performance, the gold standard against which a much younger aspirant, Nora Aunor, was subsequently to measure herself. To say that Aunor was eventually able to surpass her is no slight on Linda’s achievement: a new filmmaking generation brought with it more openness and artistic daring, along with Aunor’s own considerable resources as top multimedia star of her generation. Nevertheless Linda persisted and even managed to occasionally headline her own film projects, possibly the oldest Filipino actor to ever achieve the feat. The two films where she appears as lead actress, Adolfo Borinaga Alix Jr.’s Adela (2008) and Brillante Ma. Mendoza’s Lola (2009), deploy the benevolence and humility that Linda became known for among her colleagues. It were as if the directors scouted for unusual and inaccessible urban settings, set Linda down in them, and instructed her to be her truest self. (Her final film, Alix's _Circa_, also features her in lead capacity - a fitting end to a career with several highs but also too many lows.)
This may also have been a consequence of iconicity, a higher realm than stardom: people become aptly reverential, sometimes to a fault. One of the unforgettable anecdotes about Linda on the set of Sisa was of de Leon adjusting her delivery by saying, “Anita, konting libog pa [more libido please].” Cineastes may have delighted in this narrative by imagining how much greater the director was than his performer, but Linda’s output throughout and beyond the Marcos regime (regarded as the Second Golden Age of Philippine cinema) belies this auteur-snobbish interpretation. Scroll through the tribute excerpts posted by, as an example, Facebook’s Cristina Gaston (a pseudonym adopted from an Alma Moreno character): Ishmael Bernal, Maryo J. de los Reyes, Elwood Perez, and Joey Gosiengfiao were never content to just depict her as mother to the star(s) of their projects. She had to be kooky, eccentric, decadent, flighty, bitchy, alcoholic, unfaithful, and/or ambitious.
These characterizations did not arise out of disrespect. On the contrary, they came from a recognition that Linda was always game for unusual challenges, and seemed grateful to make use of comic devices for a change. We’ve left out Lino Brocka, with whom Linda was most associated with sanctimonious-motherly roles. Yet even in this territory, we find departures from her later mater-dolorosa persona. In Jaguar (1979), she shields her son from pursuing police agents and helps him escape when they get near; in Gumapang Ka sa Lusak (1990), nominatively a sequel to Jaguar, she reprises the role played by Carlito Dimailig in real life, assassinating the movie’s Imelda Marcos figure with a bolo (though as in real life, the person gets killed by security personnel).
In the “Hello, Soldier” segment of Tatlo, Dalawa, Isa (1974), she transforms from a devoted mother dutifully preparing to surrender her daughter to the American who fathered her and now wants to adopt her, to a drunk-off-her-ass slum dweller re-enacting the moment she, as a then-younger bargirl, espied and seduced the foreigner she would fall for and be abandoned by. Brocka documents the sequence from the moment she wakes up from her intoxication, through her panic at the thought of being left alone and wandering the streets, regretful at how she was unable to say a proper farewell, without a single line of dialogue: Linda pursues and finishes the tale magnificently, by the use of her face and nothing else.
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In two films by Mario O’Hara, we find definitive formal proof of Linda’s capabilities. In Bakit Bughaw ang Langit? (1981), she executes extended melodramatic arguments with Nora Aunor and proves to be the only actor capable of matching the country’s most gifted performer, line by spiteful line. In Babae sa Bubungang Lata(1998), she uses the disadvantages of representing a lost past in cinema, narrating her tale rather than enacting it, providing embarrassingly manipulative final-act revelations, and winds up claiming equal-ensemble status as the younger performers via the force of her haunted slow-burn delivery.
It would therefore be unsurprising to learn that when Elwood Perez decided to initiate an autobiographical film trilogy as his final artistic statement, Anita Linda heralded the first installment, Otso (2013). Her presence infuses the entire film, even though she appears only in the final sequence – as Alice Lake, playing a once-famous actress known as Anita Linda, now the owner of a residential building where an aspiring artist learns about life, love, and desire, realizing to his amazement that his present has become possible because of what the lady at the top floor, overlooking events in her property, underwent in the past. This may be the ultimate way to remember Linda: a woman who dedicated her life so completely to her craft that it expectedly defined her, but also unexpectedly and even more profoundly became defined by her.
Joel David is Professor for Cultural Studies at Inha University in Korea. He holds a doctorate in cinema studies from New York University and was founding director of the University of the Philippines Film Institute. He maintains an archival website at https://amauteurish.com