Portrait of the Filipino as Dolphy

Here’s a question for those who, in the wake of Dolphy’s death the other day, may be discussing his impact on the Filipino consciousness: In his portrayal of the two TV-movie roles in which he made the greatest impression—the impoverished but easygoing padre de familia in “John en Marsha” and “Home Along da Riles”—and of the Pinoy bakla in “Facifika Falayfay” and “Fefita Fofongay,” did Dolphy perhaps romanticize poverty and encourage the treatment of gays as abnormal?

This was the issue that film critic and UP professor Nic Tiongson felt compelled to address in a recent letter (Inquirer, 07/09/12).  He wanted to clarify comments he had made during a confidential experts’ deliberation on the nominees for the 2009 National Artist Awards. He thought this was necessary in the light of an interview that Cecile Guidote-Alvarez, the cochair of the selection committee, had given to the media, unfairly blaming him for Dolphy’s nonselection for the award. He wondered why his comments were being “exhumed” while the man lay dying.

“The opinion I expressed,” wrote Nic, “in no way diminishes my continuing admiration and respect for Dolphy as a most talented comedian and a very kind human being.” He confirmed that he did have reservations about giving the award to Dolphy: “I believed that the two icons he created for film and TV—the screaming gay and the happy-go-lucky poor man—have, in the majority of his movies, equated gayness with abnormality and mindless frivolity on the one hand, and romanticized or deodorized poverty on the other.” It’s a valid observation that should have provoked an intelligent discussion had the whole selection process not been so politicized. In many ways, Nic’s comment goes to the heart of the matter. What is the purpose of the award? What “uses” do we expect National Artist awardees to serve in our society?

I use the word “uses” in the way Ralph Waldo Emerson employed it in his book “Representative Men.” In the opening essay titled “The uses of great men,” he wrote: “Other men are lenses through which we read our own minds.” I’d like to think that the late Dolphy was such a man. He served a purpose not so much by prescribing a way of life or promoting an attitude as by offering us, through the characters he portrayed, lenses through which we could read our own lives. To believe otherwise would be to think of mass media audiences as passive recipients of messages, rather than as situated persons actively engaged in an ongoing dialogue.

I find it fascinating, for instance, that every “John en Marsha” episode ended with John’s mother-in-law lecturing him on the virtue of hard work: “Kaya ikaw, John, magsumikap ka!” Indeed, one can imagine how many viewers easily identified with John’s casual attitude to the rigors of poverty, but I doubt if the necessity for striving would have been easily dismissed by them. Dolphy was certainly not ideological in the way Charlie Chaplin was in his depiction of capitalism. But, was he being unwittingly ideological when he made John Puruntong find simple joys in a family life constantly besieged by material poverty?  Maybe, if our expectation is that the poor in our midst ought to have more reason to be angry with society than to find happiness among their loved ones in good and bad times. In any event, I do not think that Dolphy ever thought that there was nothing wrong with being poor.

Indeed, his own life exemplified perseverance in the face of poverty.  He wasn’t choosy with the roles he was made to play. But a person of great talent like Dolphy would never fail to make a mark in any role so long as he knew where his genius lay. He once said, famously, that he would never run for public office simply because he would not know what to do if he won. He would have easily become a senator. But he knew that was not his calling. His vocation, he kept saying, was to make people smile or laugh. He made people laugh not so much because of the jokes he told as because of the impeccable timing in which he delivered them.

What others take years of training to develop flowed naturally and effortlessly from Dolphy the artist. “The true artist,” Emerson wrote, “has the planet for his pedestal; the adventurer, after years of strife, has nothing broader than his own shoes.” How true! On Tuesday night, as I watched one of the last interviews that Dolphy gave on TV, I couldn’t help noticing that all the questions he was asked were meant to bring out his wit, yet the answers he gave were uniformly serious.  He was speaking as a man who had seen life, rather than as a comedian with scripted lines. I waited for the signature punch line, but it never came. What poured out from him that night was wisdom that he carried lightly.

Early in 2008, the writer Bibeth Orteza called me to ask if I could write the foreword to “Mang Dolphy’s” autobiography.  She had sat with him through long hours of conversation, talking about his family, his times, his hopes, and his work as a performer.  “I’d like you to read the book I have assembled from the transcribed tapes,” she said. Send me the manuscript, I remember saying, infinitely awed by this unusual request.

The book, a project of his children, was launched on Dolphy’s 80th birthday. Here is part of what I wrote in the foreword: “Ang buhay ni Dolphy ay salamin ng isang panahong halos naglaho na, at marahil hindi na makikilala. Simple ang moralidad ng mundong kaniyang kinagisnan, tamang-tama sa isang buhay na maikli, mahirap, at kung minsa’y malupit.  Narito ang mga batayang prinsipyo nito: paggalang sa kapwa, pagbibigayan, walang gulangan, pagsaklolo sa nangangailangan, pag-amin sa mga kamalian, paghingi ng tawad, at, higit sa lahat, pananalig sa Maykapal.”