The society of respected film critics that hands out the annual Gawad Urian in cinematic excellence

EDDIE GARCIA: Actor, director, icon, Philippine cinema’s one-man totem pole

By Lito B. Zulueta

In an industry of tincan careers, tired formulas and short shrifts, Eddie Garcia defies easy definition. Widely known as an actor, he is however more than that; he is also a director, perhaps the most commercially successful of Filipino directors in the highly commercial 1980’s, an establishment figure who is however a great supporter of independent cinema, a photographer, a ladies’ man, and an icon.

Perhaps more than any Filipino actor, Eddie Garcia has appeared in the most number of movies, some 250 movies as of 2005. He has acted in just about every genre in feature filmmaking, and even figured in shorts and features from the alternative cinema. The sheer variety of roles he has done runs the gamut of genres, formulas, and typecasting. He has done drama, comedy, action movies, fantasy, and musical. The list of his acting jobs reads like a history of Philippine cinema in the last 50 years.

By the sheer number of the movies he has acted in, the sheer number of acting awards he has won (six Famas best supporting actors, five Famas best actors — the Famas had to invent the Hall of Fame just to put him out of the running and give others the chance to win!), and the sheer number of reinventions he has made (becoming an action star in his seventies!), Eddie Garcia is arguably the most successful actor in Philippine movie history.

The archetypal image of Eddie Garcia is as villain, dapper in suit, dressed to kill for the kill. He is the snake-skinned lago with the silver tongue, the Shylock offering a wage for the other wager's pound of flesh, and the Tartuffe whose piety hides cruel intentions — with the only difference that Eddie Garcia is incredibly debonair. Tall, fair, with brooding Hispanic looks, and of course with a mustache, Eddie Garcia is the classic villain, the one you would love to hate and kill.

But as if to confuse us, Eddie Garcia has come up with other archetypes of him. In his long, expansive career in the movies, he has also been a leading man, a faun-like fun-loving creature with a hearty appetite for intimate dalliances in sex comedies, a highly successful director with his own share of critical and commercial successes (with five Famas best director awards and two best director awards from the Film Academy of the Philippines), an action star, a champion of the alternative cinema, and a pillar of the film industry.
In short, Eddie Garcia is Philippine cinema's one-man totem pole.

FROM SOLDIER TO ACTOR

Eddie Verchez Garcia was born on May 2, 1921 in Sorsogon. A member of the Philippine Scouts posted in Okinawa after the Second World War, he came to the cinema almost by accident. Barely out of the Philippine Army after his posting in 1949, he, together with his Scout mate, Jimmy Gastelvi, answered a call to audition for several roles in the original version of Manuel Conde's "Siete Infantes de Lara." Tall, fair, with sharp Hispanic features that lent well to the Moorish characters he was auditioning for, he made it to one of the seven swashbuckling roles.

Looking back, Eddie Garcia could only smile wistfully at the turn of events. If he had not entered the movies, he said he would have stayed in the army and retired as a colonel. "Or I would have long been buried six feet under the ground" he said, adding that he would have certainly been assigned to fight in Korea and Vietnam had he not played a Moor in an exotic setting in a far-off "Moro-moro" land.

Because he wore a dashing mustache in contrast to clean-shaven actors, Eddie Garcia begun to be typecast as the contravida. the villain whose sophisticated and fair demeanor masks the darkest and most evil of motives. In fact, one of his movies was literally titled that, 1955's "Contravida."

It was as villain that Eddie Garcia first captured the imagination of moviegoers. In fact, he so stamped his identity on the traditional villain role that at one time, he won the Famas best supporting actor award for three consecutive years, from 1957-1959. In 1974, he became the first actor to be elevated to the Famas hall of fame for having won the best supporting actor award for six times.

GAY ROLE

Garcia could have been stuck in the same contrarian characters that he could assay with ease and which the studios could readily cash in on, but something happened along the way. He became a true-blue actor.

In the 1970's, Eddie Garcia took on unconventional roles. In 1971 alone, he played characters in two dark show-biz dramas by Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal—"Stardoom" and "Pagdating sa Dulo." That two young directors were the angry young men of Philippine cinema; that they were doing movies on the darker aspects of the entertainment world should indicate a new seriousness in Filipino film as well as an abandonment of old ways of doing and looking at things, a banishment of the kiss-kiss, bang-bang formulas of old.

The new serious Philippine cinema required a new serious actor. And Eddie Garcia proved equal to the demand. It was also in 1971 that Eddie Garcia took on the risky role of a closet queen in Brocka's celebrated "Tubog sa Ginto." The movie broke new grounds in depicting the secret life of a homosexual husband and family man. The task called for a full-bodied, empathetic portrayal, without the reductionism of formulaic movies on the gay man. Garcia said he remembers Brocka telling him to portray the role without exaggeration or stereotyping. "You should not make it obvious that the character is a homosexual," Brocka reportedly told him.

Before "Tubog," the gay man is presented in comic terms; the figure was a standard laughing stock, no more, no less. But when Eddie Garcia took on the role, the figure was recast in stark terms, portrayed in a keen light. The figure would continue to be played in simplistic and parodic terms, notably Dolphy's "Facifica Falayfay" and its various incarnations much later by Herbert Bautista and Roderick Paulate. But the die had been cast. Henceforth, the figure could never go back to the closet. It would be tackled with varying degrees of seriousness, sensitivity and success.

It is easy now to see how pivotal the role was not only for Eddie Garcia's acting career, but for Philippine cinema as well. In training the spotlight on the closet gay, Brocka was tackling a sensitive taboo in Philippine society. And in having an actor usually typecast in the movies as a villain playing the delicate role, a macho actor to boot, he also turned the movie industry, usually given to crass and banal sexual differentiations, on itself. His choice of actor was brilliant: he used stereotyping in order to deconstruct stereotyping. It is now easy to see how "Tubog" was able to achieve the mainstreaming of the closet queen in Philippine society. A proof of this was when Eddie Garcia won the Famas best actor for "Tubog."

Eddie Garcia said he had agreed to the controversial role with nary a quibble, perhaps oblivious to the implications of the movie. He said that for him at that time, the role was "no big deal," adding that he went through the sex scenes without any self-consciousness or trepidation, in contrast to his partner in the movie, a young and jittery Mario O'Hara, whom Garcia jokingly described as "makilitiin" (ticklish). (O'Hara would later make a name for himself as a maverick director and come out.)

HERO AND ANTI-HERO

For Eddie Garcia, "Tubog" was a watershed. Having long played villain roles that were a foil to the leading man's, he was literally the anti-hero. But in taking the leading-man role in an utterly serious movie about homosexuality, he dared bring into sharp focus a figure that had been either ridiculed or scorned by society, either cast as a clown or as a criminal, in short an anti-hero.

And like the gay loosed out of the closet, Eddie Garcia's anti-hero could not anymore go back to its old one-dimensional contravida. He would still play hero's foil, but without anymore the simplistic renderings of old. This is very evident in the contravida and anti-hero roles that Eddie Garcia would play in many of the seminal movies of the 1970's, 1980's and 1990's: as the hypocritical father whose son discovers is the cause of the town idiot's derangement in "Tinimbang Ka Ngunit Kulang" (1974), as the ilustrado lawyer who suffers a stroke in Eddie Romero's "Ganito Kami Noon, Paano Kayo Ngayon?," as the callous father hiding from his son the latter's true mother in Brocka's "Miguelito. ang Batang Rebelde" (1985), the corrupt, ruthless Marcos-like mayor in Brocka's "Gumapang Ka sa Lusak" (1990), the retired general with a dark past of human rights abuses in Joel Lamangan's "Bakit May Kahapon Pa?" (1996), and the aged convict shielding a boy prisoner from the harshness of prison life in Lamangan's "Deathrow" (2000), the latter role winning for him the Gawad Urian for best actor.

It is true that Eddie Garcia would still perform the old potboiler roles of before - as regular villain, as real-life person with a "heroic" record (Generals Alfredo Lim and Alfredo Karingal, Judge Maximiano Asuncion), and even as screaming gay. But the performances merely reaffirmed his versatility as an actor. They did not detract from his development as a serious actor.

‘MANOY’ AND ACTION STAR

After the classic contravida, Eddie Garcia is imprinted in the imagination of the public as "Manoy," a character that he has played in various guises in several comedies, often sex comedies. Often caught in rambunctious dalliances and hilarious situations, Manoy would scrape through either by his trademark charm or by sheer resignation, but not without the character uttering an expletive or two in smacking Bicolano language. Drawing from his Southeastern Luzon folk roots, the actor has made Manoy a sort of Pinoy Everyman, with his own share of good qualities and guilty pleasures.

Toward the late 1980's and during much of the 1990's, Eddie Garcia reinvented himself as an action star. It is difficult to identify which movie of his signaled the shift to action iconography, but it is curious that one of his key action roles—as the avenging Judge Enrico Cruz in "Hukom .45" (1991)— seems a takeoff from one of his classic villain roles—as Judge Valderama and foil to the Fernando Poe Jr. character in the blockbuster "Kapag Puno na ang Salop" (1987) and its sequel, "Ako ang Huhusga (Kapag Puno na Ang Salop, Part II)" (1989). And his other key roles as an action star—as crime-busting General Lim and General Karingal—seem also reinventions of his villain roles as a military or police officer, such as in "Bakit May Kahapon Pa?"

But whatever the readings on his several action roles, the fact remains that at the end of the 20th century, the septuagenarian Eddie Garcia had become the oldest action star in the Philippines and perhaps in the world, and he was quite believable and successful at it.

DIRECTOR

The same breadth and variety in his performances characterize Eddie Garcia's other career in the movies as a director. Either acting or directing, he seems to have the same temper and outlook; one characterized by a nearly total lack of self-consciousness and self-absorption. But the artistry and innovation are unmistakable.

It would appear in fact that Eddie Garcia used acting as a vehicle in order to become a filmmaker. He told the Manunuri that when he joined the movies in 1949, he made a promise to himself, "In 15 years, I will be director." He made it as director in just 12 years when he was given an assignment in 1961 by "Doc" Jose Perez, studio boss of Sampaguita, the dramatic movie, "Karugtong ng Kahapon," starring Rita Gomez, Ric Rodrigo and Marlene Dauden. Before that, he was assistant director to Mai' Torrres, Octavio Silos and other Sampaguita directors.

But his first full directorial job was really in a quartet, "Sa Linggo ang Bola." Garcia directed a segment involving one of four winners of the lottery, a character played by Fred Montilla, who hides the winning ticket in the sole of his shoe. In a melee with goons, he kicks his way through the fight, sending the shoe in one furious kick to the air and down to the river. The shoe is later fished out by a street urchin, who finds the ticket and plays with it.

The segment seemed a harbinger of the short-film and independent cinema revolution that Eddie Garcia would later figure in as actor and supporter of the emerging cinema. But at that time, Garcia said he was merely putting into work his passion for photography and his interest in the technical side of motion pictures.

Perhaps his biggest initial success as a director came in the 1960's with his series of movies on Tony Falcon Agent X44. Produced by Tagalong Ilang-ilang by one of the new studio players at that time, lawyer Espindion Laxa, the series featured the exploits of special agent X44 played by Tony Ferrer. Laxa's brother. Snappily dressed in white suite, equipped with the latest spy gadgetry, and a ladies' man, Tony Falcon was obviously the Filipino reincarnation of James Bond Agent 707.

The series was so successful in the 1960's that at one time, a Tony Falcon movie, "Sabotage," was declared "top grosser" in the 1966 Manila Film Festival. Laxa later sold the rights to the movie for showing abroad, making the series a very lucrative franchise. But Eddie Garcia's most significant movie in the 1960's was "Pinagbuklod ng Langit," the film biography of Ferdinand Marcos in 1969. The movie was made in support of Marcos's reelection bid that year, and its gloss and polish prefigured Garcia's movies in the 1980's, domestic dramas in high society. It won for Garcia his first best director award from theFamas. Garcia returned to filmmaking in grand style in 1978 by directing Nora Aunor in "Atsay," which won the best picture award in the 1978 Metro Manila Film Festival. The movie showed Garcia's strengths as a director—able to motivate his actors, frame sequences and scenes, and efficiently tell a story.

Those qualities would be very evident in the 1980's when Eddie Garcia directed the biggest blockbusters of Viva Films. In several movies starring Sharon Cuneta, Viva's biggest star in its stable, Eddie Garcia showed a capacity to reinvent the teenybopper movie, coming up with well-crafted dramas that were hardly saccharine and predictable. But his best movies were domestic dramas that gripped audiences for their complex take on relationships and their tendencies toward tortured, twisted operations. Hallmarks of this genre were "Sinasamba Kita" in 1982 (Vilma Santos cruelly treating her half-sister), "Paano Ba ang Mangarap?" in 1983 (cruel mom-in-law seizing her grandkid from his mom, played by Santos), and "Magdusa Ka" in 1986 (an illegitimate daughter claims her birthright but finds life in her rich dad's mansion a cruel torture).

His last most significant movie as a director was obviously "Abakada Ina" (2001). In telling the story of an illiterate mother struggling for her children's attention against her mother-in-law who's a schoolteacher, Garcia seemed to go back to the standard traits of his best domestic dramas, with their take on the meanness and cruelty that seem to underlie filial relationships.

CHAMPION OF INDEPENDENT CINEMA

Still a dominant figure in the movies today, Eddie Garcia uses his cache to promote the cause of independent filmmaking. He has in fact appeared in a number of short films and digital features by young filmmakers whose works are defining in the cinema of the future. Prominent among such movies were Raymond Red's "Anino," which won the grand priee in the short film category of the Cannes Film Festival in 1999; Filipino-American Gene Cajayon's "Debut," which won the best dramatic feature award in the San Diego International Film Festival in 2000; and Rica Arevalo's "ICU Bed # 7," which won best actor in the first Cinemalaya film festival in 2005.

Often appearing for free, Garcia has endowed independent movies with his strong presence, powerful presence, and marketing heft. He said he will continue to help young filmmakers. "I really want to be of help to them," he said. "I admire their passion for the art of the cinema." In a way, passion explains the resilience, longevity and unfaltering success of Eddie Garcia, a movie icon in his own terms, at 85-years-old still a powerful presence in Philippine cinema, ever vital, ever green.