“She embraces every moment of her life and everybody else just watches her. … She’s a Renaissance woman, I find.” — Cherie Gil on Madonna
Words RICKY S. TORRE | Photography RONNIE SALVACION | Styling MILLET ARZAGA-GONZALES | Hair and makeup FANNY SERRANO
Cherie Gil is tired of playing the villain but she isn’t tired of playing the bitch. Casting herself in a dream role of her own choosing, Ms. Gil e-mailed a screencap of Madonna in a pretzel-like yoga pose, tongue lewdly extended toward a glass held in between her feet. “Something as absurd as this perhaps?,” wrote Ms. Gil. “That’s our bitch Madonna!”
And that is how, on a Wednesday afternoon, Ms. Gil found herself at DPI XL Studios in Makati, alighting from a car with its plate identifying the automobile as a police vehicle. That moment would have passed for a transition shot in a teleserye. She wore a plain shirt and jeans, a perfectly normal outfit enhanced by her celebrity aura and further accented by a cinematic stereotype that she can’t seem to shake despite her real-life warmth. Ms. Gil, whether she likes it or not, will forever be the haughty kontrabida.
“Straight from bed,” the actor-singer said upon walking into the dressing room where stylist Fanny Serrano was lounging amid the background of Madonna’s alluring pop hits. After a moment’s rest, Ms. Gil began her makeup transformation, a diligent process akin to prepping for a role. She emerged hours later in a bustier reminiscent of Madonna’s iconic cone bra, inspired by film director Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which the pop star explicitly referenced in her 1990 Blond Ambition Tour.
FULFILLING A FANTASY
Whether taking off from that silent-film classic or vamping on Marlene Dietrich or Marilyn Monroe, Madonna’s artistry—like all things modern—is rooted in the classical. The “hard glamour” of classic Hollywood’s movie stars and the “sophisticated European art films of the Fifties and Sixties” find their updated expression in Madonna’s “brazen, insolent, in-your-face American street style,” to paraphrase the critic Camille Paglia’s 1991 article for the British daily The Independent, “Venus of the Radio Waves.”
“Venus” is a landmark piece of writing, in terms of its thorough cultural analysis on the phenomenon of Madonna: from her flamboyant sexuality, which scandalized even modern America during the materialistic Eighties, to her keen understanding of the power of the visual, a decisive complement of her music. “Part of her fantastic success has been her ability to communicate with the still camera, a talent quite separate from any other. To project to a camera, you must have an autoerotic autonomy, a sharp self-conceptualization, even a fetishistic perversity: the camera is a machine you make love to,” went Ms. Paglia’s article, which noted further that, “through still photography,” Madonna “has blanketed the world press” with “the dazzling profusion of her mercurial sexual personae.”
This writer read that portion of “Venus” as Ms. Gil was slouched on a sofa, taking a break from the photo shoot. She gave a thumbs-up to “sharp self-conceptualization” but left upon hearing “fetishistic perversity.” Just moments before, Ms. Gil was grabbing her crotch per the photographer’s instructions. “Oh, that’s fetishizing,” she commented as she viewed the pictures later on. “Fantasy fulfilled.”
The shoot, coincidentally, was held on the same day that a second night in Manila was announced by Madonna’s tour. This was quite a development, considering the pop star’s past statements about performing in the Philippines.
“I know she said before that, no, she’ll never perform in the Philippines. Not because she doesn’t like us, but because she always thought of these things [in terms of] her advocacy and helping [developing] countries,” Ms. Gil said. “And here she is, performing. I understand her take: Why will people pay to watch me, when they might as well spend that money for the people who actually need it? Makes sense. I don’t know what made her change her mind… what made her decide to do another tour. She said she was going to end with her last tour. [Maybe] she has come to a place in her life where she feels that she should reach out and touch lives that she hasn’t.”
Asked about the pricey tickets and the possibility that not a few concertgoers might be in public office—which itself may become a point of controversy—Ms. Gil’s reply was measured.
“Well, you know, we can’t help it,” she said. “We’ve had foreign artists here at Php20-25,000? How much was Lady Gaga, Php25,000? We already know the people who can pay. Why would a promoter bring in Madonna, not knowing if he can sell [this act]? There’s money here! Let’s just hope that the money can go to other things well spent. And I’m a Madonna fan, so one night to watch Madonna is money well spent.”
Ms. Gil was barely in her twenties when the Italian-American pop star blazed a trail worldwide with her self-titled debut album in 1983. Madonna is now widely regarded as a masterpiece in pop culture: a cool, swinging gem of an album. She followed that up with a succession of other solid recordings, all the while increasingly raising the “standard” of her sexual persona. From autoerotica to bondage to bisexuality and pansexuality, Madonna flaunted these themes on MTV, on the concert stage, on film, and in Sex—her soft-porn, coffee-table book featuring, among others, the classically gorgeous Isabella Rossellini, Madonna Louise Ciccone’s compatriot from her father’s side.
It was Madonna (and the also-lusty Prince) who outraged and fascinated audiences, first in America and then, the world. In the now-defunct talk show Viewpoint, Kris Aquino, then a bubbly adolescent just breaking into showbiz, declared with pride that she was a Madonna fan—a startling assertion because the pop singer’s immediate rapport with her global audience was remarkable then, a breakthrough in the distant shadow of Beatlemania exactly two decades earlier. And so were other celebrities drawn to Madonna.
Ms. Gil, who, in the 1980s, used to sing “Borderline” and “Crazy for You,” among many other Madonna songs, considers the singer as a creative inspiration and “kindred spirit.” “She’s power, and she’s irreverent. And we were all shocked already then.” At the same time Madonna was scandalizing the world, Ms. Gil was building up her thespian cred.
She had been acting and singing since childhood, and among the early highlights of her career were the single “Boy, I Love You,” a big hit that she recorded at 13 (that single is on YouTube), and an Elwood Perez film titled Problem Child (1980), co-starring her actress-mother, the great Rosemarie Gil.
“Regal Films, at the time, had that reputation of making sexy movies—the Cloyd Robinson, the Elwood Perez—and there I was, launched as a Problem Child,” Ms. Gil said. “But without that period of my life, I would not have ended up in the roster of [Ishmael] Bernal’s babies where I finally felt I was really trained as an actor.”
Mr. Bernal’s Manila by Night, also released in 1980, was Ms. Gil’s breakthrough acting performance, as she herself affirms. Manila was a visceral, social-realist depiction of the city’s contemporary milieu. This martial law-era film provoked then-First Lady Imelda Marcos to have it banned from screening abroad and its title changed to the more generic City after Dark. Among this film’s striking qualities is its dynamic ensemble portraying shady yet lost and very human characters. One of them, Kano—played by Ms. Gil—is a tomboy drug pusher who falls victim to martial law-era law enforcement, and perhaps the most heartbreaking role in an acting career otherwise dominated by the kontrabida stereotype.
“What a role!” Ms. Gil said of Kano. “I felt, wow, I must be really Bernie’s favorite,” she laughed. “I think the sense of having the androgynousness made him feel that I was the one who could play Kano. I grew up with my brothers, so I could get into character easily. It was a dream role—a dream role.”
Ms. Gil, who was only 17 by the time of Manila’s release, drew immediate acclaim for the maturity of her performance. She and several other cast members earned nominations and awards amid the film’s controversial run. “That brought out the serious actor among all of us,” Ms. Gil said, mentioning Rio Locsin’s as a blind masseuse, William Martinez’s drug addict, and Bernardo Bernardo’s lusty couturier. “That film really was a turning point for many of us.”
Two years after Manila by Night came Peque Gallaga’s wartime-era masterpiece Oro Plata Mata, and another dynamic part for Ms. Gil in the form of Trining Ojeda, a privileged youth transformed by war. By the end of that film’s tragic story, there was a sinister aura over the once-innocent Trining that hinted at Ms. Gil’s roles ahead. Never mind that she was also doing comedy at the time, a five-year stint in the beloved TV comedy-musical Champoy.
Ms. Gil was sidetracked to a full-time singing career when Madonna burst into pop radio. “It was during that period that I stopped doing films and I moved into the circuit of singing,” she recalled. As part of the roster of Girlie Rodis, she honed her singing talent in bars such as Light and Sound, Sunbar, and Fire and Rain. It was in that concert scene that she would break out Madonna’s hits. Vic del Rosario of Viva Entertainment took notice and got Ms. Gil for the film Bituing Walang Ningning. She was cast as villainous superstar-singer Lavinia Arguelles, a role turned down by Kuh Ledesma and Zsa Zsa Padilla, who were better known as singers.
Lavinia Arguelles is acknowledged as the definitive Cherie Gil role. And the famous line—“You’re nothing but a second-rate, trying-hard copycat!”—is just one of many crackling lines in what Ms. Gil describes as a “really well-written” story. “There’s a part of Lavinia that was very close to my heart: the question of choosing what she really loved to do. Hers was the ego, the giving-up-the-love,” said Ms. Gil, who was 20 or 21 when she played the part. “I can never give up the love. For me, it has to go hand in hand.”
Ms. Gil’s spontaneous affinity, as an actress, with Lavinia would lead her into this kontrabida peg again and again—be it her campy take on Darna’s nemesis, Valentina (in Mr. Gallaga’s 1994 film version of the superheroine, Darna! Ang Pagbabalik) or her scene-chewing parody of the maldita template in Jose Javier Reyes’s 2010 sequel to the Bernal classic Working Girls.
“Magkikita tayo sa korte. At kahit patapon pa kita palabas ng bahay na ito, gagawin ko,” Ms. Gil’s character threatens a high-society rival played by Ruffa Gutierrez. “I swear. You. Will. Go back to where you belong—whore!”
Despite relishing this alpha-bitch stereotype, Ms. Gil also feels she’s outgrown it, as evidenced by a wardrobe purge. “I looked at all my clothes and said, ‘Who are these people?’ Puro kontrabida,” she explained. “I’m just suddenly down to skinny jeans and white T-shirts. I want to go bohemian. That’s who I am.”
There were also diva-in-winter performances in the films Sonata and Mana, and in the PETA play Arbol de Fuego early this year. (All three recent projects happen to have the tropical-gothic vibe of Oro Plata Mata.) Arbol is the latest in Ms. Gil’s growing body of stage work, which already includes her portrayals of opera diva Maria Callas in Master Class (2010) and of fashion pacesetter Diana Vreeland in Full Gallop (2014). The actor has a personal stake in theater, having founded My Own Mann Productions in 2013 (Full Gallop was its first project). “The theater industry is beginning to widen. We’re beginning to develop more and more audiences,” she said. “Theater is an actor’s medium—the best training ground.”
Going back to Madonna, this writer noted in jest that her film work has not become as iconic as Ms. Gil’s. (Although, in hindsight, the comedy-satire Desperately Seeking Susan is the one Madonna film that has earned a distinct place in 1980s pop culture.)
“Well, she directed,” Ms. Gil countered. “I’d like to think that the next best step right now, if I want to emulate a woman who’s the queen of reinvention, is to be able to direct a film, which is anyway something I always wanted to do, not only because I idolize Madonna,” she said. “There are so many things I want to do. It’s just funding I’m looking for. I need funding. My concepts and ideas are not so indie. I have another movie that’s a docudrama, but it’s expensive, so I have to begin to meet billionaires,” she said, laughing.
Madonna’s protean artistry continues to inspire Ms. Gil, no matter what critics say about the multifaceted Madonna enterprise beyond her music. “How many women can you actually find that can really be continuous movers?” Ms. Gil said. “More than that, she finds relevance in her own life at that moment—in whatever she does, whether as a concert artist, as a movie director, as a movie actress, as a mother, as a wife. She writes a book, she rides horses. In London, she starts to speak with a British accent. She embraces every moment of her life and everybody else just watches her. And then she goes to Malawi and starts to help the children there. She’s a Renaissance woman, I find. She paints. She designs. You can never tell her what to do—she is, I think, in charge of herself.”