Lessons Dolphy taught me

Bert B. Sulat Jr.

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The Philippines’ king of comedy has also been a teacher in his own right

'ANG TATAY KONG NANAY' Dolphy in a scene from the movie. Screen grab from YouTube

MANILA, Philippines – He has no college degree to speak of, much less professorial credits.

Yet I have learned a few things from Dolphy simply from having been a part of his audience, be it of his movies and TV shows or of his public life off-camera. (Mr. Rodolfo Vera Quizon’s screen moniker is apparently a casual play on his first name and was not influenced by American jazz master Eric Dolphy. Coincidentally, both were born in 1928.) 

It would be presumptuous of me to think that his millions of fans throughout the past 6 decades have also learned Dolphy’s “lessons.” Yet it would not be surprising if some would concur that the man is a teacher, if in the non-traditional sense.

And I would not be surprised if Dolphy himself had realized, even in passing, that he has not merely been an entertainer but also a mentor.

He has shown that life’s funny

My earliest exposure to Dolphy’s talent was via John en Marsha, though by then, the actor had already been in show business for over 20 years. 

That 1970s-to-1990 sitcom, aired on RPN 9, provided easy laughs amid the grim (or at least glum) Martial Law years. As the show was a weekly staple at our household, its rhythms became all too recognizable. The stories might have differed per episode, but the overall plot remained the same, as did the characters’ signature lines. Some may view such beats as repetitive, but to the common Filipino, the show and its penchant for familiarity held a comforting and funny mirror to the viewers’ own imperfect realities. 

John en Marsha might come off dated if re-run today. Still, I’d wager that at least thousands would still get a kick out of, say, hearing meddling mother-in-law Doña Delilah blurt, “Kaya ikaw, John, magsumikap ka!” or “Hudas, Barabbas, Hestas!” (Plus, as a husband, I now fully get the point of John Puruntong’s matrimonial purr at the whiff of a fresh-from-bathing Marsha: “Hmm, amoy pinipig…”)

Then in 1978, an aunt-guardian and I were among the many who packed the stately Galaxy Theater on Rizal Avenue to watch Ang Tatay Kong Nanay, Dolphy’s exalted collaboration with renowned director Lino Brocka. In playing a homosexual man turned accidental parent to his truant boyfriend’s son, Dolphy was rather phenomenal. He had played a gay character before and then later on in his career, but this particular rendition was perhaps his sentimental best — bolstered by his emotional chemistry with the then equally popular Niño Muhlach. 

Ang Tatay Kong Nanay was high drama, yet it reflected how fate cracks jokes by giving us lemons and how we can retaliate by making lemonade. (Adding bittersweetness after my viewing, I emerged from the Galaxy men’s room with the family jewels accidentally caught in the fly of my kiddie shorts.)

Upside-down can be good

Majority of Dolphy’s works are comedies — a good chunk of them parodies, often down to their very titles. 

From Dolpinger to Enteng the Dragon to Goatbuster to Home Along Da Riles to Tataynic to the more recent Nobody, Nobody But Juan — send-ups of the films Goldfinger, Enter the Dragon, Ghostbusters, Home Alone and Titanic, and of the 2008 K-pop ditty “Nobody” — he was unabashed in spoofing whatever was the international smash or local hit of the day. Even the ads of his cinematic comedies, which often adhered to Mad magazine-type sketches of him and his co-stars even after the poster art form turned passé, spoke of his knack (or at least fondness) for caricatures of the contemporary.

In other words, Dolphy was not just the country’s king of comedy; he was Mr. Zeitgeist. In his work’s respective themes, scenarios and lines of dialogue, he and his collaborators stretched his satirical bent to the hilt, yet were always conscious of being understood by the masses. As a sample, a particular exchange from a shot-in-the-USA flick of his comes to mind:

Caught for peeing in public by a straight-laced cop, who tells him, “That’s against the law,” Dolphy’s character barks back, “No, it’s against the wall!”

Given his mostly derivative oeuvre, it’s clear that Dolphy could not be bothered to be original, preferring to evoke artistry by being entertaining. But another way to look at this is that, in mining wit, ridicule or mockery out of pop trends or common situations, the man has been instinctively telling us that the best way to enjoy life is to shake it up, or at least to look at it upside down — even if just from time to time.

There is wisdom in humility

Dolphy’s lifelong fame was such — and given the perverse marriage of showbiz and politics on our shores — that sometime in the mid-1990s, there was a clamor for him to run for public office. His candid response: “Eh paano kung manalo ako?” (“But what if I win?”) 

Given his immense clout, as well as his predilection for convention, the man’s remark was surprising as it was uncharacteristic. Yet, in those few words, the by then legendary Dolphy exemplified that with great power comes great humility. 

Former Malacañang insider and esteemed journalist Raul Gonzalez (no, not the infamous former justice secretary) provided a shrewd analysis of the showbiz icon’s astute refusal of a political career.

In his 1995 column for what was The Evening Paper, Gonzalez noted that “Dolphy’s question is a shorter, glitzier version of a thesis of political scientist John Lewis Gaddis… the ‘dog-and-car syndrome’: ‘Dogs spend a great deal of time chasing cars but very little time thinking about what they would do if they caught one.’” (This “syndrome” went on to be quoted by The Joker as portrayed in The Dark Knight by Heath Ledger — who, coincidentally, bears a slight resemblance to Dolphy’s son Eric Quizon.)

For all of the fame and fortune to his name, “Pidol,” in that shining moment of frankness, proved that one can remain modest and sensible despite the relative insanity of being an entertainment icon — and that the truly wise are often the truly humble.

Resilience is everything

Dolphy has had not just a colorful career but also a highly colorful life. 

The second son of 10 children who went on to father 18 of his own; a kid who earned a living selling peanuts in cinemas; a future celluloid star who was introduced to movie magic via Gone with the Wind; a stage ensemble player (in World War II, his shows would get disrupted by air raids); lead actor and sometimes producer of hundreds of movies and countless hours of TV shows; and a man who has lived long enough to have seen the modern-day extinction of his beloved haunts (vaudeville theater, standalone moviehouses) and the mortal departure of his dearest colleagues (such as his longtime teammates Panchito and Nida Blanca)…

Dolphy’s life has been a cinematic saga waiting to be filmed.

But until the great Dolphy biopic becomes a grand reality, he continues to teach a concept that has long been inherent to his life and work: resilience. 

Be it on-camera or away from the spotlight, this 83-year-old man has spent much time and energy embodying, even celebrating, the resilient spirit. 

Given his own various ordeals, the tribulations of most of his countrymen as portrayed or temporarily erased by his projects, the perpetual or changing societal dilemmas across his own lifetime, and in remaining an active worker despite the restraints of ageing, Dolphy’s stance has always been to forge ahead, to be daring and audacious — with a good helping of humor, no less.

More often than not, he has been rewarded with having weathered one storm after another, and instinctively, has been inviting the rest of us to give our own sense of courage and self-confidence a shot.

As it happens, given his ongoing medical bout, resulting in having had 10 instances of pneumonia in just the past half-year, Dolphy remains a paragon of resilience, still fighting the good fight. Here’s hoping and praying that he, and we, can soon witness anew the resilience of his own spirit, and hear him have the last laugh. – Rappler.com

(Update as of 9:30 AM, June 22: Vice President Jejomar Binay has joined the clamor to make Dolphy a National Artist.)

Click on the links below for more on Dolphy.

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