Why Dolphy is not yet a National Artist

Natashya Gutierrez

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Dolphy's controversial gay roles and a difficult selection process are cited as reasons for the King of Comedy's failure to be recognized as National Artist when he was alive

MANILA, Philippines – If there were any regrets among many Filipinos when the news of Dolphy’s death broke Tuesday, July 10, it would be that the country’s King of Comedy was not named a National Artist when he was still alive.

Filipinos mourned the loss of Dolphy (Rodolfo Vera Quizon Sr) on social media sites, but another common reaction from fans and friends was disappointment over the failure to formally recognize the well-loved entertainer with the highest national recognition.

Yan ay long overdue na sa tagal na ni pareng Dolphy at milyong-milyong Pilipino ang kanyang napasaya at napatawa,” Former President Joseph “Erap” Estrada told dzMM. “Palagay ko ay long overdue na ang paggawad sa kanya ng National Artist (That is long overdue. My friend Dolphy has been around for so long and he has made millions and millions of Filipinos happy. I feel that his recognition as a National Artist is long overdue).”

The selection of national artists is administered by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the Cultural Center of the Philippines. Upon approval and recommendation of both agencies, it is conferred by the President.

According to the NCCA website, the Order of National Artists “is the highest national recognition given the Filipino individuals who have made significant contributions to the development of Philippine arts.”

Controversial roles

Estrada’s reaction was shared by family, friends and fans of the late comedian. The contributions of Dolphy to not just the entertainment industry but to the Filipino people, they argue, are immeasurable, significant and unmistakeable.

In November 2010, President Benigno Aquino III conferred the Grand Collar of the Order of the Golden Heart on Dolphy precisely for these reasons.

But being recognized as a National Artist is a different matter altogether.

Dolphy was nominated for the title in 2009 but was denied by the selection committee.

Former NCCA Commissioner for Cultural Heritage and current NCCA legal counsel Trixie Cruz-Angeles explained that the selection is a long, thorough process and consists of two levels — peer evaluation and evaluation of established artists.

It was in the second level, the tougher level, that Dolphy’s nomination faced problems.

“I understand there have been issues supposedly with the gay roles he played,” Angeles told Rappler. “In Dolphy’s case, there was still a lot of controversy on his contributions to the art [at the time he was nominated].”

While she agreed that there was “no question” about his work as a comedian, he said Dolphy’s role as a scriptwriter was harder to evaluate as he was uncredited in a lot of the work, making his contributions unclear.

This matters, she said, because “all of those weigh in [since] one of the considerations of national artist is contribution to your discipline and field.”

She pointed out that Fernando Poe Jr. was recognized not just for his being an actor, but as a producer, scriptwriter and director as well.

Difficult process

Angeles emphasized that Dolphy was not singled out, and that any artist who goes through the process will be questioned and examined.

She pointed out that Poe’s nomination was scrutinized and his on-screen roles initially criticized for being one-dimensional.

Poe was recognized as a National Artist in 2006, two years after his death.

The difficulty of making the list, she said, is normal.

There are currently 40 National Artists, 5 of whom are recognized for cinema. Of the 5, only one, filmmaker Eddie Romero, is still alive.

Romero had to go through the process several times, according to Angeles.

Aside from the title of National Artist, honors and privileges include a cash award, monthly life pension, medical and hospitalization benefits, life insurance, a state funeral and honor in recognition at state cultural events.

The 5 National Artists for cinema are Romero, Poe, and directors Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal and Gerry De Leon. 

Recognition post-death

Dolphy’s nomination is still currently going through the process.

Angeles admitted that there has been a recent trend of national artists being awarded after their death. Deceased artists have an advantage, she said, one reason being the outpouring of sympathy for the dead.

“Filipinos don’t like to speak ill of the dead. It may be a cultural thing,” she said.

She added that when a candidate is dead, the nomination becomes a national discussion and the rest of the nation can weigh in on the issue.

Angeles emphasized, however, that the NCCA wants to safeguard the process of recognition and make sure it is based on merit rather than politics and public opinion.

“He would’ve wanted to go through the process,” Angeles said of Dolphy.

No special treatment

Even those closest to Dolphy, despite expressing their strong reactions, agreed that the process of conferring a National Artist must be respected.

Grace Llamazares-Poe, Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB) chairperson and a friend of Dolphy, told ANC a day after his death that there is no question Dolphy deserves the National Artist award.

“It’s really embarrassing that we have to think about it,” she said. “That’s not the question. You just have to follow the process.”

Even the Palace agrees, saying Dolphy’s conferment as a National Artist must go through the process.

In 2011, the Supreme Court granted a temporary restraining order after receiving a petition that questioned the conferment of 4 artists, who were alleged supporters of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and who the selection committee protested did not go through the regular process.

As for Angeles, also one of the filers of the petition, she said she thinks the comedian will be recognized among the best.

“He came pretty close,” Angeles said of Dolphy’s previous nomination. “Personally I think he will be [a national artist].” –

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Natashya Gutierrez

Natashya is President of Rappler. Among the pioneers of Rappler, she is an award-winning multimedia journalist and was also former editor-in-chief of Vice News Asia-Pacific. Gutierrez was named one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders for 2023.