The everyman lives on

Erik Matti
This is a tribute to Rodolfo Vera Quizon, the man whose name means comedy, but who is also a man whose gift is more than laughter

Erik MattiThe death of Dolphy sent the country into mourning. The social network is abuzz with both sympathy and adoration. He is the Comedy King, it is understandable to, almost by default, admire him for the laughs he gave us. But is he just the man who made us laugh? Will he just go down in history as the court jester who cheered up an army reeling from the horrors of war, but who himself never stood in the line of fire?

This is a tribute to Rodolfo Vera Quizon, the man whose name means comedy, but who is also a man whose gift is more than laughter.

A few years back, producer Imee Marcos approached me with a script for a Dolphy movie. It was aptly titled “Ang Maestro” (The Master). The story centered around a National Artist for theater staging a comeback in the twilight of his career.

I fell in love with the story. We saw in the script the potential to smuggle in a story on the arts and the artist that could still earn box office success with Dolphy as the leading man. We also believed that moviegoers would find it a welcome change to see the King of Comedy portraying a role outside his usual, that of a cynical and arrogant artist who needs to find the child inside him before he can walk the stage again.

I am a huge Dolphy fan. I wanted to do a movie that paid proper tribute to the icon that Dolphy was. I asked myself what it was I loved about the man — why I smile at the mention of his name, if he was even funny, if it was him I identified with, or if it was the ensemble of talented Panchitos and Babalus around him. And why, I asked, was that his smile always had a hint of bittersweet.

And then the heavens opened up, the white clouds rolled past, and the blinding rays of God shone on my head as the choirs of St Peter celebrated my realization. The most memorable moments I had with a Dolphy movie were not so much the jokes or the rolled newspaper hitting an unfortunate foil in the head. What affected me was the endearing drama, the raw honesty, the biting heart his performance always brings in at the climax of his films.

Who could forget that wrenching scene in “Ang Tatay Kong Nanay,” opposite Boy Genius Niño Muhlach? Before there was “Tanging Ina,” there was Dolphy’s breakdown scene with his 8 or so children in “Daddy Knows Best.” I don’t remember a single joke from those movies, but I certainly remember the tears.

All the comedians I consider great have more memorable dramatic scenes than their comedic ones. Of course I remember the funny scene in “Take The Money and Run,” where Woody Allen makes a gun out of a bar of soap to get out of prison, and finds himself with a handful of wet bubbles just as he is about to go scot free. But what I really love about the movie, more than the soap gun melting in the rain, is that incredibly melodramatic, bittersweet scene, where Allen, broke and out of job, went out with his girlfriend and pulled out a salami from his wallet as dinner. It was a homage to Chaplin, and I was crying and smiling throughout the scene.

Dolphy is not just the King of Comedy. He is a great dramatic actor, and I’ll take him over Roberto Benigni any time. The sincerity and the truth in his scenes are pure. He does not act; he does not become. He simply is. He is ever present in the here and now of each scene, proving instinct and experience over technique and practice.

And because I finally knew what I loved about my idol, I sat down to work on a script whose sole objective was to become the best movie Dolphy would ever do. Dance number, check! Dry humor, check! Dramatic scenes, checksss! We made his character larger than life. We put him in a pedestal, glorified him, constantly doubting whether it was going to be good enough for the total performer we had in our hands. We wanted to give him the role of a lifetime, and I thought it was perfect.

We sent him the script for approval. This was after more than half a year of developing the script with Imee’s comments and two other writers. I was certain he was going to love it. I had the gall to think he wouldn’t dare pass on the script. I wanted to pitch the project to him myself but I was sure that the script alone was enough to speak for the movie.

It took two weeks for him to respond. He sent word through Imee. He said no. The script, according to him, wasn’t funny enough.

You see, I thought I knew who Dolphy was. I thought I was the one to bring out the best in him. John en Marsha was like the Angelus in our household. So was Home Along Da Riles. We celebrated my sister’s birthday with tickets from my father to a showing of “Ang Tatay Kong Nanay.” I thought I actually, totally knew him. I was mistaken.

I tried to understand why. How could he reject a role that was written with so much respect for his talent? Was comedy the only thing he wants to do? I hit on the answer, and was embarrassed by my mistake.

Dolphy never wanted to be the hero of the people. He never wanted to be the protector of the oppressed or the Robin Hood of Pangasinan. He played the everyman. He was the flawed, the misunderstood, the underdog. His characters were not heroes. They were ordinary people who had ordinary problems. A father, late for the graduation of his daughter because he was dead drunk the night before. An office clerk, pressured by his peers to watch sexy girls dancing in a bar. A husband, who lied to his wife about watching strippers at a bar.

I was a fan of Dolphy more than of Fernando Poe Jr, because Dolphy never intimidated me. I identify with him, the same way as most Filipinos do. For us, Dolphy is relief from everyday life. His characters don’t fight for equality, for nationalism, for patriotism. They fight for respect, acceptance, success.

With his death, we lost a man who helped us through the day. The months of news about his illness were months of quiet uneasiness. Dolphy was not laughing at death, at everyman’s most basic fear.

I always get by with laughter, dismissing everyday worries with a joke. I always thought it was because of my mother, whose favorite cliché was that laughter is the best medicine. I suspect I am wrong, and that more than my mother, it was John and Facifica and Kevin who taught me to live, and live smiling. —

Erik Matti is a Filipino director, writer, and producer.