Veteran actress Mona Lisa: At 91, still a powerful presence
Philippine Daily Inquirer / 11:25 PM June 30, 2013
Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” is one of the timeless artworks in the history of art. But in the context of Philippine cinema, it is the name of an actress who shares the same name as the title of Da Vinci’s painting and who also possesses the same attributes as the painter’s beautiful model with a mysterious smile.
Mona Lisa, who starred in films such as Carlos Vander Tolosa’s “Giliw Ko” (1939), Eduardo de Castro’s “Sagur” (1949) and Lino Brocka’s “Insiang” (1976), recently had her life story immortalized in a biography titled “Mona Lisa: A Portrait (From the Memoirs of a Grandmother),” penned and published by her granddaughter Celine Beatrice Fabie. The book was launched in time with the actress’ 91st birthday last June 22 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.
The book narrates almost everything about Mona Lisa’s life, from being a child who wanted to become an actress, to her struggles as a movie star and her disciplinary ways as a mother to her children.
“Everything was there,” Mona Lisa said during the launch. “I asked my son, who is in London, ‘Lahat ba ilalagay?’ and he said ‘Yes, lahat ilalagay.”
“I’ll let her (Fabie) write (my life) dahil hindi ko na kaya,” she added. “Well, actually, ayaw ko sana (isulat ang buhay ko). I suffered through the whole book.”
Born on June 22, 1922, Gloria Yatco was, according to the late film critic and archivist Hammy Sotto, “was exposed early to the reversals of fortune.” Her father was the scion of a wealthy family with relations with Jose Rizal, but whose own father reduced the clan to penury through womanizing even in Paris! Her family relocated in California but it was the Depression era, so the girl Mona Lisa and her brothers and sisters became fruit pickers.
When her parents divorced, Mona Lisa and her mother and siblings returned to the Philippines. She became the breadwinner and worked with the Parlatone movie studio, who billed her as “Fleur de Lis.” She took on roles as the misundersood woman, at one time swimming with her nude back in a movie.
In 1940, she moved over to X’Otic studio that changed her screen name to “Mona Lisa.” She was about to be launched as a leading lady when the Pacific War broke out.
After the war, she resumed her work in the movies, but retired in the 1950s to build her own family.
In 1974 director Joey Gosiengfao pulled her out of retirement in the celebrated movie, “La Paloma: Ang Kalapating Ligaw.” In 1976, Lino Brocka cast her in “Insiang,” where she played the amorous mother against the abused title character played by Hilda Koronel. It was the supreme role of her career.
The movie became the first Filipino movie in the Directors Fortnight of the Cannes Film Festival and launched Brocka’s international career. International critics laughed at first at the screen name of the actress playing the despicable mother, but raved at her screen presence and bravura performance.
Truly, Mona Lisa had made a grand artistic comeback.
Fabie said that it took her a long time writing the biography because her grandmother had a lot of stories to tell. “Mona Lisa: A Portrait (From the Memoirs of a Grandmother)” is Fabie’s first book.
“It took me seven years, on and off, in writing the book,” Fabie said. “It took such a long time finishing it because I know that it’s is a big story and there are many parts of her life involved.”
The author, also a theater actress and a singer, said that she basically knew everything about her grandmother who used to babysit her when she was still young. She mentioned that the film actress is a very domesticated grandmother and recalled that sometimes, Mona Lisa would bring Fabie to the set of the soap opera, “Anna Luna.”
Fabie said she and her relatives would be fascinated when the movie actress would start to narrate her memories of the past. She added Mona Lisa would find a way to tell her stories interestingly even though it could be as insignificant as only telling how the neighbor bought vinegar from the store.
“When I was young, she would tell me bedtime stories and all kinds of stories because she loves to read. (It’s) either stories from the Bible, ‘Juan Tamad’ to ‘The Diary of Anne Frank.’ Sa kaniya ko lahat natutunan iyon,” Fabie said.
Mona Lisa started in show business at the young age of 15. Even before that, she hadl doing school plays and showing off her talents in singing, dancing and acting.
Although she had wanted to be a movie star, her brothers and sisters would compare her physique to a dried fish. “She was definitely the ugly duckling of the family,” the book says.
Mona Lisa has acted in other significant films such as Vander Tolosa’s “Sunset Boulevard” (1949) and Mike de Leon’s “Itim” (1977) .
Although she’s now best known for her role in the classic “Insiang,” Mona Lisa said her favorite role is as Señora Pina, the matriarch in Brocka’s “Cain at Abel” (1982), whose favoritism fuels the deadly sibling rivalry between her sons.
“Napakaganda ng pelikulang iyon (Cain at Abel),” she said. “Lino Brocka is a very good director. Sayang nga lang at namatay. (He is) the best director.”
In an old interview, the late National Artist for Film Brocka had praised Mona Lisa as an actress. “She has a strong face, a face that doesn’t need any dialogue,” he had said.
At the age of 91, Mona Lisa is still very willing to narrate the stories of her life and actively answer questions. However, she is not entertaining the idea of making films anymore.
“I cannot (make movies anymore). I have suffered two mild heart attacks and my left leg is in pain. Matagal ako mag-recuperate and I cannot do it anymore,” she said. “Ayaw ko na umiyak nang alas-tres ng madaling araw.” (I don’t want to shed tears in a scene being shot in the wee hours of the morning.”)
During the book launch, “Katy” the musical actresses Yedda Lambujon, Aicelle Santos, Christine Joy Mangahis, Gimbey de la Cruz and Isay Alvarez read some excerpts from the book. There were also performances from the Ryan Cayabyab Singers (RCS). Fabie is also one of the actresses in “Katy” and is a member of the RCS.
The films “Giliw Ko,” “Sagur” and “Insiang” were screened at CCP’s Manuel Conde during that day. “Mona Lisa: A Portrait (From the Memoirs of a Grandmother)” is available at the CCP and Mabuhay Restop.