Why Dolphy can’t be National Artist any time soon
By Lito B. Zulueta
His vital signs may have improved, but comedian Dolphy remains at the intensive care unit of the Makati Medical Center, so calls for him to be proclaimed National Artist, while they may have abated in the meantime, are expected to continue. But the drawn-out selection process and other inconvenient realities may conspire to rule out any immediate proclamation.
President Aquino is under pressure to proclaim Dolphy and include him in the Order of National Artists. But he himself has pointed out he’s deferring to the selection process as formulated by the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) and National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), whose boards, sitting jointly, elect the awardees.
While nominations may be submitted by government and nongovernment cultural organizations, educational institutions and private foundations, nominees are subjected to an intensive screening process, in which the accomplishments and merits of the nominees are evaluated by the National Artist Award Secretariat and its Special Research Group happen before a two-part deliberation procedure.
The deliberation is undertaken by two different panels that compose the National Artist Council of Experts. The panels are composed of esteemed scholars, academicians, researchers, art critics and other knowledgeable individuals from the seven classical arts, as well as living National Artists.
(Disclosure: This writer was a member of the second panel during the National Artist selection process in 2003 and 2006.)
After the second deliberation, the experts finalize a short list of nominees and present it to the joint NCCA and CCP boards, which deliberate and make a vote. The final list is then submitted to the president of the Philippines for confirmation, proclamation and conferment.
“In this light, it can be readily seen that the selection of the National Artists is a long process which sometimes takes about two years,” the NCCA said in a statement. “That Mang Dolphy has not been awarded the recognition yet does not reflect on the government or the arts sector wanting or not wanting to do so.”
“For the moment, we understand that Mang Dolphy has been nominated and is now undergoing the process of evaluation—along with other noteworthy artists,” the NCCA added. “In the meantime, we continue to pray for his recovery and return to full health.”
It is possible of course for the President to set aside the selection process, the National Artist arguably being a presidential award. The CCP and NCCA after all are under the Office of the President.
Although there’s another school of thought that maintains the award is not a presidential award, that it’s an award by the Republic and that the head of state is there merely to proclaim the names who have passed muster in the joint boards of the CCP and NCCA, history shows that a sitting president can add his own preference to the final list. President Fidel Ramos was the first to do this when he added a separate category in the awards and made historian Carlos Quirino, his Pangasinan province mate, National Artist for “Historical Literature” in 1997.
President Joseph Estrada followed Ramos’ example when he proclaimed the late Ernani Cuenco, who did the musical scores for his movies, National Artist for Music in 1999.
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo followed suit when she made Alejandro Roces, her father’s education secretary, National Artist for Literature in 2003, and Mindanao artist Abdulmari Imao National Artist for the Visual Arts in 2006.
Perhaps because her term was the longest after Marcos’ and she had been able to tweak the CCP-NCCA list and add her own preferences twice, Arroyo might have been emboldened to drastically revise the list in 2009, a year before she stepped down from power, adding four names which didn’t pass the selection process—architect Francisco Mañosa, fashion designer José Moreno, theater artist Cecile Guidote-Alvarez and filmmaker and komiks novelist Carlo Caparas.
Around that time, there had evolved the belief that while a sitting president could add to the final list, s/he could not subtract from it. But Arroyo did the unthinkable. She not only broke ground by adding not one or two to the list, but four; she also dropped from the list Ramon Santos, who had been elected by the joint CCP-NCCA board as National Artist for Music along with the Tagalog novelist Lazaro Francisco, Federico Aguilar Alcuaz, and filmmaker Manuel Conde. Her act was contested and a court injunction was issued against her proclamation order. The awarding was not consummated. The case is pending in the Supreme Court.
Many are hoping that the high court would firmly settle the matter and clarify the nature of the National Artist Award. But the practice of presidential prerogative appears historically determined.
Established in 1972 by President Ferdinand Marcos through Proclamation No. 1001, the award was created in recognition of the achievements of Filipino artists who embody “the nation’s highest ideals in humanism and aesthetic expression.”
Back then, it was the CCP that solely screened the nominees although strictly speaking there was no nomination process (at least not the process that is implemented today by the National Artist Committee).
It was common belief that Imelda Marcos, who had styled herself patroness of the arts, freely decided whom to give the award. If there was really a selection process, the CCP functioned as an advisory board to Madame Marcos. Moreover, unlike these days when the awards are given every three years, there was no deadline back then. The award could be vested on anyone at any time, depending on the urgency of the moment, as when it was given to Vicente Manansala posthumously in 1982, and Carlos P. Romulo in his sickbed in 1984, a year before he died.
The history of the awards should indicate that President Aquino could give the award to Dolphy anytime he might wish to do so.
Moreover, Arroyo had established through an administration order the Malacañang Honors Committee on top of the National Artist Awards Committee and the joint CCP-NCCA board. As far as anyone knows, the order has not been rescinded. In fact, President Aquino gave Dolphy in 2010 the Grand Collar of the Order of the Golden Heart, one of the awards under the Honors Committee. But since Aquino has vowed to be the opposite of his predecessor, he’s expected to leave the matter to the National Artist Awards Committee and the CCP and NCCA.
But even if the selection process were to be fast-tracked, would Dolphy qualify as National Artist for Cinema?
Dolphy’s case has been compared with action star Fernando Poe Jr., who was declared National Artist for Cinema in 2006, after his death a year before. But Poe was elected to the Order of National Artists not only on the basis of his acting credentials, but also on the movies he had produced and directed. He was made a National Artist because he was both “Fernando Poe Jr.” the actor and “Ronwaldo Reyes” the producer-director.
A look at the roster of National Artists for Cinema would reveal that nearly all of the honorees are directors: Lamberto Avellana, Gerardo de Leon, Lino Brocka, Ishmael Bernal and Eddie Romero.
De Leon started as an actor but shifted to directing to become indisputably the only Filipino cinematic master.
Manuel Conde, who was elected by the CCP-NCCA boards in 2009 but whose proclamation remains pending in the Supreme Court as mentioned above, was an actor-director. Like Dolphy, Conde was a comedian who starred in several blockbusters, which he himself directed. But of course, he was best known for playing the title role, producing and directing “Genghis Khan,” the first Filipino movie to be shown in a major international film festival (in Venice, the world’s oldest movie festival, in 1952).
Therefore, an objective and fair evaluation of Dolphy’s merits as National Artist for Cinema will have to take into consideration whether they equal those earlier named to the award, all of whom were directors.
But even if Dolphy’s merits were to be based solely on his credentials as a comedian-actor, the rub here is that many of the films upon which his reputation as “King of Comedy” is founded are lost or in such an extreme state of disrepair as to be useless for viewing and appreciation.
Many of these movies he had produced himself under his production company, RVQ Productions. But unlike Fernando Poe Jr., who safely stored and preserved the movies he had produced and directed, Dolphy hasn’t really taken good care of his RVQ movies. Prints of his gender-bending movies, which were ahead of their time and should be considered classics now, such as “Facifica Falayfay” and “Fefita Fofonggay,” are in a poor state. As far as we know, none from the younger generations have seen these movies.
But considering that broadcast stations have libraries and there may still be prints of Dolphy’s work on television, especially on “Buhay Artista” and “John en Marsha,” then perhaps he may better qualify as National Artist for the Broadcast Arts. No one has yet been proclaimed for the category, and naming Dolphy for the award could provide it a good start.
Perhaps the most important consideration on Dolphy’s chances to become National Artist has largely remained unmentioned. It has to do with money.
Conferring the award does not only require strict screening of the nominees; it also presupposes that an audit has been made of the budget for the National Artist Award and a certification has been made that government can afford to pay the emoluments and benefits that go with the honor.
A living National Artist receives a state stipend of some P20,000 a month and is entitled to hospital and medical benefits amounting to P1 million a year. S/he can also apply for a grant of up to P1 million a year from the NCCA, which administers the National Endowment for Culture and the Arts (Nefca).
Since many of the living National Artists are advanced in age and they avail themselves especially of the health benefits that come with the award, the budget through the years has become tighter. This explains why there appears to have evolved a trend of conferring the award posthumously.
Some of the biggest names in the pantheon in fact received the award only after their deaths: Carlos “Botong” Francisco and Amado V. Hernandez in 1973; Gerry de Leon in 1982; and Lino Brocka and Rolando S. Tinio in 1997. This is so because it’s cheaper to give the award posthumously. The family of an artist proclaimed National Artist after his death would receive a one-shot payment of P100,000, nothing less and definitely nothing more.
In 2009, for example, while Arroyo concurred with the joint CCP-NCCA board in proclaiming as National Artists Conde, Francisco and Aguilar Alcuaz, all of whom were dead, she dropped Ramon Santos. It is presumed she needed to delete the composer and musicologist from the list since she had to add her own personal preferences—Alvarez, Caparas, Mañosa and Moreno—who are alive and whose stipends and benefits as National Artists would necessarily deplete further the finances of the awards.
Therefore, the overriding question is: Can government really afford to make Dolphy National Artist?
The first ever National Artist was painter Fernando Amorsolo and he was given the award four days after his death in 1972. It was as if Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos had rushed and created the award just to honor him belatedly. Such doleful, dolorous start set the trend, more or less, for the history of the National Artist Awards.