Nora Aunor: Superstar or sinner?

This file photo taken on March 18, 2013 shows Philippine actress Nora Aunor posing with the Best Actress Award at the 7th Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong. Philippines President Benigno Aquino on July 1, 2014 defended a controversial decision he made t
This file photo taken on March 18, 2013 shows Philippine actress Nora Aunor posing with the Best Actress Award at the 7th Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong. Philippines President Benigno Aquino on July 1, 2014 defended a controversial decision he made to withhold a top award from Aunor, one of the country's accomplished film stars, because of a drug conviction in 2006. The snub against the multi-award-winning actress sparked a nationwide furore with millions of fans insisting no one deserved a "national artist" prize more than the 61-year-old fondly nicknamed the "Superstar." -- PHOTO: AFP

There’s a reason why no one threw the first stone.  It was clever, really. The condition was: Let that man who has not sinned cast the first stone.

Of course, everyone at the scene with a stone in their hands had already sinned, so none of them could really cast the first stone, and the woman they were accusing of adultery was spared a bloody death.

The lesson in this biblical tale is that we cannot measure a man’s worth by the flaws in his character because all of us are flawed.  Even the greatest among us were flawed.  History is, in fact, replete with great people with great sins.

Charles Dickens was an opium addict, yet we do not disparage the quality of his writings because of his vice.  Florence Nightingale, the nurse of all nurses, was a dopehead.  Her favourite cocktail was laudanum – a heady mix of opium and alcohol.  Morphine, for the “Lady with the Lamp”, was a “wonderful little pick-me-up”.  Yet, we  do not take issue with her dalliances with opium and morphine.  We instead extol her for the remarkable work she did.  

It wasn’t just substance abuse that haunted great men and women.

The night before he was killed, Martin Luther King slept with his mistress at a motel in Memphis. Yes, he too was flawed, yet he was never denied his place in the American canon because, for all his appetites and the burdens of his excesses, he liberated millions from intolerance.

You can fill a whole session room of Alcoholics Anonymous with famous alcoholics: Vincent Van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway, Ulysses Grant, Winston Churchill.  Even Iron Man was an alcoholic.

Yet, these drunks changed the world, and we remember them for it, not for their sins.

Somehow, for all these lessons about greatness and human frailties, Philippine President Benigno Aquino chose to cast the first stone.  He denied his nation’s most accomplished film star, Ms Nora Aunor, a top cultural award because he judged her to be flawed.

Her name had been in a list of artists that Mr Aquino was asked to consider for the prestigious Order of National Artist award, an honour that comes with a lifetime pension and a state funeral.

Yet, despite her numerous acting awards and dozens of movies that film students all over the world, including in Singapore, now study, Mr Aquino struck Ms Aunor’s name off the list.

Most thought it probably had something to do with her politics.

Ms Aunor, fondly nicknamed “The Superstar”,  had supported politicians who had been enemies of Mr Aquino’s family, among them the dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1972, fellow actor Joseph Estrada in 1998, and Ms Aunor’s doppelganger Gloria Arroyo in 2004.

Mr Aquino later explained that he denied Ms Aunor the National Artist award because she had a drug habit, and that did not sit well with his government’s “zero tolerance” for drug use. She did not deserve the award, despite her life’s achievements, because she is a sinner, and she is flawed, he declared.

It was a big stone to throw for a man with a smoking habit.

I admit, I’m a “Noranian”, one of Ms Aunor’s exuberant fans. I can’t help it. She reminds me of my mother.

Like Ms Aunor, my mother is hardly five-feet tall, with skin the colour of light mahogany, a Filipino everyman.

I look at Ms Aunor, and I see my mother magnified as “The Superstar”.

That Ms Aunor can be anyone’s mother, aunt, sister, cousin is the reason I think she’s extraordinary.

Brown, 4 feet and 11 inches tall, she was supposed to stand outside the rope barrier, and yet she was there on the red carpet, with the tall mestizos with their flawless skin and faces that belonged more to Copacabana Beach than a kampung in Manila's Tondo district.

She looked ordinary, but she had overwhelming talents.  She serenaded the nation out of its poor-man’s funk in the 1960s and 1970s with her mythic voice.

Her performances in the movies she made, even those with shallow and superficial plots, were nuanced, honest and moving, having been dug deep from her difficult past.

Her movies were social commentaries that plumbed both the ugly depths and resilient spirit of the Filipino psyche, and they have changed lives.

When she broke into the scene, the masses finally were staring at a face in the cinemas who looked like them, and she’d shown them that greatness was within anyone’s reach.  It didn’t matter that they were born poor or unremarkable. They didn’t have to stay in the background.

Fame ultimately corroded Ms Aunor’s innocence.  Later in her life, she battled with depression and alcohol that degraded her golden voice, and she staggered from one bad marriage to another. Then, there was that unfortunate brush with methamphetamine at the Los Angeles airport in 2005.

Despite these unfortunate chapters in her life, Ms Aunor continues to inspire generations of “unremarkables” to aspire for lives that testify to an unbending will to overcome life’s adversities and triumph.

This is, I think, the reason we honour great men and women despite their great sins.  They inspire humanity to reach for the stars.  They show us that we are more than just carbon-based life forms, that we have a responsibility to add to history’s narrative, whether by a small act of kindness or a grand struggle against bigotry.

I have no doubt that history will be kind to Mr Aquino, that we will remember the great things that will come out of his presidency.

When we take an accounting of his sins, however, I don’t think we will take issue with his smoking or irrational obsession with video games.  In the end, his greatest sin will be that he cast the first stone.

rdancel@sph.com.sg