“Ladies and gentlemen, the one and only superstar: Miss Lavinia Arguelles!”
This was how Cherie Gil’s character was announced onstage in the film Bituing Walang Ningning (1985). Cherie Gil (née Evangeline Rose Gil Eigenmann), arguably one of the finest Filipino villainesses onscreen, died yesterday, Aug. 5.
The news was broken by talent manager Annabelle Rama on Aug. 5 via social media. “Cherie Gil just passed away at 5 p.m. today. Please pray for her (praying emoji),” a Facebook post blared in capital letters. This was later confirmed by two Instagram posts by Gil’s nephew, Sid Lucero (né Timothy Eigenmann). In one, with a picture of his aunt, he said, “I love you;) big hug 🙂 #bugluv.” People commented with their messages of condolences.
Ms. Gil had left the Philippines for New York in February this year. In posts on her Facebook page in July, she had shown a picture of her shaved head with surgical stitches, along with a few lines from 1 Corinthians 13:4 (“Love is patient, love is kind”). She had, according to her Facebook posts, been treated at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York.
Born to crooner Eddie Mesa and actress Rosemarie Gil on May 12, 1963, Cherie Gil’s fine patrician looks and her entertainment pedigree made her a shoo-in for show business. Her parents had already set a formidable trail in the industry, while her brothers, fellow actors Michael de Mesa (né Michael Edward Gil Eigenmann) and Mark Gil (né Raphael John Gil Eigenmann, deceased 2014) had already picked up acting. Together, and then with the children in the third generation — including celebrities Ryan, AJ, and Geoff Eigenmann (from her brother Michael); the aforementioned Sid Lucero, Gabby, Andi, and Max Eigenmann (from her brother Mark)* — the Eigenmann family, using different names and assuming multiple identities onscreen, would become one of the country’s more formidable showbiz dynasties, known for a dedication to their craft.
Ms. Gil is survived by her parents, a brother, numerous nephews and nieces, and three children: Jay Eigenmann (with actor and comedian Leo Martinez), and Bianca and Raphael Rogoff (with violinist Rony Rogoff).
Prior to her big break in Elwood Perez’s Problem Child (1980), Ms. Gil recalled in an Instagram post: “I’ve been asked numerous times how many years I’ve been in the business. Frankly, I don’t know exactly as with the ‘which came first, the chicken or the egg’ anecdote, I’m not really sure when it all started.’” The post was accompanied by a picture of a young Cherie, according to her, singing Carole King’s “I Feel The Earth Move” on a show called Super Young Stars. “I did start as a singer and host after all!,” she said. “I was so sure that was the song because I vividly remember my dad standing behind the cameras conducting to the rhythm of my favorite tune. I practiced over and over again to only make a mistake and start over.”
“I don’t know if I got paid for it though as I was having so much fun anyway as I recall!” she wrote. “When you love your job, it don’t feel like a job at all.”
Her looks and bearing would have been enough for a lucrative modelling career (as seen in a 1970s advertisement for Citrobelle, a brand of facial cleanser), but drama was in her blood. In a short span of time, Ms. Gil proved her versatility, jumping from roles of aristocratic enfants terribles in the aforementioned Problem Child and Oro Plata Mata (1982), and in between playing an actual degenerate in Ishmael Bernal’s Manila By Night (1980; for which she was nominated Best Actress during the Gawad Urian Awards). She could do camp (playing the gorgon Valentina in Darna: Ang Pagbabalik in 1994), and comedy (spending years in the comedy sketch show Champoy in the 1980s).
Her skill would be recognized in multiple awards: for Sonata (2013), she won as Best Actress at the 2015 ASEAN International Film Festival and Awards (AIFFA), and for Mana (2014), she won Best Lead Actress in a Foreign Language Film at the Madrid International Film Festival, and the Ani ng Dangal Award from the National Commission of Culture and the Arts (NCCA) in 2016.
“What a role!” Ms. Gil said of her work in Manila By Night, during an interview with BusinessWorld High Life in 2015. “I felt, wow, I must be really Bernie’s favorite,” she laughed. “I think the sense of having the androgynousness made him feel that I was the one who could play Kano. I grew up with my brothers, so I could get into character easily. It was a dream role — a dream role.”
Outside her roles as cold and calculating women on the big and small screens (she was a favored telenovela villain), she brought nuanced performances onstage. She played Maria Callas in Master Class (2010), and in her capacity as founder of My Own Mann Productions, she played Vogue editor Diana Vreeland in Full Gallop (2014). “Theater is an actor’s medium — the best training ground,” she told High Life.
She achieved mainstream fame in Bituing Walang Ningning, where she played an established diva about to be upstaged by a younger supplicant, played by frequent co-star, Sharon Cuneta (herself formidable enough with her own showbiz and political connections, as well as an adoring fanbase that dubbed her “Megastar”).
According to the same High Life story, titled “PriMadonna” (juxtaposing her with pop star Madonna, who was in Manila for the first time when the interview was conducted), Ms. Gil had bagged the role when she took a break from the cinema and sang in clubs. This movie cemented her place in Filipino pop culture: in it, she splashes her rival in the face with a glass of water after haughtily declaring: “You’re nothing but a second-rate, trying-hard copycat!” This line would either be copied word-for-word in drag shows, or referenced in several other movies. Ms. Gil set a standard for Philippine cinema’s contrabidas (villains).
Ms. Cuneta’s virginal ingenues were the perfect foils for Ms. Gil’s polished villains. They played rivals in Kailan Sasabihing Mahal Kita (1985), Bakit Ikaw Pa Rin? (1990), and Ngayon At Kailanman (1992), among other films.
In Sana’y Wala Nang Wakas (1986), they played friends, a testament to the real-life bond between the two stars. In an Instagram post, Ms. Cuneta told Ms. Gil in a comment, “I want to thank you for being my ‘better half’ in ALL of our movies together. You are my one and only Cherie. There is no one like you. You have been such a big part of my career and every bit of success God has blessed me with… I have always loved you and will always love you.”
While looking every bit a cold sophisticate, Ms. Gil was full of real-life warmth. During an event for the press rounds of Full Gallop, she had told this reporter, “You have got style.” In another press conference for the play, she told BusinessWorld about her similarities with the similarly glamorous and misunderstood editor. “She loves the tango; I love the tango. She’s a wonderful mother, and I would like to think I’m a wonderful mother.”
She lowered her voice when she remembered parallels between herself and her character. “The times when I found myself in my deepest misery, in my lowest. And you’d have to get up again.” — Joseph L. Garcia