One of the most outstanding personalities of Filipino cinema and stage, Mario O'Hara, passed away from leukemia at the San Juan de Dios hospital (Manila) on June 26, 2012, at only 66. He was cremated, and the wake took place at Magallanes church, in Manila.
Born on April 20, 1946, in Zamboanga (Mindanao), one of the many children of Jaime O'Hara, the son of an Irish-American Thomasite, and a Filipina with Spanish blood, Mario Herrero O'Hara perfectly reflects the "melting pot" of the Philippines modern history. Actually he was about the only one in his family to refuse to take an American passport, which already says enough about his character.
At 17, Mario dropped his studies when he had a chance to participate to a radio drama in 1963, and chose to work for the radio at MBC (Manila Broadcasting Corp.), as well as for TV. There, the future author of famed Insiang (1976) met Lino Brocka. Struck by the young boy's talent (and beauty!), Brocka offered Mario the part of the brother of Walter Navarro in Stardoom (1971), a film about the amazing rise and fall of a pop idol. In the same year, Mario was casted in Brocka’s Goldplated (Tubog sa Ginto, 1971), playing the lover of gay closet Eddie Garcia, triggering scandal and a family tragedy. Several other films like Cadena de Amor (1971) and Tatlo, dalawa, isa (Three, two, one, 1974) by Lino Brocka followed. Mario was also offered a number of classic parts in stage plays at the PETA (Philippines Educational Theatre Alliance) for a long period, and became a pillar of that noble institution. But the film that really launched his career was Brocka's You Were Judged and Found Wanting (Tinimbang ka ngunit kulang, 1974). He wrote the script and played the memorable part of Berto the Leper, falling in love with handicapped Koala (played by Lolita Rodriguez, one of the most talented actresses of that time). He already showed his interest in marginalized people, who do not fit the norms of conservative catholic Filipino society. He also appeared beside Bembol Rocco in Brocka's Manila in the Claws of Neon (Maynila sa mga kuko ni Liwanag, 1975), one of the most famous films of its author abroad.
1976 was probably the greatest year for his creativity: Mario wrote a teleplay, Insiang, inspired by the daily life and incidents in a slum area, just behind his house in Pasay. Again, he adapted it to a screenplay and Lino Brocka directed it. The film was shown at the Cannes Director's Fortnight, and introduced his name abroad. Later, Mario also wrote and directed the stage play. The same year, he directed the stunning Three Godless Years (Tatlong taong walang Diyos). Set during the Japanese occupation, it starred the famed Nora Aunor, who was to become a regular actress in Mario's films, as well as in Lino Brocka's. Another important film was Mortal (1976), among many other ones in that golden period. And he kept writing many scripts for Lino Brocka.
So, Mario's reputation was already established as an actor (film and stage), and as a talented screenwriter and director (also for TV, in weekly TV dramas). The height of his career was in the 1980s, when he was able to direct a number of films with icon Nora Aunor such as Castle of Sand and Why is the Sky Blue?. In 1984, his Condemned and Flowers of the City Jail got them a number of awards at the FAMAS or for the Gawad Urians. One of his most underrated films is certainly A New King (Bagong Hari, 1986), which was censored by the MTRCB, and had only a short run after the EDSA revolution, which ousted Marcos. A very powerful film, Bagong Hari reveals a lot about the stark contrast of Filipino society at the end of the Marcos era. A "lost" (and found) copy of the film was shown last year at the CCP by the Sofia society, in the presence of Mario.
In the 1990s, as the production system was decaying, Mario was given a chance to produce two films with low budget, and a very limited time, under the "pito-pito" system imposed by feared producer Lily Monterverde (Mother Lily) of Regal films. A Woman on a Tin Roof (Babae sa bubungang lata, 1998, with Anita Linda) is a homage to Lino Brocka and set in the Manila North Cemetery, where people actually live. Sisa (1999) is a fantasy inspired by national hero Jose Rizal and Sisa, one of the characters of his novel, Noli me tangere.
In spite of the total decline of Filipino production, Mario O'Hara was still able to make a few other films like Sindak (Terror, 1999), the impressive Demons ( Pangarap ng puso, 2000). His Woman at the Breakwater (Babae sa breakwater, 2002), an independent film, was shown at the Cannes Director's Fortnight, almost 25 years after Insiang. It showed the everlasting love of Mario for marginalized people on the fringe of society. But his last ambitious film for cinema, The Trial of Andres Bonifacio (Ang paglilitis ni Andres Bonifacio, 2010), another introspective look at a hero of Filipino independence, had to be produced by Cinemalaya, the Indie film festival in Manila, in a digital format, as no producer would take the risks in today's Filipino cinema. His final work was for TV5, In the Name of the Mother (Sa ngalaan ng Ina), a TV series where he could direct, for the last time, his old time screen companion, Nora Aunor, back from a long exodus in the USA.
A man of a "bigger than life" stature, Mario O'Hara was one of the last ambitious figures of Filipino stage and film world, refusing compromises, at a time when "entertainment only" or experimental indie films for festivals are the key words. It is very unlikely that any other personality of that dimension will appear in Filipino cinema any time soon. He was always a very discreet and modest person. As Noel Vera, his most fervent supporter ever, writes: "Unlike his more outspoken contemporaries, Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal, O'Hara did not like to discuss the ideas his films are supposed to express; he much preferred to stay in the background, cup bearer to the industry's gaudier princesa (...)".
O'Hara's reputation abroad is not what it should have been, because of his extreme shyness and reclusive style of life. He hardly accepted to be interviewed by foreign critics and also on account of his known aerophobia. He always refused to take the plane to go anywhere, even to Cannes in 2004, for A Woman at the Breakwater. This aversion to traveling or mingling with people other than his own barkada, was certainly a handicap for his full recognition abroad. So, let's wish that some homages and retrospectives in foreign festivals will finally do him justice abroad. He certainly deserves it.
Max Tessier (in Manila)
Also see the blog by Noel Vera, Mario O'Hara's longtime supporter: criticafterdark.blogspot.com