The Night I Drank With Cherie Gil

They say never meet your heroes. But what about meeting villains?
IMAGE IMDB/GMA

“You’re 22? Diyos ko. You’re the same age as my son! Why am I drinking with you?”

In 2019, Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play Angels in America: Millennium Approaches finally came to Manila. It featured an ensemble that included the likes of Andoy Ranay, Angeli Bayani, Topper Fabregas, Art Acuña, Markki Stroem, and Cherie Gil. I was a young writer at the time, and I was told by my editor to do a story about it. So I did.

At around 7 p.m., I wound up in a Makati café for a chat with the main players in the play. Markki Stroem couldn't make it because of some last-minute thing. The rest, I was told, were on their way. Some 30 minutes later, Art was the first to arrive (the first to get drunk, too, but he denied this then). He ordered a bottle of the joint's best craft beer. We talked about motorcycles, Boston brew, and the time he crashed his bike and how he flew 20 feet into the air and still survived.

The next people to arrive were Angeli and then Andoy and then Cherie. We moved outside where people could smoke. I trust a smoker, because I'm a smoker, too. Beer was had, and the conversation started to flow.

Sitting across from me was Cherie. She was arguably the main draw of Angels in America, playing Hannah Pitt, the tough Mormon mother who was not exactly accepting toward her gay son. It was a classic Cherie Gil role. She made a living out of the kontrabida archetype, but those characters could never do her justice.

A headshot of Cherie Gil for Angels in America.

Photo by Atlantis Theatrical.

She was well-aware of this, too, but nevertheless embraced it. I tried to get all my interview questions out of the way. They seemed like they were looking to have fun tonight, I thought to myself. I asked them what they thought Angels in America was about. Andoy pointed out that it was more than just a story about acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). It was about breaking social barriers. Cherie chimed in, too.

“Can you imagine what they went through? The cast, the directors and the writer, they had friends dying of it (AIDS). Imagine the pain,” she said. “It can also be looked at as a metaphorical concept of extrajudicial killings and all the impunity. It is a plague, a disease.”

Cherie added: "All the characters are fighting for something meaningful, something that’s true, something that's even spiritual. It’s about the power that keeps us alive and helps us survive and cope, knowing that among each other, we can find a resolve, especially in this time and age.”

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The night went on and things got loose. They started talking about the favorite people they've acted with, past projects they worked on together, and the exes who were never to be named. At times, we talked about the theater of politics and celebrity, as well. Like the performers they were, they also recreated some cinematic gems for me.

"How does it go nga, Cherie?" jokingly asked Andoy.

"You're nothing but a second-rate, trying-hard, copycat!" she quipped, quoting that immortal line by Lavinia Arguelles from Bituing Walang Ningning"Hindi ako nakakalimot ng linya!"

That's the film my mother remembers her from the most. A lot of us do. In a career that spans 50 years, Cherie became one of the most revered and cherished performers of all time, and took on the most unconventional, at times peculiar, and most daring of roles.

I first got acquainted with Cherie's work because of soap operas like Onanay, which I used to watch together with my aunt. But it was when I saw Cherie as Kano in Ishmael Bernal's masterpiece Manila By Night and as Trining Ojeda in Peque Gallaga's wartime opus Oro, Plata, Mata that I knew what she meant to Philippine cinema. Her performances in Arbol de Fuego, Doubt, and Angels in America were peak theater, too.

Cherie went by many names. She was Diana Vreeland. She was Maria Callas. She was Regina Cadena. She was Victoria Raymundo. Hell, Cherie could've played my grandmother, too, for all I know.

A shot of Cherie Gil in Tia Madre.

Photo by IMDB/TIA MADRE.

A scene from Oro, Plata, Mata with a young Cherie Gil in the back, playing Trinidad "Trining" Ojeda.

Photo by CINEMA ONE ORIGINALS.

"Grabe, Bernal was something else to work with," she told us. "Napakabata ko pa noon. Napapagalitan pa nga ako minsan at titigil ang production because of me. We had Gina (Alajar) tapos Ricky (Lee) wrote it. I was so thankful to be a part of that. I learned so much from these icons. They made my career."

Perhaps it just runs in the family. She was the daughter of Rosemarie Gil and Eddie Mesa, after all. She inherited the unbearable weight of talent and held her own. The award-winning Cherie, during our conversation, even toasted to her brother, the late great Mark Gil, for his exceptional work. She also acknowledged the acting chops of another one of her brothers, Michael de Mesa. There was never a sibling rivalry, she emphasized.

Cherie was just different. In her performances, she carried herself with a certain poise and cadence that was charming, magnetic, and fun. She was smart, powerful, sexy, and just had impeccable command of the scene. It was mesmerizing to watch, even when she had been typecast during the later portion of her career.

"It's good to be the go-to kontrabida," she claimed. "I like playing strong women." I guess that was just who she was. The country's "La Primera Contravida" was an actor's actor. But it wasn't just the mastery of the craft that stood out with her. There was something mythical about her, as well. 

Performers like Cherie are some of the most honest people we’re ever going to meet. There’s something to actors of that caliber that is too real and too magical at the same time. Capturing all that in costume, nuances, and dialogue means harnessing the glory of god for a few seconds. Because that was all that was allowed. The rest of the character had to be as human as can be. Cherie Gil, the actress, understood that and then some.

The Bituing Walang Ningning poster, featuring Sharon Cuneta and Cherie Gil.

Photo by VIVA FILMS.

The Manila by Night poster. It's one of Bernal's finest and most controversial films.

Photo by CINEFILIPINO.

I was fortunate enough to talk to Cherie Gil, the person, mother, sister, and friend during our shindig, too. She had opened up about how much she missed her brother Mark. Or how her children were growing up a little too fast for her liking. Maybe it was the beers or the cigarettes that got the sentimentality going. Either way, I was all ears.

Later on, she asked me how old I was. I told her I was 22.

“You’re 22? Diyos ko. You’re the same age as my son! Why am I drinking with you?”

She was incredulous, but did note that she did Bituing Walang Ningning in 1985 at about the same age as me. But with a son roughly my age, she probably found it understandably odd. Nobody wants to smoke with their son's friends, I know. 

Closing time had came around 11 p.m. By the end of the night, Cherie bought us coffee as we sobered up. She also got us some bags of coffee beans from home. "Oh, there, this comes from the farm and ang ibig sabihin niyan ay there's now a tree named after you. Oh diba? Inuman at advocacy!"

Cherie Gil as Regina Cadena in Peque Gallaga's heartwarming coming-of-age drama Sonata.

Photo by SCREENSHOT/SONATA.

A photo from the night. Seen here are Andoy Ranay, Angeli Bayani, Cherie Gil, the author, a representative from Atlantis Theatrical, and Art Acuña.

Photo by BRYLE B. SURALTA.

Cherie just oozed kindness. Unfortunately, I never got to visit that tree for myself. Last February, the actress announced that she was moving to New York. The relocation meant she had to sell her stuff, including some properties. On August 5, it was announced that the titan of cinema had passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer.

Cherie, for what it's worth, deserves the most heroic of tributes. She is survived by her parents, Michael, daughter Bianca, as well as her sons Raphael Rogoff and Jay Eigenmann.

Ironically, I hung out with Cherie when she was an Angel in America. She would pass away as an angel in America. Go figure. The last time I saw her was on opening night of Angels in America in Makati. She didn’t disappoint, obviously.

By the end of the evening, I remember, as I was walking back from the RCBC Plaza balcony toward the Carlos P. Romulo Auditorium, where the show was held, I heard Angelica Panganiban talking with some friends about the cast's performances, including Cherie's, who was as riveting as always.

Angelica said something along the lines of "syempre, Cherie Gil 'yan e!" And I guess looking at Cherie's body of work now, that’s how we'll remember her. The woman was a force of cinema, of theater, of nature, and of life. She reshaped each stage in her image. We lost a legend. She was the Cherie Gil, goddamn it.

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About The Author
Bryle B. Suralta
Assistant Section Editor
Bryle B. Suralta is the assistant section editor of Esquire Philippines.
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