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Intimate moments with Imelda

A documentary about the former Philippine first lady moves beyond caricature and drag-queen fodder.

August 15, 2004|Anne-Marie O'Connor | Times Staff Writer

Somewhere in the steamy northern Philippines, the elaborately embalmed body of notorious former dictator Ferdinand Marcos lies on view in a glass casket. He's been dead since 1989, but his widow, Imelda Marcos -- now a favorite model for drag queen impersonations in Manila nightclubs -- is waiting for him to be buried with full state honors.

If these surreal snapshots seem drawn from literary magic realism, they're actually scenes from the life of the former first lady of Philippine dictatorship, whose reputation as a global queen of camp is cemented in a new documentary, "Imelda," that opens in Los Angeles on Friday.

It would have been easy for Filipino American director Ramona Diaz to caricature Marcos, who is perhaps most known for flaunting her collection of 3,000 designer shoes at a time her impoverished compatriots were drinking the bitter dregs of the family dictatorship. It would be easy to vilify Marcos as a cohort to her strongman husband, who ruled with an iron fist for 20 years until he was forced to decamp for Hawaii during a military-backed popular uprising in 1986.

Instead, Diaz created a nuanced psychological profile of the now-75-year-old Marcos. It is so intimate that at times, Marcos almost seems to be talking to herself as she muses aloud theatrically in one of her long soliloquies in the documentary. Marcos still wasn't pleased by it: She succeeded in halting the premiere of the film in the Philippines, until a judge lifted the 20-day stay in mid-July.

"She's unrepentant," said Diaz, a Philippine-born filmmaker who worked for "Remington Steele" in Los Angeles for four years in the early 1980s. "And I think that's one of the most interesting things about her. She does not believe she did anything wrong. If she got dressed to the hilt and was extravagant, it was to show the Western world, and to inspire the poor, who she said lived vicariously through her. She rationalizes it. Does she believe it? I believe she does."

In fact, Marcos has become the self-appointed guardian of the family reputation. This is no easy task in a country where her husband declared martial law, held more than 17,000 political prisoners and was believed by U.S. officials to have been complicit in the assassination of a famous pro-democratic activist.

Not that Marcos admitted anything to be ashamed of: "Thank God when they opened my closet, they found shoes, not skeletons," she said in the documentary.

"Shutting it up had the opposite effect," Diaz said. "There's so much hype now it's almost like 'The Passion of Christ.' She's such a polarizing figure."

Like "Fahrenheit 9/11's" Michael Moore, Diaz prevailed with the help of free worldwide publicity, when Philippine Judge Maria Cristina Cornejo denied Marcos an injunction in mid-July, opening the floodgates for a torrent of geopolitical dish about Marcos. By early August, "Imelda" had grossed $220,000.

"For better or for worse, [Marcos] is the most well-known, most recognized Filipino figure," Diaz, 42, told reporters at the Manila courthouse. "People may not know where the Philippines is, but they know Imelda Marcos and her 3,000 pairs of shoes."

It's true that for years, controversy has trailed Imelda Marcos like a cloud of Chanel No. 5. There was her lavish jewelry, her penchant for expensive public works of monumental architecture, which Diaz terms her "edifice complex." And there was the still-unresolved matter of the mysteriously disappeared $600 million belonging to the Filipino government, which Marcos says she knows nothing about.

Queen in the making

Diaz goes back to Marcos' roots. You see Imelda Romualdez spend her early years as a beauty queen, becoming Miss Manila in 1950.

Four years later, she met politician Ferdinand Marcos, and they married after an 11-day courtship. Marcos was elected president in 1965. His wife began to step into public life, building hospitals, museums and schools.

Soon, she was being called -- or calling herself, it is unclear -- the "Filipino Jackie Kennedy." She danced with Henry Kissinger, exchanged gallantries with Moammar Kadafi and was serenaded by George Hamilton.

As her elegantly dressed profile rose, critics began to say she wanted to be more than first lady, she wanted to be queen.

"I grew up thinking she was a very imperious woman. And bad," Diaz said. "When I met her she was very charming and gracious. She really sort of surprises you. That doesn't mean she shouldn't be held accountable for everything she has done."

And as the film follows Marcos through ever-darker headlines of dissent and unrest, her elegant, smiling, composed countenance begins to take a more surreal turn -- a Cold War version of fiddling while Rome burns.

To be fair, Diaz said, whatever the Marcoses may have done, they had a whole society of opportunistic fellow travelers -- beginning with businessmen who profited from their relationships with the Marcos family.

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