When Manila manufactured its own Elizabeth Taylor

By Tony Joaquin

The Philippines in the 1950s exuded arts and culture. Perhaps, it was because the country had just begun to slowly recover from a horrible world war barely five years before. In Manila there were stage presentations galore in schools as well as by private drama groups such as the Barangay Theatre Guild organized by Lamberto and Daisy Avellana, the Manila Theatre Guild composed of amateur expatriates working and living in the city. Broadway musicals popular at the time were presented in Manila theatres.

Having been in theatre since 11 years old during the Japanese Occupation performing at the Metropolitan Theatre under the direction of Narciso Pimentel, Jr., founder of Dramatic Philippines, I was able to move around that circle of artists, musicians and writers.

During the same period, Philippine movies were strongly influenced by Hollywood and the newly found beauties in Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner and Ava Gardner. With this pack came an excitingly new British actress who debuted in Hollywood via the 1944 movie “National Velvet.” Her name: Elizabeth Taylor.

In the movie, she played Velvet Brown, a 12-year-old equestrian of a girl determined to enter her horse, Pie, in the Grand National Steeplechase. In the supporting role was another talented child actor Mickey Rooney who played the role of a former jockey who helps Velvet train Pie for the big race. At the last minute, Velvet herself has no choice but to ride Pie in the tournament but she had to cut her hair in order to pass as a male jockey.

The movie played on the positive qualities that this young actress brought from London. Her distinctive quality was her striking beauty especially the rare violet color of her eyes!

At the time, a penchant among Filipino movie moguls was having a Filipino copycat of any American male or female actress breaking a box-office record. Thus, we came up with our own Elizabeth Taylor, who had garnered meaty roles as an accomplished actress in movies like “Butterfield 8,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” and her crowning piece de resistance, “Cleopatra.”

Amalia Fuentes emoting a dramatic scene.

Our very own Elizabeth Taylor was Amalia Muhlach Fuentes, a woman with strong European features and dark smoldering eyes. Sampaguita Pictures top boss Doc Perez asserted that Amalia had a striking resemblance to Elizabeth Taylor, but Amalia admitted quite frankly that she never really liked the comparison, much less the manufactured title.

By this token, the Philippine movie world had Barbara Perez as the Audrey Hepburn of the Philippines, a young actor who played a thug in movies Berting Labra as the Mickey Rooney of the Philippines, Tessie Agana as the Shirley Temple of the Philippines, and so on. In the field of crooners we had Bert Nievera as the Johnny Mathis of the Philippines, and Diomedes Maturan as Perry Como of the Philippines.

The story goes that Amalia’s strong resemblance to Taylor was strengthened when she watched one of the many shows featuring American singers at the Rizal Memorial Stadium in the late ‘50s. Vic Damone who was a top singing sensation was the performer. Amalia, not yet 18 years old, watched the show with her then-screen sweetheart — and later husband — Romeo “Bobby” Vasquez, a famous character actor who some say could be the James Dean of the Philippines. The two would later have a daughter Liezl, now a part-time starlet.

In one portion of the show, Damone on an impulse picked a random lady who would join him on stage so that he could sing to her. As luck would have it, he chose Amalia. As Amalia recalled it, “I was not even properly made up and so I was hesitant and surprised of course.” The reason, she said, was that she did not like to attract undue attention as she already developed that sixth sense as a film beauty that people would naturally tend to approach her once she is spotted and do what fans usually do. She was not in that kind of mood that evening for she only wanted to watch and listen to this Italian American singer who sang beautiful love songs.

In a matter of seconds, in front of the huge Filipino audience in the Rizal Memorial Stadium, Vic Damone takes a second look at Amalia and remarked, “You look like Elizabeth Taylor!” And of course the audience went wild with cheers and applause, as if to confirm Vic’s statement.

Indeed, a unique quality that Elizabeth Taylor had created thanks to excellent movie directorial and cinematographic work, was her truly captivating exquisiteness. Not only did she create a massive following among the Filipino masses but among the elite as well, especially in the area of dramatic acting, and left her indelible mark throughout the decades.

Did the two beauties ever come face-to-face?

It happened in the ‘80s when she was watching Elizabeth Taylor in the stage play “The Little Foxes” in London’s West End. Amalia happened to sport at the time a curly hairstyle reminiscent of one Elizabeth wore in one of her movies. After the show, Amalia went to the backstage entrance hoping to meet the beautiful actress and poised ready to ask Elizabeth to autograph her playbill. When Elizabeth finally emerged wearing three-inch heels, Amalia discovered that she towered over Elizabeth who was only 5’1” tall. Amalia was 5‘ 5”.

Elizabeth Taylor died March 23 after a long illness. She was 79. Amalia Fuentes, 71, is retired from acting. A 2009 robbery incident cast her as one of the suspects. She is free on bail, and denies the charges.

Tony Joaquin was a television producer-director, newspaper journalist, industrial trainer, and a soap opera actor in the Philippines. He still gets excited by new ideas, films, love, and living. He is 81.


  1. jhun evangelista wrote:

    trully amalia fuentes is a great actress of phil movies. we salute her, my uncle rey rivera collected so many beautiful pictures of her that until now mesmerize us.

  2. jhun evangelista wrote:

    truly a great icon of phil movies.

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