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Dolly de Leon 101: A ranking of her performances in film and TV

By Ryan Oquiza Published Sep 08, 2023 5:00 am

With a sparkle in her eyes, Dolly De Leon will be the first to tell you she's no marquee name in her native Philippines. You've likely spotted her as the caring psychiatrist, the stern school principal, or the wise and empathetic mother.

But make no mistake, De Leon is no bit player on the global cinema stage after her turn in Triangle of Sadness as a toilet cleaner on a yacht turned de facto captain. As the first Filipina actress to earn nominations from both the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Awards and Golden Globe Awards, she has already established herself as a powerhouse performer who transcends borders.

De Leon has quietly forged a triumphant path in the film industry through 32 years of experience. In her honor, here’s a ranking of some of her best roles in film and television:

8. Billie and Emma (2018)

This Samantha Lee-directed LGBT coming-of-age story sees De Leon play Sister Mary, the head of an all-girls school that finds itself on a collision course with the smart and determined Emma (Gabby Padilla). In a hilarious negotiation scene that goes through a rollercoaster of twists and turns, Sister Mary is confronted with a pivotal choice: uphold the school's antiquated rules and potentially expel its most exceptional student, or yield to the pressures of the female student revolution (plus the gay agenda). In this fleeting moment, De Leon captures the needless rigidity and glaring fallibility often intertwined with Catholic schools.

7. Kitty K7 (2022)

In this raunchy VivaMax Original Film, De Leon plays every daughter’s worst nightmare: a disparaging conservative, non-sex-positive, and (probably) mega-religious mother. Hana (Rose Van Ginkel) is a sexy camgirl in the alter world, but as soon as her mother (De Leon) finds out, she, along with the audience, bears witness to the all-too-relatable verbal beat-down that serves as the high-stakes dramatic equivalent of our moms telling us to change or delete a picture on Facebook for being "too revealing." De Leon came to shoot just two scenes: one as a caring mother, and another as a terrifying mother that Filipino children know all too well.

6. Midnight in a Perfect World (2018)

Who said Dolly de Leon can’t do weird stuff? De Leon’s motherliness is so universal that it’s recognizable even in a chilling alternate version of Manila. Acting as the mother of Tonichi (Dino Pastrano), her role is hard to categorize, which you can also say as a whole of Dodo Dayao’s utopian (or dystopian) sci-fi horror. De Leon’s empathy for her son cuts deep in a world that feels like indifference and where killing is the norm.

5. Historya ni Ha (2021)

In Lav Diaz's four-hour epic, De Leon plays an aging sex worker and comfort woman who joins Hernando (John Lloyd Cruz) on a quest for gold. Accompanied by a young boy and a nun (Mae Paner), they end up stranded in a barrio. De Leon blends comic relief with a commanding presence through bluntness and candor. Her true brilliance lies in portraying her character’s silent vulnerability, facing the reality of aging and lost beauty.

4. Verdict (2019)
Dolly De Leon in Verdict (2019)

The film that won De Leon’s first FAMAS award, Verdict sees the actress take on a morally complex role as the mother of a domestic abuser. Raymund Ribay Gutierrez takes a cue from Brillante Mendoza’s gritty realism and depicts a battered wife (Max Eigenmann) having to maneuver her way through a deeply flawed and uncaring legal system just to get her husband behind bars. De Leon’s character mirrors this journey, as she tries to raise money to get the best legal assistance she can for her son, even though she despises him. It’s an instinctual urge to protect her child that informs De Leon’s performance, and it’s all the more visceral and stirring for it.

3. The Kangks Show (2021-2022)
Dolly De Leon and Nikko Natividad in The Kangks Show (2021)

"The Tita of Manila getting the D of Manila" is arguably the most fitting phrase for De Leon's cameo in the pilot episode of the WeTV original series by Antoinette Jadaone. Playfully bestowed the moniker of "Mrs. Daks Chaser," De Leon considers this role among her proudest accomplishments, as she effortlessly displays her prowess in portraying mature women with a keen awareness of their sexual appetites. Unexpectedly faced with a younger man with a micro-penis, her small (no pun intended) role actually opened up conversations about whether or not size matters, effectively setting the tone for candid sex talks in future episodes.

2. Folklore: 7 Days of Hell (2021)
Dolly de Leon plays “Lourdes” in 7 Days of Hell.

Erik Matti’s episode from HBO Asia’s horror anthology series Folklore is one for the ages, mainly due to De Leon finally getting a much-deserved lead role as a policewoman facing yet another morally fraught situation. Her son is abruptly cursed with a bloated belly, which grows progressively worse and more disgusting. De Leon is not afraid to get physical, at one point getting possessed by a “mangkukulam” and pretending to pass on a message while supposedly having an out-of-body experience. Once again, she taps into maternal instinct to protect her child, culminating in a shocking climax that smartly directs the camera's focus squarely on her evocative face.

1. Triangle of Sadness (2021)

What hasn’t been yet said about Dolly de Leon’s legendary performance as Abigail in the Oscar-nominated film Triangle of Sadness? It is, far and away, one of the best singular performances of any actor in 2022. So how could this bit player, whose work has operated at the periphery, and whose name has evaded the general public, garner this much success in such a short span of time? Simple: It’s talent—talent that has always been there, merely awaiting discovery and the opportunity to shine. In fact, when Yaya exclaimed, "You managed to run a f***ing matriarchy, Abigail," she could easily have been referring to De Leon herself: the unnoticed and unsung mother figure of Filipino film and television.