The scariest thing at 2019’s box office isn’t Joaquin Phoenix’s clown, or the uncanny valley felines of Cats, or Pennywise. It’s Imelda Marcos. The Kingmaker, the fourth feature by the director and photographer Lauren Greenfield, is a documentary but it’s also a work of horror.
Her previous films Generation Wealth and The Queen of Versailles are testament to Greenfield’s interest in our obsession with money. Perhaps someday, when the dust of the future class war settles, we’ll think of her as a seer. Imelda seems the ideal subject for Greenfield: the absolute paragon of excess, a reliable pop cultural punch line ever since her husband, the Filipino strongman Ferdinand Marcos, was deposed by a People Power revolution in 1986. I’m confident that someone who couldn’t find the Philippines on a map would remember her as the presidential wife who had too many shoes.
Greenfield’s film begins in 2014, as a portrait of a woman in her dotage. Still glam at 85, the former beauty queen rides through the streets of Manila, where vendors and children crowd around for a look at her, or maybe for one of the crisp bills she dispenses wherever she goes. The people glimpsed in this first scene gaze at Imelda with awe and it doesn’t seem only a matter of the money—there’s a deep affection there.
Greenfield provides a useful crash course on Imelda. She was a young woman from the provinces who, in 1954, caught the eye of a congressman on the rise. Their courtship lasted all of eleven days, a romance that was also a political alliance. Marcos was a popular legislator in both the House and the Senate; eleven years after they wed, he strode easily into the office of president with his elegant wife on his arm. It was Camelot in Southeast Asia. Was Imelda a prop along for the ride, or was she an impresario, blending governance and show business? Either way, the world watched intently.
Greenfield stitches together archival footage and photos of all the ribbon-cutting and glad-handing, Imelda always immaculately turned out, her beauty astonishing. Here she is charming all of history’s monsters: Richard Nixon, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gadaffi, Andy Warhol (read the diaries!), Donald Trump.
Fair warning that the last looms over everything here. Greenfield didn’t set out to make a movie about American politics, but as a keen observer of wealth, it was probably inevitable that her work would have something to say about money’s kissing cousin, power.
The Kingmaker is anchored by on-camera interviews with its subject, and if Imelda knows anything, it’s how to charm. “There are many things that women can do,” she says, discussing the soft diplomacy she conducted that burnished the Marcoses’ global reputation. “Sometimes it helps that you’re not taken too seriously.” Greenfield’s movie shows how horribly accurate this is—how Imelda has not been taken seriously enough, obscuring who she truly is.
Marcos dispatched his wife as diplomat so that he could chase skirts, but Imelda is loyal to the guy decades after his death. It’s tempting to be sympathetic, to read pain into some of the photographs of the young woman. Imelda tells Greenfield’s cameras that she was close to a nervous breakdown when confronted with the many responsibilities of the political wife. She also tells us how hard it was for her to lose her mother when she was only a girl, and posits that her role in life was to be a mother for the people of the Philippines. I don’t buy it. These are talking points that Imelda has whittled into a weapon.
That outlandish business of Imelda’s shoes—did she have 3,000?—obscures the facts. One of the talking heads in Greenfield’s film notes the woman’s “edifice complex,” which would seem to apply to another world leader I could name. This meant erecting buildings and bridges across the Philippines (pocketing some of the budget) and also buying a handful of towers in Manhattan (the Woolworth among them). In context of the Marcoses’ theft, the frippery hardly matters. Mariah Carey probably owns more Manolos! That evidence of Imelda as Marie Antoinette has become a tidy myth that’s useful to the Marcos family. On camera, Imelda recalls the night that she and her husband fled the country and the people looted the presidential palace: “They found no skeletons, but found beautiful shoes.”
The people didn’t need to poke around in closets to find the corruption. During the height of her power, Imelda—the consummate shopper—bought some wild animals from Kenya and stashed them on Calauit Island, which everyone pretended was an uninhabited sanctuary (the government evicted the locals). Four generations on, those animals’ descendants are inbred and dysfunctional. This is some truly insane, Pablo Escobar shit, and Greenfield returns to this more than once—it’s an irresistible symbol of power run amok—though she hardly needs it.
As the film moves into 2016, the focus shifts from Marcos to her son, Bongbong, and his race for the Philippine vice presidency. At one this point in the film, Imelda is referred to as the consummate politician—the maker of two generations of kings. That’s the trick of the movie’s title; the only person more powerful than a king is the person who installs them upon the throne.
Maybe she’s a political animal, but more than that, Imelda is just a superb criminal, a thug in couture. Imelda sits for Greenfield’s camera on a sofa beneath canvases by Picasso, Fragonard, Michelangelo, and Monet. When the government commission dedicated to locating the money the Marcoses looted sniffs out the existence of these masterpieces, they’re replaced with family photos. The fraud happens on camera, because Imelda’s whole life has happened on camera.
There’s something humane in Greenfield’s approach to document rather than condemn. Filmmaker and subject are storytellers both; maybe they understand one another. Initially, Greenfield seems to see Imelda as almost pitiable. Perhaps it’s a default respect for our elders, the same thing that allows Henry Kissinger to leave the house without being spit upon. Eventually, Greenfield understands that she’s not at work on a portrait of one of history’s footnotes but one of its major players.
When it comes to corruption, Donald Trump isn’t fit to hold Imelda’s dollar sign–emblazoned sack full of money. He traffics in alternative facts; she has woven those into history, to the extent that the school kids Greenfield interviewed about the nine dark years of Ferdinand Marcos’s reign can’t articulate whether this was a good or a bad thing. Trump pardoned Joe Arpaio and Scooter Libby; Imelda got her husband, the man who plundered the nation, interred in its most hallowed cemetery. Trump’s charisma-deficient sons are writing books and tweeting; Greenfield shows us how, by backing the candidacy of lunatic Rodrigo Duterte, Imelda is closer than ever to elevating her kid into the office his father once held.
The Kingmaker is a terrifying film. I’m so eager to find some silver lining in it that I’ll at least allow that the story is one of feminist victory. Imelda Marcos got away with everything every corrupt politician has only ever dreamt of, and as we say of Ginger Rogers, she did it in heels. One of 3,000 pairs.