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At 80, the real Philomena works for British film's success

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - She is not an actress, but rather an 80-year-old Irish mother and former nurse, crisscrossing Los Angeles in the film awards season for screenings, interviews and even an afternoon tea party.
/ Source: Reuters

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - She is not an actress, but rather an 80-year-old Irish mother and former nurse, crisscrossing Los Angeles in the film awards season for screenings, interviews and even an afternoon tea party.

Philomena Lee takes the hullabaloo with good humor, knowing that the film she inspired - "Philomena" - not only has chances of winning awards but also helping women who, like her, had babies as teens and were forced to give them up.

"It is a challenge because I normally led a very quiet family life when all this happened," said Lee when she stopped by the Reuters newsroom this week in her whirlwind schedule.

But now she's fully aware of the power of her story on film.

"I have brought something out that was buried for so long," said Lee, who now lives outside London. "And a lot of women like myself just could not tell the story because you were made to feel so bad about having a baby out of marriage."

Directed by Britain's Stephen Frears and co-written by comedic actor Steve Coogan, "Philomena" is up for a Golden Globe on Sunday for best motion picture drama. Judi Dench, who plays Lee, is a front-runner to win best actress in a drama, while Coogan and Jeff Pope are competing for best adapted screenplay.

"Philomena" also received four nominations this week for Britain's top film honors, the BAFTAs. And its box office performance, $45 million worldwide, is considered buoyant for a film of its modest size.

The Weinstein Company, run by impresario Harvey Weinstein and known for its aggressive promotion of films in awards season, has organized a full slate of events this week for "Philomena," as the race for the Oscars on March 2 heats up around the Globes.

"England is a very small country and a modest country," said Frears, perhaps best known for directing 2006's "The Queen," as he accompanied Lee around town. "You come over here, and the scale of things is amazing. It is very cheeky to come over here with a British film."

And the filmmaker, who himself is 72, is quick to deflect criticism of the promo machine in which he and his octogenarian companion find themselves.

"I won't hear a word against Harvey," he said. "He's great. It's when you haven't got Harvey that you are in trouble."


"Philomena" begins with a teenage Lee giving birth to Anthony at a Catholic convent in Ireland, which happened 61 years ago. She and other young mothers are forced to work in the convent laundry, while seeing their children once a day. At around age 3, Anthony is put up for adoption by the nuns and is picked up by an American couple.

The film is based on the 2009 book by former BBC journalist Martin Sixsmith, played by Coogan, who helped Philomena discover what had happened to her son after 50 years of keeping his existence a secret. And while the film's writers took license in telling the story and leavened it with humor, Lee says she is fine with that after some initial misgivings.

"In the beginning, the first time I saw it, there were one or two things said and I thought 'Oh, gosh,'" Lee said. "You know. I am fine with it, actually. It had to bring some laughter into the film as well as tears. The film is so sad really. All my part is a true story."

Frears chimed in to note that after seeing it the first time, Lee "went out and had a good drink."

"I had a gin and tonic," she added.

While she revels in the honor of being portrayed by Judi Dench, one of her and Britain's favorite actors, what is most important to Lee is the possibility that her story will prompt institutional change. She thinks that the wheels are already in motion and points to interest in Ireland in changing laws about personal information.

Both she and Anthony had separately inquired about each other's whereabouts at the convent, only to be repeatedly rebuffed. Philomena only discovered the truth thanks to the investigative skills of Sixsmith.

During their joint interview, Frears peppered Lee with questions about her story, even though the film wrapped long ago. And she described scenes with cinematic flourish.

"For 61 years, I can see ... his little face. This nice nun rushed me up to look out the window to see him going off in his car," said Lee.

(Editing by Jonathan Oatis)