THE BLOG

Meet the Real Philomena... and See the Movie!

01/09/2014 03:40 pm ET | Updated Mar 11, 2014

The inimitable Harvey Weinstein had a screening last weekend for some Academy members and celebrities of his new film, Philomena, and after the screening he invited us to meet the real woman who inspired the film. Philomena Lee and her daughter Jane, also depicted in the film by an actress, along with Steve Coogan, the famed British comic/actor who plays the reporter who wrote the book on which the movie is based, were there. They had arrived on their first visit to Los Angeles just hours earlier and were somewhat jet-lagged at the Beverly Wilshire gathering. However, I had an opportunity for a fairly lengthy one-on-one with them to learn a little more of the events behind the film.

Co-star Steve Coogan, daughter Jane and the real Philomena Lee at party. Photo by Jay.

By now you are probably well aware of the story of this poignant, beautiful movie starring Judi Dench as Philomena. The real one told me that Dame Judi was in India shooting a sequel to The Exotic Marigold Hotel picture, in which she appeared some years ago. Philomena told me that the filmmakers took some liberties in telling her story, but essentially it was accurate in its basic facts. It relates how an innocent young Irish girl in 1952 meets a fellow at a country fair and was seduced by him. When she learned she was pregnant, her outraged father shipped her off to the nearby Sean Ross Abbey where the nuns put all of the "damaged" girls into harsh labor jobs without much pay. Lee said that she and the other young women like her were treated as sinners who should live in shame for their transgressions. We see her working long hours in the steaming hot laundry until her baby was due. Undergoing a very hard breech delivery, she gave birth to a healthy son, Anthony, and for three years she saw her son only for an hour a day. She was forced to sign an agreement giving up all rights to the child.

Then, in an incredibly cruel moment, the nuns "sold" her baby -- along with many others -- to wealthy American parents seeking to adopt. "It was a week before Christmas in 1952," the 78-year-old Lee related. "He was three and a half, and a beautiful, smiling boy. I loved him to bits. And then he was gone. It broke me, it broke me for a long time." She later learned that the Abbey made a healthy profit from these unholy actions, while the Irish government paid convents and Catholic institutions one pound per week for every unwed mother in their care, and two shillings and six pence for each child. The young women also worked making rosaries and other items, which brought the Abbey an additional income, along with toiling in the greenhouses and gardens. For shame!

The young Philomena at the fair. Photo from Weinstein Co.

Eventually, she left the convent, became a nurse, married in 1959 and had two children, all the while trying unsuccessfully to learn the whereabouts of her son. The nuns claimed untruthfully that all the paperwork had been burned in a fire (in actuality, they deliberately burned all of the records.) For 50 years she kept the secret of this abominable event to herself. She wryly told me that finally, in 2004, "When I had a little too much sherry at a party, I told my daughter Jane this secret story." That's when Jane met Martin Sixsmith, a former BBC journalist, at a party and, as the film shows, convinces him to look into her mother's story. He eventually did so and wrote a best-selling book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, about the mother's search for her child-- the basis for this film. Famed British stand-up comic Steve Coogan co-wrote the script with Jeff Pope, co-produced it with Tracey Seaward and Gabrielle Tana, and played the journalist. It was he who took his script to a garden meeting with Dame Judi Dench and read it to her -- who immediately said yes. The fact that a Dench favorite, Stephan Frears, was directing closed the deal. I must make note of the musical score by five-time Oscar nominee Alexandre Desplat, which is rather stunning.

Off to America, in the film. Dench and Coogan. Photo by Weinstein Co.

They create an event in the film where the two of them, Dench/Philomena and Coogan/Martin, go to America to seek the son's whereabouts. Ms. Lee told me that in actuality, the journalist went by himself and learned that her son, now named Michael Hess, had become a prominent legal member of the Reagan and Bush administrations, and was secretly gay. He had died of AIDS nine years before. But the bombshell revelation was that the son had gone to Ireland seeking his mother, and the church/nuns had stonewalled him, also into thinking she was not findable, even though they knew the search was bilateral. And that Michael was actually buried in the graveyard of the Roscrea convent where it all started.

Chinese actress Teresa Cheung with Philomena and Jane. Photo by Jay.

Philomena and her daughter, Jane Libberton, sat with me and, as we sipped Earl Gray tea, she elaborated on the actual story. "My mother died when I was six, and my father sent me to the convent school in County Tipperary. I didn't know anything of the facts of life, and when I was 18, I fell for a young man I met at the county fair. I got pregnant and gave birth to Anthony in July of 1952. The rest of the story is pretty much the film you saw."

Director Stephan Frears at press conference. Photo by Weinstein Co.

The brilliant, irreverent director, Stephan Frears, was not at the Beverly Wilshire party but was in Hollywood this week and gave an interview to the local paper. "There was tragedy and comedy going on at the same time. It was the double thing that I really liked and thought was very, very clever," he said. "I had worked previously with Judi Dench on The Queen and Mrs. Henderson Presents, and wanted to do so again, so she was the only actress I considered for the role." He commented on the fact that the real Philomena Lee had a complete lack of bitterness, which I also observed in our conversation. She told me that most of the nuns were lovely, just a few older ones were "harsh." Certainly, the mean-spirited Sister Hildegarde in the picture was one of those. Frears' frustration with Catholicism and the Irish church was evident in his discussion.

On Jon Stewart's show last night, guest Steve Coogan said that they leavened the script with lots of warm, humorous scenes to open up the audience to the deeply dramatic substance. "My biggest concern was that I could play too broad, and I asked the director to rein me in when that happened. He certainly did." At this writing, the outcome of the film's three Golden Globe nominations is not known. My disdain for this joke-of-a-group, and its splendid show is well known, but I rather suspect that my fellow Academy members will remember the film and its participants at Oscar time.

The irrepressible Harvey Weinstein in all his glory. Photo by Jay.

At which point in the party, I encountered old friend Harvey Weinstein, who praised all of my Huffington writings and said that in one, I had alerted him to the revival of our long-in-gestation (12 years) film project, a remake of the lovely supernatural romantic comedy, Bell, Book & Candle. "Now that I am back at Miramax, we will get it done." From your lips to God's ears, or vice versa, Harvey.

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