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Woman behind 'Philomena' story steps into spotlight for two campaigns

Walking slowly, with the aid of a retractable cane, Philomena Lee, the 80-year-old Irishwoman who inspired the Oscar-nominated drama "Philomena," appeared under the towering marble rotunda of Los Angeles' City Hall this month to receive the latest of her growing list of honors: a certificate of recognition signed by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

A week earlier, the retired psychiatric nurse had been at the Vatican's St. Peter's Square, where she was blessed by the pope. She's met with Democratic senators on Capitol Hill, navigated the red carpet beside movie stars at multiple awards shows and stood onstage at the Golden Globes in front of a televised audience of more than 20 million people.

Lee's unlikely journey out of relative anonymity to the forefront of an aggressive marketing campaign by "Philomena's" distributor, the Weinstein Co., places the unassuming grandmother at the intersection of two complicated agendas: her own efforts to right past wrongs of Ireland's forced adoptions as well as studio co-chairman Harvey Weinstein's none-too-subtle push for Oscar gold.

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Not that she sought the spotlight.

"It's absolutely amazing," Lee exclaimed. "Just a few weeks ago, I was just an ordinary housewife. And then all of a sudden, this has just snowballed."

The movie of Lee's real-life saga of pluck and determination to locate the son who was taken from her in a Catholic home for unwed mothers when she was a teenager in 1950s Ireland is nominated for four Academy Awards, including best picture and actress for Dame Judi Dench, who portrays Lee.

Now, in an Oscar race widely regarded as one of the most competitive in recent years, she's helping change the odds. And in a cultural landscape cluttered with "For Your Consideration" ads and red carpet appearances by A-list stars, the sprightly octogenarian stands out with her sincere search for justice. Call her Weinstein's Golden Girl: the awards season's unlikeliest secret weapon.

"Harvey's getting something from Philomena, but she's getting something from him very definitely — a platform," said British comedian Steve Coogan, who co-wrote, co-produced and co-starred in "Philomena." "There's nothing disingenuous about it. There's substance to back it up."

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Arriving at City Hall last week flanked by a senior Weinstein Co. publicist, two associates of longtime Oscar strategist Lisa Taback, "Philomena" producer Gabrielle Tana and Lee's daughter, Jane Libberton, Lee discussed how her sudden notoriety sparked the formation last month of the Philomena Project. The Dublin-based initiative — which those attached to "Philomena" are quick to point out is unassociated with the movie — has been lobbying the Catholic Church and the Irish government to release more than 60,000 adoption files to help Irish mothers reunite with children brought to the United States through forced adoption.

That work led to the mayoral recognition praising Lee's "dedication to issues of adoption rights." Never mind that Garcetti was "tending to a fire — an emergency," an emissary explained, and couldn't honor her in person.

"It's one thing to get the film made, but to have this transformative journey with her is extraordinary," said Tana. "I think it's given her a new lease on life. Having overcome her own shame, it's been very healing."

That the name Philomena should come to be mentioned in the same breath as "12 Years a Slave" and "The Wolf of Wall Street" was hardly a forgone conclusion.

Lee's decision to break half a century's silence about her son Anthony — who was sold into adoption at age 3 by the Catholic nunnery that took in Lee when she was a pregnant, unwed 15-year-old — found the ear of former BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith. When he agreed to investigate her claims for a magazine article, the odd couple traveled to the United States to uncover Anthony's fate, which Sixsmith recounted in his 2009 book "The Lost Child of Philomena Lee," a serio-comic travelogue full of heart-rending discovery and the triumph of forgiveness over hate.

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Coogan was an unlikely force to bring Lee's story to the screen. He's a major star in his native U.K. but a relatively minor satellite in Hollywood's constellation. But after reading of Lee's search for her son, the actor, known for his deadpan, self-loathing humor, endeavored to adapt her story into a script and landed financing from British and French backers. He stars as Sixsmith in "Philomena" and is nominated with Jeff Pope for an adapted screenplay Oscar.

"Philomena" began earning buzz at last year's Toronto International Film Festival. And thanks to the Weinstein Co.'s well-oiled awards-season war machine, the movie has gained traction as 2014's dark horse Oscar contender in the lead-up to academy balloting.

"Could 'Philomena' be the spoiler in this year's Oscar race?" newspaper ads quoting the Hollywood Reporter trumpet in 26-point font. "Don't rule it out."

In recent years, the dynamic convergence of on-screen issues and real-life world leaders has come to play in the fevered quest for Oscar benediction. Last year, "Silver Linings Playbook" director David O. Russell and star Bradley Cooper met with Vice President Joe Biden to discuss mental health issues when the dramedy, about a man suffering from bipolar disorder, was in contention for a best picture Oscar. And former President Bill Clinton turned up at the 2013 Golden Globes to introduce Steven Spielberg's presidential biopic "Lincoln," another best picture Academy Award nominee.

But when the Weinstein Co.'s 2013 prestige films — "The Butler," "Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom" and "Fruitvale Station" — failed to land major Oscar nominations, the "Harvey Effect" (as Harvey Weinstein's hard-boiled campaigning tactics that have helped net best picture Academy Awards for such films as "The Artist" and "The King's Speech" are known) refocused on "Philomena" and the real Philomena.

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"I was slightly nervous about her being in the spotlight. But we needed to show that she's a real person," Coogan said. "It's important to remind people: This is not just a piece of entertainment. This is something real and authentic."

In January, Coogan arrived arm in arm with Lee at the Golden Globes to present a clip for "Philomena," nominated for three awards including best motion picture drama. And later that month, Lee traveled to Capitol Hill to press for reforms that would help Irish mothers reunite with their children who were given to American families in forced adoptions, meeting with Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.).

In early February, "Philomena" was screened for Pope Francis' private secretary. And a day later, also accompanied by Coogan, the woman once shamed by the Catholic Church was invited to the Vatican and blessed by the pope.

"I'm still a Catholic, and this is not an anti-Catholic film," Lee said.

A Vatican spokesman cautioned against interpreting the papal audience as an implicit Oscar endorsement.

"The Holy Father does not see films and will not be seeing this one," Father Federico Lombardi said. "It is also important to avoid using the pope as part of a marketing strategy."

At L.A.'s City Hall, moments after Daniel Tamm, Garcetti's interfaith liaison and Westside-area representative, hailed Lee's "courage, her faith and capacity to forgive" and handed her the Certificate of Recognition, a slim figure charged through the rotunda's Spring Street entrance: Garcetti.

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He shook hands and clapped the backs of several well-wishers just outside the throng gathered around Lee before heading to his office without pausing to greet his invited guest from the Emerald Isle.

"I am inspired by her story," Garcetti said of Lee in a statement emailed to the Los Angeles Times. "We hope that this recognition helps in some way to raise awareness of the issue of forced adoptions and to shine a light on the past to open up the way for healing of so many mothers and their lost children."

After her brief layover inside Los Angeles' corridors of power (and a private screening of "Philomena" at the Museum of Tolerance), Lee returned home to southern England last week before heading to London for Feb. 16's BAFTA Awards, where the film was in the running for four awards including best film (Coogan won the BAFTA for adapted screenplay).

And come March 2, Lee will make her third trip to Los Angeles in as many months for the Oscars ceremony. Not that she's letting awards season distract her from the larger mission of the Philomena Project.

"All the glamour, that doesn't affect me," Lee said, clutching her cane. "So much tragedy has happened through all the secrets, it's so good that it's coming out. I never forget what it's all about."

chris.lee@latimes.com

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