Oscar Favorite: The Real-Life Philomena

The 80 year-old inspiration for the Weinstein Company drama travels far and wide on campaign trail

Philomena Los Angeles
Rodrigo Vaz/FilmMagic

It’s been an intense awards season and campaigners have worked tirelessly, smiled unceasingly and traveled endlessly. All of them deserve a big round of applause. But a special note of appreciation goes to Philomena Lee, the inspiration for the film “Philomena.”

Campaign season is exhausting and surreal, even for hardened showbiz veterans. For an 80-year-old woman who kept important parts of her life secret for 50 years, her work in the spotlight is impressive. She has crossed the Atlantic multiple times, presented awards, accepted congrats, written op-ed pieces, and rubbed elbows with everyone from Daniel Craig to the pope. She seems to have done everything except host a “20 Feet From Stardom” sing-along and guest-hosted for Bob Costas on the Winter Olympics. And, who knows, she may end up doing both before the week is out.

Lee and her daughter Jane (also briefly depicted in the film) have used their common-sense conversations and Irish charm to create a lot of goodwill. Will it pay off for the Weinstein Co. release? It can’t hurt, but we won’t know until the March 2 Oscars.

In another sense, it’s already paid off. In January, Lee created the Philomena Project, to raise awareness of the young women who were forced to give up their babies for adoption. The Philomena Project and Adoption Rights Alliance have asked the Irish government for legislation to open up adoption records. That furthers the plans already in motion: A year ago today, on Feb. 19, 2013, Ireland’s Prime Minister Enda Kenny issued a state apology to survivors of the Magdalene Laundries and outlined a plan to compensate those who had been wronged.

In raising awareness of the film and the plight of those young mothers, Lee has become a celeb in her own right. At the Feb. 10 Oscar Nominees Luncheon, I related a conversation to Lee that I’d just heard between two young women. One was breathlessly rattling off the names stars she’d met that day, and her friend said, “I can top that: I just met the real-life Philomena.” The two women both squealed in excitement.

At the Golden Globes, presenter Leonardo DiCaprio mispronounced the film’s title as “Philomania.” When the mortified actor later apologized to her, she laughed it off. But he had inadvertently coined an apt phrase. There have been a lot of people on the campaign trail over the years, but nobody quite like this extremely-private-to-public figure.

Here’s a sample of her schedule:

Oct. 16, London: BFI London Film Festival gala screening

Nov. 12, New York: “Philomena” premiere at the Paris Theater

Jan. 5, Beverly Hills: Afternoon-tea/reception at Beverly Wilshire Hotel

Jan. 12, Los Angeles: Golden Globes

Jan. 20, Los Angeles: SAG Awards

Jan. 24, Dublin: Launches the Philomena Projet in Dublin, Ireland

Jan. 30, Washington D.C.: Meeting with Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) regarding The Philomena Project

Feb. 4, Rome: Meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican

Feb. 10, Beverly Hills: Oscar Nominees Luncheon as guest of producer Gabrielle Tana

Feb. 11, Los Angeles: City of Los Angeles ceremony honors her work for adoption rights and launch of the Philomena Project

Feb. 16, London: BAFTA Awards

March 2, Los Angeles: Academy Awards