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In honor of The Weinstein Co.’s Philomena, a proper English tea service was held at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on Sunday afternoon. Steve Coogan, who produced, co-wrote and stars in the awards-season hopeful — acting opposite Judi Dench, who dazzles in the title role — was present to greet the crowd of entertainment folk gathered to toast the Stephen Frears-directed film over champagne and Earl Grey.
Also spotted milling about the Royal Suite: Diane Ladd (“I could watch Steve Coogan and Judi Dench in anything,” she said), John Singleton, Weinstein Co. co-chairman Harvey Weinstein and Philomena composer Alexandre Desplat.
Nominated for three Golden Globes — for best motion picture drama, best actress and best screenplay — Philomena is the heart-rending yet disarmingly funny tale of the real-life Irishwoman (the charming Philomena Lee, also in attendance with daughter Jane Libberton) who undertook an against-all-odds search for the baby taken from her at a convent 50 years prior.
Coogan was drawn to the material from the moment he read British journalist Martin Sixsmith‘s account of his efforts to help Lee locate her lost son, and recalls in particular a photo of the unlikely pair sharing a laugh on a park bench. “The laughter in the photograph seemed at odds with the tragic nature of the story,” Coogan, who plays Sixsmith in the film, told The Hollywood Reporter. “I thought, ‘If I can get that laughter, then I can tell that story.’ “
The 48-year-old actor-comedian said there was cinematic gold to be mined from the clashing world views of his two leads: one, a humble and devout Catholic woman fueled by maternal longing; the other, a too-smart-for-his-britches media type still smarting from an embarrassing career setback. But Coogan was determined not to let the film get bogged down in sanctimony: “When I look at a menu of films and I look at the ones that I’m supposed to watch because they’re ‘important,’ I go, ‘I’ll watch those another day,’ ” he said. “I didn’t want this to be one of those movies.”
It was at that point in the conversation that Jim Sheridan, director of landmark Irish films like My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father — who co-hosted the event with Nia Vardalos — pulled Coogan aside to offer his praise of the film. “Tell Judi Dench that she has no right to play that part,” Sheridan joked. “She never got the rights to my mother’s life!”
For five-time Oscar nominee Desplat — who says he shares a “real complicity” with Frears, for whom he also scored The Queen — the key to the movie’s evocative music lies in the haunting calliope melody heard in the opening scenes, when young Philomena is seduced by a handsome boy at a carnival. Desplat said there are three factors that ensure his musical accompaniment never tips over into maudlin territory: “One, respect the artist. Two, be careful where the music starts. And three, how big is your orchestra?” (In this case, it was 50 musicians.)
As for the real Philomena, watching her story play out on the big screen, she says, has helped her work through a half-century of buried shame and profound heartache.
“He was three-and-a-half and the most beautiful-looking boy — tall, clever, and I loved him to bits. I really loved him,” Lee, 78, tearfully recalls her son, who was taken from her just one week before Christmas 1952. “It broke me. It broke me for a long time.”
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