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Garcetti a no-show at L.A. event for woman who inspired 'Philomena'

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Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was “tending to a fire -- an emergency,” an emissary explained, and couldn’t be on hand to honor her personally.

But on Tuesday morning, inside the towering marble rotunda of Los Angeles' City Hall, Philomena Lee turned up to receive a Certificate of Recognition issued by His Honor’s office praising the Irishwoman’s “dedication to issues of adoption rights” and “efforts to reunite mothers with their lost children.”

The 80-year old Limerick native, of course, inspired the drama “Philomena” with her saga of pluck and determination to locate the son she unwillingly gave up for adoption when she was a teenager in 1950s Ireland. Now the film is nominated for four Academy Awards, including best picture and best actress for Dame Judi Dench’s spirited portrayal of Lee.

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Lee’s unlikely journey out of relative anonymity to the forefront of an aggressive Oscar campaign by “Philomena’s” distributor, the Weinstein Co., also sparked the formation last month of the Philomena Project.

The Dublin-based initiative 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. The project has led to high-level, high-profile meetings between Lee and world leaders, including Capitol Hill lawmakers and the pope, all while driving attention back to the film, directed by Stephen Frears and co-written and co-starring British comedian Steve Coogan.

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

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Flanked Tuesday by a senior Weinstein Co. publicist, two associates of longtime Oscar strategist Lisa Taback and Lee’s daughter, Jane Libberton, the sprightly octogenarian presented an unassuming front for two complicated agendas: her own and the studio’s.

“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. I’m coping with it as much as I can.”

Moments after being handed the Certificate of Recognition by Daniel Tamm -- the mayor’s interfaith liaison and Westside-area representative who hailed the example of Lee’s “courage, her faith and capacity to forgive” --  a slim figure in a sharp suit charged into view through the rotunda’s Spring Street entrance: Garcetti.

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

“I am inspired by her story,” Garcetti said 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.”

When asked later in the day why the mayor didn't stop by to greet Lee in person, Yusef Robb, Garcetti's director of communications said only: "The mayor was unavailable."

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chris.lee@latimes.com
Twitter: @__chrislee

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