The True Story Behind Philomena (Caution: Spoilers Ahead!)
By Jesse Steinbach
Photo of Michael Hess visiting Sean Ross Abbey in Ireland searching for his mother | Photo provided by Philomena Lee via NYTimes
Philomena earned four Oscar nominations this week, including Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Performance by an Actress (Dame Judi Dench). Even though the film received a deserved amount of critical attention, I felt it's been overshadowed this year by bigger and more epic period pieces. That said, Philomena should not be missed. It is as much a lesson in phenomenal acting as it is a telling of a moving personal history.
Here's a refresher: Philomena (Dench), teams up with a snappy journalist (Steve Coogan) to find her son who was forcefully taken from her and adopted-off 50 years before. The premise is nothing short of tragic, and yet Philomena somehow avoids melodrama. Screenwriting duo Coogan and Jeff Pope maintain a delicate balance between sentimentality and dark comedy. The film never leans too heavily to one extreme, and in turn, every emotion feels unmanufactured and genuine.
Jacob Bernstein's article in the New York Times explores the true story of Philomena's search for her son, Michael Hess, who was a powerful Republican politico in Washington, D.C. and, surprisingly openly gay. He died of complications from AIDS, at the age of 43, in 1995, so we'll sadly never hear his side of the story. Much like the way the film itself has been overshadowed, this sweet and well-researched story from this past weekend seems to have been overlooked with all the hub-bub over the Academy Awards and other more-pressing news stories.
Hess, who was once known as Anthony Lee to teenager Philomena, was adopted from Ross Abbey in Ireland and whisked away to America. One of the most poignant scenes in the film shows young Philomena behind a locked gate, watching her toddler as he's put into a car and driven away. She'll never see him again.
"Throughout the film, Mr. Hess remains something of an enigma to the audience, which is why his real-life story may seem so tantalizing to viewers," writes Bernstein, "Yes, there are those artfully staged flashbacks, but Mr. Hess is always 'a little out of reach,' to quote Mr. Coogan."
This approach is undoubtedly intentional. One of the film's greatest take-aways is that of acceptance without answer, of finding peace in waiting, of leaving the house with the front door slightly ajar.
"But who exactly was Michael Hess?," asks Bernstein.
Mr. Hess graduated law school and joined the Republican National Committee under Reagan as a staff lawyer. He moved up the ranks to deputy chief counsel and then chief counsel. It seems Hess was surprisingly open about being gay during a time when it was tantamount to end anyone's career.
So, did his collegues know? E. Mark Braden, who worked with Hess, said, "There were not an insignificant number of gay people at the R.N.C. in high-level positions." Still, politics and homosexuality were not (and still are not) the most agreeable bedfellows.
"Michael was a careerist," said Bob Witeck, Hess's friend and colleague. "It wasn’t an impossibility to be a respected attorney and be gay and working for the Republican Party. There was more of a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ environment they enjoyed, and a number of them would say, ‘Don’t worry about that, we’ll talk about that privately.’ ”
Hess was also raised Irish Catholic and kept his private life very separate from his professional life. Hess, however, did indeed have a vibrant personal life it seems. He was in a 10-year relationship Steve Dahllof, who worked in public relations for the Food Marketing Institute, followed by the National Restaurant Association. The two men lived in an apartment on Columbia Road during the week, and on weekends, would venture to a farmhouse they shared in West Virginia.
It seems Hess felt success both romantically and professionally, but he was nevertheless curious about his birth-mother, Philomena. And just as Philomena embarked on search for her son, so, too, did Hess look for his mother.
Hess made three trips to the convent he was adopted from. The same nuns who told Philomena they knew nothing of her son's whereabouts, accordingly told Hess they had no idea where to find his mother.
Philomena may have started her journey too late, she nevertheless discovered the truth about her long-lost son. Even if Philomena never reconnected with Hess, she lives on with the comfort that they had not forgotten one another; he had been searching for her all this time. He visited the convent where they had been captives, together, so many years before. And he even opted to be buried at that same convent with the hope she would one day find there, resting precisely in the place where the whole story had begun.