After this biopic, it is hopeful that one will take away a new understanding or, dare I say, sympathy, for the woman who singlehandedly changed America… for better or for worse.
A quick Google search of the phrase “the most hated woman in America” may bring up pictures of Casey Anthony, but it’s anti-religious activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair that holds this unfortunate title in the Tommy O’Haver directed biopic, “The Most Hated Woman in America.” O’Haver, whose directorial range spans from the drama “An American Crime” to the family film “Ella Enchanted,” puts an engrossing spotlight on one of the strangest cases in American history.
O’Haver teams up with his long-time collaborator and writing partner, Irene Turner, to bring this true story to the big screen. The film begins on August 27, 1995, the first day of the O’Hair family’s kidnapping. 77-year-old Madalyn Murray O’Hair, portrayed by an unrecognizable Melissa Leo, is an infamous crusader for atheism who definitely has more haters than supporters. Her circle of trust runs small– aside from her younger son, Garth (Michael Chernus), and granddaughter, Robin (Juno Temple), who have also been kidnapped– Madalyn has never been one to get sympathy from anyone, especially her older son Bill, Jr (Vincent Kartheiser). So when news of her disappearance begins to make the rounds, it is either dismissed or assumed to be a self-gratifying fundraising ploy for her organization, American Atheists.
However, despite her blacklisted reputation, journalist Jack Ferguson (Adam Scott) can’t ignore this obvious case of kidnapping. Digging into Madalyn’s past, and eventually teaming up with her estranged older son Bill Jr, Jack sets out to solve the unanswered questions and bring the woman considered to be the “Devil’s Daughter” home.
She eventually founded the organization American Atheists, which undoubtedly received daily death threats, but even that did not stop her from continuing to be a pioneer and revolutionary of the First Amendment and religious freedom.
The film does a fantastic job when cutting back and forth between the kidnapping and Madalyn’s upbringing in the 1950’s. Even as a young mother, Madalyn was very unconventional and anti-religion. She was raising a son as a single mother, had a law degree but no job, and did not conform to the religious undertones of the times. Her first exercise in speaking her truth came during the march for equality in downtown Baltimore, as Madalyn and her young son Bill Jr. were the only white protestors. In 1963, Madalyn was the force behind the banning of prayer in public schools. She eventually founded the organization American Atheists, which undoubtedly received daily death threats, but even that did not stop her from continuing to be a pioneer and revolutionary of the First Amendment and religious freedom.
Melissa Leo sinks into the character of Madalyn, a performance only made stronger after watching the archival footage of the real Ms. O’Hair during the film’s end credits. Leo’s approach to embodying this strong-minded woman isn’t alienating or off-putting, instead, she humanizes a famous figure who, up until this point, had only been seen as the devil. After this biopic, it is hopeful that one will take away a new understanding or, dare I say, sympathy, for the woman who singlehandedly changed America… for better or for worse.
‘The Most Hated Woman in America’ is not rated. 91 minutes. Now streaming on Netflix.