In another powerhouse performance Melissa Leo (The Fighter, Frozen River, Snowden), portrays the bristling, outspoken and brutally forthright Madalyn Murray O’Hair in director Tommy O’Haver’s The Most Hated Woman in America (also written by O’Haver and Irene Turner). O’Hair was the highly controversial, vilified atheist activist whose advocacy of the separation of church and state garnered daily death threats and letters, some filled with excrement, others filled with donations to her cause. She was successful in removing Bible reading in the public schools (1963), after the recitation of a school sponsored prayer was removed courtesy of Engel v Vitale the year before.
Essentially, Murray v. Curlett which was O’Hair’s lawsuit and the Engel v. Vitale lawsuit upheld the establishment clause of the constitution and effectively removed enforced prayer and specified, organized religious observance from governmental institutions of the United States. O’Hair’s cause celeb led to her founding the lucrative American Atheists in 1963. One year later, her vociferous infamy had increased so that Life Magazine labeled her to be “the most hated woman in America.”
Though O’Hair was hated, she also had a following of atheists who felt as she did, browbeaten and judged by religious people whose main portion was to condemn and express their bigotry and damnation of sinners: i.e. gays, the racially inferior, others. The time was right for O’Hair as the country was changing socially (1950s, 1960s), and she helped to stir the “revolution” supporting marginalized groups against religious institutions, civil rights groups and more. Unfortunately, her rise peaked, curved around in the opposite direction and then went in a precipitous decline in the late 1990s.
It is this arc that O’Haver examines, chronicling O’Hair’s rise and demise in a culminating and brutal event. The circumstances of her death are not widely known because she had faded from the public spotlight and had moved to Austin, Texas where she was not particularly embraced. O’Haver outlines an enactment of the last period of her life with her son and granddaughter with terrifying breadth, scope and reality. The humor seen throughout the film falls away into a solemnity and fearfulness. For a woman who braved people’s wrath to uphold constitutional freedoms, even though her actions were also self-dealing, her ending was unsettling and tragic.
O’Haver’s and Turner’s film is exceptionally organized. Filmmakers dynamically recreate the last days of O’Hair’s life, the lives of her son Jon Garth (Michael Chernus), and granddaughter Robin (Juno Temple). They intersperse events in this period with seminal moments in her past using the technique of flashback and flash-forward to revisit how they arrive at the present circumstances when her life and family are in danger.
Through prodigious research based on the archival record (TV and film clips, books, news and magazine articles), O’Haver and Irene Turner create a true account of O’Hair’s life starting from the middle 1950s when she was living with her parents and raising her baby son William Jr. The past then converges with the present days when she and her family are held hostage for ransom money by two predicate felons and an accomplice. Throughout, no stone is left unturned. We understand why kidnapper David Waters (Josh Lucas gives an incredible performance walking the lines of affability, control and cold-bloodedness), launched the plan against O’Hair.
O’Haver’s and Turner’s account of O’Hair indicates how her atheism activism was largely born out of a miserable upbringing by an inflexible, seemingly unloving father and docile, passive mother. Filmmakers intuit that this may have engendered O’Hair’s determined action to stand against organized religion’s hatred and bigotry.
Seen against the backdrop of conservative politicians’ use of religion and religious right-wing-groups to consolidate and energize their power base, this film has incredible currency today. For good or ill, O’Hair raised her voice and presented another perspective and was largely successful in a worthy cause. Misdirection occurred with a family break-up. After that her movement and the country’s growing conservatism led by President Regan lost its momentum; also, her self-dealing and greed most likely became apparent to those in her organization and it eventually backfired on her.
O’Haver and Turner begin the film from the dramatic moment of O’Hair’s and her family’s kidnapping. It is interesting that filmmakers indicate the extent of her infamous reputation: when she is discovered missing, the police are loathe to listen to evidence which indicates she has been kidnapped. O’Haver and Turner also immediately highlight the family’s schism when son Bill Jr. (Vincent Kartheiser), tells O’Hair’s assistant who discovered them missing (Brandon Mychal Smith), that he wants nothing to do with his mother and will not file a missing person’s report with the police.
O’Haver and Turner move from the present events of her kidnapping, reveal where she and the family are and flash back to the past at acute points in her life: her successes, Bill Jr. as an integral part of the atheist organization and his mother’s deep confidante, his conflicts with her, their split, Bill’s embrace of the church/Christianity that his mother rejected, her assuming custody of his daughter.
Filmmakers at a salient point in the film disclose how O’Hair and David Waters became close and how she was betrayed, a pattern in O’Hair’s life with men. Filmmakers suggest answers to information gaps about Madalyn Murray O’Hair and they raise other questions about her which can never be answered. Nevertheless, because of the direction, writing (many of O’Hair’s humorous, insulting quips were taken from the quoted record), and very fine, memorable performances by Leo, Lucas, Adam Scott as the reporter whose diligence and interest break the kidnapping wide open and other members of the ensemble, the film is an important contribution to understanding the life of Madalyn Murry O’Hair. Even more importantly, it is a cautionary tale about where we are in the present.
On a general level, the overall impact of the film leaves one with a better understanding of the possible impact of inflexible, didactic behaviors used in raising children: the didacticism may push the child in an opposite direction from which they were raised whether Christian, atheist or something else. This is one thematic take-away; there are many more. Indeed, in the general political climate of a nation, the same applies with pendulum swings and push backs: if there is a strong push in one direction, there will be a counter in the opposite direction. Consensus and good judgment are sacrificed when there is no middle ground to be decided upon and sustained.
Reflecting upon the explosive issues encountered and the reforms made in the 1960s through the lens of the present, O’Haver is presenting a strong message of hope, albeit with a number of caveats. Though O’Hair was outrageous, self-exploiting, an exhibitionist and in the end a self-dealer, her vociferous strides in affirming First Amendment liberties were crucial ones. She saw the moral imperative and she fought for it. Would there were others like her and for those who are fighting, may they continue and may we also join in.