Irene Turner and Tommy O’Haver’s true-crime biopic, The Most Hated Woman in America, tautly rides the line between kidnap thriller, black comedy, and biography. The tension the filmmakers maintain throughout the film is an apt reflection of the unbelievable-sounding life of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, a civil rights pioneer who initiated the landmark supreme court case Murray vs. Curlett, which, along with Abington School District v. Schempp, set the legal precedent for ending bible recitation in public schools. Murray O’Hair founded American Atheists, published The American Atheist Magazine, and launched a series of lawsuits with the goal of fighting for the separation of church and state.
Her involvement in these events alone should warrant a biopic, as the resistance to religious groups intent on making religion an integral part of American civic and public life is still ongoing. But she was also kidnapped, extorted and along with her son and granddaughter, was murdered in an especially gruesome fashion. Now we have not just a story of civil rights and political theater, but the stuff of thrillers.
Director and Executive Producer Tommy O’Haver told PopMatters that “the structure of starting with the kidnapping and using the flashbacks, was the structure from the very first draft.” Writer and Associate Producer Irene Turner added that “we needed to… show who she was… how she became who she was, and what to think of her… [all] at the same time. And we thought that the dynamic of being kidnapped in that hotel room was so interesting, it showed so much of her character.”
Melissa Leo’s Madalyn Murray O’Hair comes out swinging in the first scene, verbally berating her kidnappers from an old motel bed, hooded, tied up and without knowing who they are. Even when it becomes clear that O’Hair and her family know the aggressors, as a viewer we question the nature of their relationship and learn through flashbacks about the various characters’ backstory, including Murray O’Hair’s lawsuit, her family life, and how she came to know the leader of the kidnappers David Waters (Josh Lucas).
Leo embodies the contradictions and strengths of a woman who was true to her own character at a time when African Americans lacked legal protections but demanded rights, and Second Wave Feminists (who Murray O’Hair was critical of) were demanding reproductive rights and equal opportunity in social, professional and political life. Leo effectively communicates a character who refuses to censor her own personality for others, pursuing her goals regardless of social and interpersonal intimidation. “There were a lot of difficult aspects of her character,” said Turner, “which is what made her so fascinating. She had a tendency to — even if you were on her side — piss you off.” In writing the character of Murray O’Hair, Turner said they “wanted to show her anger, where it’s coming from, but also, how much she loved her children and was a pretty terrible parent.”
Much of the humor in the movie comes from Leo’s performance of Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s bombastic personality, with the actor personifying many lines and situations which the filmmakers took from the historical character’s life. In addition to Leo’s infectious achievement, the stellar cast inhabits the odd cast of characters, Juno Temple is a both strange and emotionally committed to her adopted mother as O’Hair’s granddaughter Robin Murray O’Hair, while Michael Chyrnus is passive and passive aggressive as John Garth Murray, the son who stayed with O’Hair even as she ridiculed him. Roy Collier (Brandon Mychal Smith) is charmingly focused as a driven member of the American Atheists, who galvanizes Robert Bryce (Adam Scott) to break the story of O’Hair’s disappearance in the paper, even as the local authorities ignore her as a missing person.
Rory Cochrane realized an especially intense performance as Greg Karr, a career criminal who seems to be about to snap at any moment. Director Tommy O’Haver related how Cochrane added an element of instability to the set, even though he was amicable and approachable before and after, but not during the shoot.
The director remembered, “He was always a little bit of a wild card. We just weren’t sure what was going on with him.” O’Haver had met Cochrane previously and found him to be nice, “but when he got to the set he was a little stand-offish with everybody,” he noted. “That first time he pulls out a gun on Madalyn, we were in that room rehearsing the scene, he pulled that gun out and his face got all red and you could see his veins and he got right in her face screaming, you know, ‘Go for it, Granma!’ I mean it was intense. It was just a rehearsal and I called, ‘Cut’, and everyone was shaking and we were all like, ‘Oh my God, what was that?’” O’Haver laughed. “And he basically just kept doing that… After that everyone was on edge around him.”
The performances are enhanced narratively by beautifully realized news and talkshow clips, recreating O’Hair’s appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, on The Phil Donahue Show and her local nightly interviews, given when she mounted her various legal battles. These sequences by visual effects artist Keith Richner and editor Michael X. Flores connect the engaging performances of intense interaction with docudrama narrative elements that enrich the main mystery of how the characters are related, with context and insight into the characters’ interactions.
“As a genre [true crime is] fun to write,” Irene Turner said, “because there’s a propulsion in the crime element that moves the story around. So much of screenwriting is asking why people do what they do. You have people doing things that are so far removed from [the audience], and you need to find a way to make them make sense from their own world view. The propulsion of the crime itself helps structure a story.”
The Most Hated Woman in America is at times funny, at times horrible, at times charming and affective, much how I would imagine the life and experiences of Madalyn Murray O’Hair must have been. The filmmakers have achieved a jarring and taut historical thriller, using the tropes of a true crime narrative to bring to life the challenges, bigotry, and violence that Murray O’Hair faced in her messy feminist pursuit of social and political change.
The Most Hated Woman in America premiered 14 March 2017 at SXSW. It’s available to stream on Netflix on 24 March.