Stories based on a true story often face the detriment of audiences knowing how it’s all going to end. That will certainly be the case for many with The Most Hated Woman in America, the decade-spanning biopic/thriller focused on controversial public figure Madalyn Murray O’Hair, but it’s people like me (of the millennial variety) who may not remember this striking true story that will benefit most from its true-to-life gnarls. Activist turned founder of the American Atheists organization, O’Hair drew criticism far and wide. When she, her son Jon and granddaughter Robin are kidnapped, her notoriety is so severe, her bonds to even those who share the same blood so crimped and discarded, that no one even bothered looking for her. She remained a hostage for going on two weeks before…well I’ll let the uninitiated discover that for themselves.
The Netflix feature written and directed by Tommy O’Haver and co-written by Irene Turner sandwiches O’Hair’s history between taut sequences of her family’s kidnapping. Oscar winner Melissa Leo stars as the verbose leader whose dissatisfaction with the whitewashed, gee-whiz WASP conformity of the 1950 and early 60s urged her to challenge conventional wisdoms on freedom of speech. We see O’Hair lead the charge to take prayer off out public schools and from there her infamy only grows. The recipient of an endless stream of hate mail, Time Magazine famously labeled O’Hair “the most hated woman in America” (from which the title of the feature is derived) and Leo does a fine job crafting a woman of conviction who is nonetheless a bit of a prickly bitch.
However not everyone was so down on Ms. O’Hair’s plight to separate church and state which meant a slew of wealthy, childless benefactors donating their fortunes to the American Atheists after their deaths. A hostile orator and savvy businesswoman both, O’Hair stashes away a secretive estate but lives to regret it, as a former disgruntled associate catches wind of the squirreled savings and holds the family hostage for a cold million in cash.
There’s nothing necessarily inspired in the way O’Haver unfolds his story. Punctuating the history of O’Hair and her growing infamy with beats within a stuffy motel room where captive and captor languish, playing rummy until the bank can process the hefty transfer, it’s a fairly standard biopic that, to its credit, trims the fat to present a streamlined overview of O’Hair’s most important moves. But the story ripped right from the headlines basically tells itself. O’Haver mounts tension by building and souring relationships, benefitting from a talented cast as it’s the performances that define The Most Hated Woman in America’s greater successes.
Joined by Adam Scott as a small-time reporter with a hunch, Michael Chernus as a lisping, no-confidence-inspiring momma’s boy and Juno Temple as, well, Juno Temple, Melissa Leo is queen. Josh Lucas gives off a wildman shine as the slimy captor but O’Haver’s ace in the hole is Leo. Beneath a collection of cheap, chintzy wigs (the wig department is seriously lacking), Leo gives misanthropic depth to O’Hair, a character whose complexities the film does not shy away from. She was a hard woman to love, the picture confirms, but not also without her virtues. O’Haver and Leo dive into her many complications, crafting a portrait of a factitious but flawed individual in a film that comfortably uses shades of grey to define its main character. Harsh but fiercely loyal and committed to social justice, The Most Hated Woman in America makes you wonder if 2017 couldn’t benefit from a dose of Madalyn Murray O’Hair.
CONCLUSION: Melissa Leo leads ‘The Most Hated Woman in America’, a scattershot biopic about infamous American Atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair, with great confidence even if the picture doesn’t manage to overcome the inherent interest of the true story it is based upon. The Netflix Original from Tommy O’Haver proves engaging on its own merits and can be deadly dark when called upon but is ultimately too unfocused to paint a truly stirring portrait.