The biopic film “The Most Hated Woman in America” premieres as a Netflix original on Friday, March 24th, starring Melissa Leo, Adam Scott, Juno Temple, and Vincent Kartheiser. Leo portrays Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the founder of the American Atheist organization and the force behind removing prayer from public schools. O’Hair challenged and fought the Supreme Court over the First Amendment and won. Her battle, however, continued as she fought for her life and her family in this little known story.
O’Hair, her son, and her granddaughter are kidnapped, but what unfolds is a horrific tale of brutality and apathy. We flash back to a younger O’Hair, living with her parents and delivering the news that there will be yet another baby in the house. Her blunt, abrasive, and unapologetic manner is at first shocking yet this is an attribute that carries her forward in all her endeavors.
I had the opportunity to talk with the writers, Tommy O’Haver and Irene Turner about the film which O’Haver also directed. The two had worked together on another strange but true film called An American Crime (2007). Finding a story like Madalyn Murray O’Hair quite literally fell into their laps. Producers Elizabeth Banks and Max Handelman brought them the story to adapt. O’Haver said, “We dove into the research and we were hooked immediately.” Turner added, “Here’s a strong, opinionated woman fighting for the First Amendment with incredible family conflicts. Who wouldn’t want to write her? And why have I never heard this story before? Obviously we need to tell it.”
There are two parallel stories running throughout the film as the story flashes back in time to give us a complete picture of this driven and oftentimes grating woman. Madalyn, Jon, and Robin are missing, but no one seems to care except for a journalist who sees some strange inconsistencies in their disappearance. The on-going investigation turns up more and more convincing evidence that there has been foul play, but getting Madalyn’s own family to acknowledge this isn’t an easy task. Meanwhile, we are privy to the dire situation of the kidnapping. The motivation and the sordid history between Madalyn and David Waters (Josh Lucas), one of the kidnappers and a member of her own organization, is revealed. That, in and of itself, is a shocking story.
Using a non-linear storytelling style was the initial choice for the two writers. O’Haver shared, “From the outset, it made sense to tell it that way…to start it with the kidnapping and then flashback through her life so you could have some context and learn who this woman was and what she was doing in this room.” He continued, “What started to emerge was this tragedy about this family…There was a version where we tried to tell more about the investigation…but it got so confusing. It was best to just use it as an additional driving force underneath the narrative.”
Leo portrays O’Hair with an undeniably keen understanding of this character. She truly becomes O’Hair. Leo was on board to play the part from the very beginning, seven years ago. O’Haver saw her performance in “The Fighter” and knew he had his ‘Madalyn.’ O’Haver sent Leo the script and she loved the character. He concurred that her performance was stellar, saying, “…you don’t see her acting in this film at all. She inhabits this personality.” Turner passionately explained that it was important that O’Hair’s voice not be “one dimensional.” Turner said, “She had a lot of facets. Sometimes she was wrong. I hope that Tommy and I created a real person and not a cardboard picture of a person. Often, women in a film can be relegated to supporting a male lead’s vision or they can be blanded out to be heroic and not have bad sides. Finding complexity for her was really important for both of us; especially me.”
Blending archival footage into the film to paint that clear picture of what happened in the 1960’s and 70’s was an integral part of telling the real story. O’Haver and Turner worked with several sources and [archival] interviews as O’Hair was very public in her life, both personally and professionally. Turner said, “There’s so much written about her and she talked about her life so much that we had this voluminous amount of material.” Using material produced in the actual time period versus a more romanticized version looking backward makes this film more intriguing.
Intriguing is just one way of describing O’Hair. While this headstrong woman may not have been picture perfect, she did fight for what she thought was right. The film gives us a multifaceted view of Madalyn Murray O’Hair and her life. “The Most Hated Woman in America” will keep you on the edge of your seat and give you a greater appreciation for our history and those stories we may not otherwise have known. Turner said, “As filmmakers, it’s fun to rediscover people.” And as a viewer, it’s fun as well.
You can stream “The Most Hated Woman in America” to your devices via Netflix instantly beginning March 24, 2017.