Upon first seeing the title of Netflix’s latest film, The Most Hated Woman in America, a few names come to mind regarding who the titular woman in question might possibly be. Could this film be about Hillary Clinton and the trials she faced in the latest election season? That seems topical enough. Maybe the film is about Elizabeth Taylor and her seemingly endless tales of Hollywood home-wrecking throughout her life. That would be a little more out there, but it might still work. No, according to Netflix, the most hated woman in America is Madalyn Murray O’Hair.
“Who is Madalyn Murray O’Hair?” one might ask.
Referencing a Life magazine article and cover story from 1964 about Murray O’Hair, The Most Hated Woman in America delves into the political activism, personal life, and kidnapping of one of America’s most famous atheists. Though the name might not be familiar with younger viewers, Murray O’Hair is probably most recognized as the woman behind landmark Supreme Court case Murray v. Curlett, which brought an official end to Bible-reading in public schools across the U.S. in 1963. That year, Murray O’Hair went on to found American Atheists, a non-profit activist group dedicated to protecting the political and social rights of atheists. Murray O’Hair was president of the organization from 1963 until her kidnapping and murder in 1995. In August 1995, Murray O’Hair, her son Jon, and her granddaughter Robin were all kidnapped and subsequently robbed by former American Atheists office manager David Waters and two other accomplices. This is where the film begins. From here, the film shifts back in forth in time, chronicling Murray O’Hair’s life from a couple years before the Supreme Court case all the way until her family’s kidnapping.
The Murray O’Hairs were murdered just over two weeks into their being held hostage by Waters and Gary Karr, one of Waters’ accomplices. The other accomplice, Danny Fry, was also killed by Waters and Karr, as they feared he would turn to the police in the wake of the Murray O’Hairs’ deaths. The Most Hated Woman in America attempts to cap the lot of this true story in a non-linear, hour-and-a-half film.
While The Most Hated Woman in America doesn’t really suffer from any pacing problems in flipping between the kidnapping story in 1995 and episodes and moments from Murray O’Hair’s career over the previous three decades, underwhelming, clichéd writing and tropes, melodramatic acting, and tonal and aesthetic inconsistencies plague this docudrama.
Academy Award-winning actress Melissa Leo brings a lot of emotion to her role as Murray O’Hair and subtly evokes empathy from the viewer for this egotistical, yet troubled and determined woman. She is by far the most captivating aspect of the film. Though she was seriously devoted to championing the rights of atheists, Murray O’Hair did not restrain herself from using her infamy and undermining the legitimacy of her non-profit organization to make a pretty penny for herself. Neither did she fret about hurting people that were close to her if they got in her way or didn’t agree with her. Though this two-sided nature is seen through the film’s dialogue and Murray O’Hair’s real actions, Leo exudes this sense, through her constantly wandering gaze and firm soft-spoken tone, that Murray O’Hair is conniving and always watching her back carefully. If anything good can be said about this film, it is that it’s an interesting character analysis of a woman that’s been reduced to a history textbook glossary over the last couple of decades. Leo is integral to fleshing out this portrait of a compassionate, yet greedy and self-serving woman.
Other than that, this film is grossly devoid of noteworthy acting and characters or impressive technical quality. Some of the dialogue is excruciatingly corny or poorly-delivered. This boringly conventional TV-biopic takes a clunky turn for Sopranos-esque grit and violence in its last 10 minutes. The variations in make-up that Leo goes through to convey Murray O’Hair’s aging are horribly unconvincing—Leo does not look like she’s in her mid-40s when Murray O’Hair is supposed to be in her mid-40s and Leo does not look like she’s 70 something years-old when Murray O’Hair is kidnapped. Forest Gump and Ted did a better job of splicing actors into history and those films came out decades and years ago. All of these and other technical and substantive setbacks constantly pull the viewer out of the events that they’re watching unfold and focus one’s attention on what’s wrong with the movie rather than on the story what the movie’s trying to say.
The Most Hated Woman in America isn’t saying much that hasn’t already been said a thousand times over: people are messy. Audiences know that politicians and humanitarian organizations sometimes take advantage of the people that they serve. We know that families and friendships are torn apart by greed. This movie doesn’t do anything to really tell these stories or flesh out these themes in any new way. The most it is able to do is paint a picture of a woman that high school students will always be forced to remember was “that lady in that one Supreme Court case about religion.”
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