The Most Hated Woman In America is an immediately intriguing title. After all, it seems as though there are so many women this epithet could describe, depending on what political views are being centered in the discussion. Yet it turns out that this new Netflix Original movie tells the story of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, who isn’t exactly a name on people’s lips in 2017. A quick search on O’Hair reveals that she was the plaintiff of Murray v. Cutlet, one of two cases that led to the Supreme Court banning school-sponsored Bible reading in public schools in 1963. The founder of the activist group American Atheists and a plaintiff in numerous other court cases challenging state-sponsored prayer and other religious requirements in public life, she was literally named “The Most Hated Woman in America” by Life in 1964. O’Hair was eventually kidnapped, maimed, and murdered, along with one of her sons and her granddaughter, in 1995, by a former employee of American Atheists. So in 2017, when the lines between church and state are being walked all over in states like Tennessee and Louisiana, where creationism is taught as a scientific alternative to the theory of evolution in public schools, the issues O’Hair championed are still incredibly important for those who value both freedom of religion and freedom from religion.
The Most Hated Woman in America, unfortunately, is not the movie that O’Hair, or the story of the atheist movement, deserves in the least (although what else should I have expected from Tommy O’Haver, the director of Ella Enchanted?) Despite boasting a frankly stacked cast of performers, such as Academy Award winner Melissa Leo (The Fighter), Vincent Kartheiser (Mad Men), Josh Lucas (American Psycho), Juno Temple (The Dark Knight Rises) and Adam Scott (Parks and Recreation), The Most Hated Woman in America swings hard and strikes out, missing the mark in nearly every way that matters. The dialogue, the acting, the directing, the visuals, the score, the costumes and makeup — it’s all an incredible waste of talent on a project with all the sophistication of the lowest-budget television movie imaginable. Rather than portraying O’Hair (a complicated figure in her own right) and her legal crusade to maintain the integrity of the First Amendment with the nuance they deserve, The Most Hated Woman in America comes off as a perfect example of straw-man propaganda created to cast atheists as bitter, unreasonable hate-mongers.
The narrative consists of two loosely interwoven storylines: in the first, set in 1995, O’Hair and the aforementioned members of her family have been kidnapped by David Roland Waters (Lucas), who awaits a promised payout of gold coins; in the second, a collection of scenes moving along the decades shows O’Hair transforming from unemployed single mother living with her parents to outspoken activist. It isn’t exactly clear why the narrative takes this bifurcated form, as any tension in the first thread is undermined as soon as we cut to the second thread, where we see Melissa Leo pontificate in an army of increasingly awful wigs. The catalyst for O’Hair’s lawsuit is presented in the most literal and oversimplified form possible: O’Hair marches into her son William’s (Vincent Kartheiser) classroom and denounces the required Bible readings, whereupon William’s teacher (Anna Camp) challenges her to sue the school board in so many words. Yet rather than actually focusing on Murray v. Cutlet’s path through the courts, which might have made for an interesting courtroom drama, the movie just continues to skip around, flipping through events in O’Hair’s life like a scrapbook. O’Hair wins the case, she becomes infamous, William eventually abandons her and turns towards Christianity, O’Hair hires Waters, O’Hair is revealed to have been hiding money in offshore accounts, et cetera — each of these moments gives short shrift to the actual characters involved, seemingly more concerned with shoving information at the viewer, rather than allowing us to care about the very real people whose lives are being depicted.
Every single actor, with the sole exception of Adam Scott, is done wrong by The Most Hated Woman in America, though I have to be clear that most of the fault lies with the expository and overdramatic dialogue they are forced to deliver. While it’s clear that O’Hair was an abrasive, condescending, and often downright unpleasant person, Melissa Leo’s performance has no subtext or subtlety to it, making her seem like just one of a nearly endless cast of cartoon characters with cardboard complexities. Vincent Kartheiser’s William oscillates between withdrawn and histrionic, looking like he’s in (extra-diegetic) pain the entire time. Josh Lucas, who was appropriately creepy as one of Patrick Bateman’s vapid coworkers in American Psycho, is also ridiculously hammy here, while Juno Temple and Michael Chernus, as O’Hair’s granddaughter and son (and fellow victims), are entirely forgettable. Only Adam Scott escapes relatively unscathed in the role of Jack Ferguson, a reporter following the 1995 kidnapping, because he’s exemplary at understated acting, even while completely surrounded by maudlin performances on all sides. I previously mentioned Leo’s wigs, but I have to call them out again, because she seems to have a new wig in every scene, and absolutely none of them approach or approximate human hair. The visuals are bathed in a strange greenish filter that seems to be everywhere these days, though they work better in science-fiction/dystopian shows like Westworld and The Handmaid’s Tale than they do here, while the overly on-the-nose score during the kidnapping scenes never lets you forget for even a moment that O’Hair is in danger.
Essentially, The Most Hated Woman in America does far more harm than good in how it presents the story of Madalyn Murray O’Hair. Fighting to maintain the separation of church and state is undoubtedly an important issue, and one that is unfortunately still timely in the twenty-first century. But as far as convincing hearts and minds goes, O’Haver fails to make any case for O’Hair or for atheism with this film, going broad and sketchy where focused and detailed would have been more effective.
Images via Netflix
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Deborah Krieger is a freelance arts and culture writer and nascent art/media historian and curator. She can be found at www.i-on-the-arts.com and on Instagram @debonthearts.