SXSW Film Review – The Most Hated Woman in America

The Most Hated Woman in America

The Most Hated Woman in America

The powerhouse that is Netflix has begun showing upcoming features at film festivals, and this included SXSW this year. Having its world premiere at the festival, The Most Hated Woman in America is written by Irene Turner and Tommy O’Haver (both worked on An American Crime) and directed by O’Haver. The film is a biographical drama based on the life of Madalyn Murray O’Hair (Melissa Leo), the famous atheist and possibly one of the most hated women of her time.

The film tells Madalyn’s story from when she is single, young woman with a child to the kidnapping case of her, her second son, Jon (Michael Chernus), and granddaughter Robin (Juno Temple). The film jumps back and forth from the progression of her life to the kidnapping debacle. Madalyn was certainly not a woman who would stand back and watch people’s rights be stomped on. She was for desegregation, and most famously, against prayer in public schools. Living in Baltimore, she was flabbergasted that her son, Bill Jr. (played later on by Vincent Kartheiser) was made to say the Lord’s prayer every day at school. She took it upon herself to take that case all the way to the Supreme Court in 1963 which ended reading the Bible in public schools, just after prayer in public schools was stopped in a Supreme Court case in 1962. Building on her known religious status as an atheist and the growing hatred by many toward her for removing religion from schools, she started the American Atheists group, where she advocated for freedom of beliefs and took in an enormous amount of money for her cause.

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The film shows Madalyn in both a positive and negative light. Her accomplishments against religion in public schools is still standing today, but the realization that she could profit off of her status as an atheist became her downfall. Like any shrewd businesswoman, there is always a backup plan. Madalyn stashed large amounts of donated money in off-shore accounts. Once this became known to a hired and fired business manager, David Waters (Josh Lucas), the scene is set for him to try and steal her money.

The family life of Madalyn is equally interesting. She grew up in a religious household, but bucked religion to the torment of her father (Ryan Cutrona). Her mother (Sally Kirkland) stood by her, but wished she would not disturb her father. She is controlling and needy of her sons, especially Bill, Jr. When Bill wizens up to her controlling nature, and leaves, Madalyn begins to fall apart and relies heavily on David Waters. On the sidelines is Jon, who certainly does not meet the expectations of his mother. Weirdly enough, Madalyn is seen as a better mother figure to granddaughter Robin than her own mother, and her alcoholic father, Bill, Jr., is not up to the task.

Madalyn is one of those real-life characters that Melissa Leo was born to play. Melissa Leo plays her exactly as she was, stubborn, brash, strong, but too trusting of certain people which would become her downfall. Leo goes back and forth from a younger woman to a handicapped 76-year-old, and her portrayal is never doubted. I really want to know if her younger Madalyn was accomplished with CGI or just makeup. She is accompanied really well with those who play her sons, both Kartheiser, Chernus, and Andy Walken and Devin Freeman who plays the young and teenage Bill, Jr. respectively. She is pitted well against Lucas as a battle of wits and trying to outsmart each other in a hotel room, seeing which one will outlast the other.

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The film ends in the final weird act of Madalyn’s life as she is kidnapped along with her son and granddaughter. She is now handicapped, but is dependent as ever on her family loving her and doing things for her. While she is handicapped, it does not apply to her mind, as she is ever the smartest person in the room, knowing exactly what is happening.

The Most Hated Woman in America is biographical drama that would make Madalyn proud. It both highlights her triumphs and her faults. She pissed off a lot of people, but accomplished a lot of good for the freedom of religion or beliefs in public schools. It is her greed and misplacing her trust that inevitably led to her downfall. While her story ends in tragedy, she should be remembered as someone who did a lot of good for America. O’Haver managed to capture just the right mix of her strengths and weaknesses, along with casting Melissa Leo as Madalyn, and made a film that is both interesting, informative, and takes a good look at a woman who did not take any flak from anyone, least of all the government.


Sarah resides in Dallas where she writes about films and trailers in her spare time when she is not taking care of her animals at the zoo.

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