The Most Hated Woman in America
Starring Melissa Leo, Josh Lucas, Juno Temple, Adam Scott, Peter Fonda, Michael Chernus, Sally Kirkland,
No confusion in what you are seeing with this title. Of all the misleading and poorly appropriated feature film titles at SXSW, The Most Hated Woman in America is the most accurate. Writer/director Tommy O’Haver (Ella Enchanted) can’t take credit for the title, Atheist activist Madalyn Murray O’Hair both earned and claimed that prestigious title. Melissa Leo has built a career on unsavory characters, winning an Oscar for playing one in The Fighter. She is ideally cast here and the film’s greatest asset. Unfortunately the script tackles Madalyn’s infamous rise to the public eye mostly in the guise of a suspense thriller. Not a biopic, rather a fairly typical kidnap story that just happened to be one of the most despised figures in conservative America.
Not your typical 1950’s lady, Madalyn Murray (Leo) became a single mother twice while still living at home. Her big claim to fame was Murray v. Curlett, the case that challenged Bible reading and Christian prayer in public. “You can still keep the faith, just keep it to yourself,” she said following the landmark Supreme Court victory in 1963. Her advocating turned out to be a big business in donations, which led to illegal investments and in the early 90’s when the ailing 70-year-old was almost completely forgotten, she and her youngest son Jon (Chernus) and granddaughter Robin (Temple) were kidnapped and never seen again.
It’s Leo’s film, every scene has her performing to the third degree and that keeps the viewers interest, even when the subject they choose to focus on does not.
Madalyn was a big character by many definitions, Leo plays her as bold and colorful as you can imagine. With a potty-mouth that would rival even the worst Al Pacino role, Leo is a force in the film that everything else orbits. While the majority of the film takes place in and around the kidnapping, Leo wears heavy facial prosthetics and a fat suit to closer resemble the trash talking controversial figure. We get highlights from her activism throughout the years in flashbacks, but The Most Hated Woman in America focuses much more on the kidnapping and extortion plot. Through confessions and police investigations, the script exposes what happen to the Murray family without really giving the viewer a real sense of how she earned the title beyond her despicable demeanor in footnotes throughout the years.
The script never makes her out to be a hero, despite what you think of some of the things she stood for. In one of the most memorable scenes and what one must assume is fact, Madalyn teams with popular Christian evangelist Rev. Harrington (Fonda) to go on tour, making money arguing and defending their opposing sides. The film chooses truth over trying to make her some kind of historical rights figure, she was as corrupt as anyone else. It’s Leo’s film, every scene has her performing to the third degree and that keeps the viewers interest, even when the subject they choose to focus on does not.
Melissa Leo gives a ferocious performance.