Review: ‘Most Hated Woman’ hauntingly topical

Tom Long, The Detroit News

In many ways, “The Most Hated Woman in America” is quintessential streaming material.

Who else was going to make this movie? It’s far too profane and edgy for broadcast or even standard cable TV, it’s not sexy enough for HBO and its brethren. But its you-can’t-make-this-up true story about the rise and fall of a selfish blowhard who manipulated the media is incredibly topical.

Enter Netflix and Melissa Leo, the Oscar- and Emmy-winning actor who burns through this film like a wildfire. Leo plays Madalyn Murray O’Hair, now a somewhat forgotten figure but a lightning rod of controversy in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s who was indeed dubbed “The Most Hated Woman in America.”

Why all the hate? Because she was America’s foremost atheist, the woman who forced the Supreme Court to abolish prayer in public schools. Capitalizing on that success, and realizing there was money to be made and fame to be had, she formed American Atheists and led a movement that’s still going strong today.

You’d think that — and the fact that Madalyn was a tough-talking, abrasive egotist — would be enough story to go around, but there’s more. In 1995, Madalyn, her grown son Garth (Michael Chernus) and grown granddaughter Robin (Juno Temple) were kidnapped.

The film kicks off with the kidnapping, then goes back in time to the 1950s where a distraught, unemployed Madalyn already has one child out of wedlock and another (by a different father) on the way. A visit to her son’s classroom inspires her — she had a law degree but never passed the bar — to sue over the morning prayers she encounters there. The rest is history.

Actually, a bit more of the history and a bit less of the hysteria might have helped this film. Director-writer Tommy O’Haver leans on the true crime aspect of the story, which is indeed chilling. But given the current political scene (if that’s what it can even be called) Madalyn’s self-inflated ego and amoral circus barker approach to a mass audience is even more timely.

Still it’s an extraordinary story and the film is superbly cast, from pop-up cameos — Anna Camp as a prim schoolteacher, Peter Fonda as a corrupt preacher — to heftier roles (Vincent Kartheiser as Madalyn’s estranged son, Bill; Adam Scott as an insistent reporter; Josh Lucas as Madalyn’s former employee and kidnapper).

But standing center is Leo, cursing, ranting, brittle and unabashed as Madalyn, a woman who’s taken control of her life after it seemed out of control.

She’s mean and petty and greedy, no doubt, but through it all she honestly seems to believe in something, even if that something is a system of no beliefs. She is an enigma and her rise to success a mirror of self-delusional hokum that should make us pause in reflection.

Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.


‘The Most Hated Woman in America’


Now streaming