If you’re a fan of historical biographies on the big screen, you realize that they’re rare enough to make you wince when one goes awry. So no other filmmaker will, in all likelihood, ever get a shot at “getting it right.”
Madalyn Murray O’Hair was, as the Look Magazine cover said, “The Most Hated Woman in America.” And she comes to furious, foul-mouthed life in Oscar winner Melissa Leo’s performance of her in the film of that title.
Casting Josh Lucas as the ex-hustler/ex-con and ex-employee who kidnapped her to steal her cash is spot on, too. Adam Scott plays the only newspaper reporter who cared enough to look into her “disappearance,” Vincent Kartheiser her estranged son, Juno Temple her devoted granddaughter, Sally Kirkland her religious, long-suffering mother.
And in what would turn out to be one of his last performances, Peter Fonda plays a popular TV preacher and foil for America’s most famous — and infamous — atheist, the woman whose lawsuits pushed the encroaching doctrinaire Christianity that had been brought into schools and government more recently than those who screamed “It’s tradition! We’ve always had prayer in schools!” would have you believe.
The right players were in place, but the movie is a choppy, incomplete biography built around a one-note — shrill to the point of shrieking — performance.
And the director “An American Crime” and “Ella Enchanted” turns the third act into a grim snuff film that cannot help but give perverse pleasure to those who hated her and threatened her life for over 30 years.
Baltimorean Madalyn Murray was a born “non-conformist” from the start. Raised in a religious household (Ryan Cutrona plays the father she curses out at some point during every religious debate), she’d had her son out of wedlock in an era where that wasn’t tolerated. She had a law degree, but found finding suitable employment impossible in 1950s Baltimore.
Whatever she was before we meet her in the movie, that experience helped turn her into a zero-tolerance misanthrope. But her anti-racism stance got her on TV, and that led to social work — odd, for a misanthrope.
Taking her boy to school and walking in on his class reciting “The Lord’s Prayer” set her off and set her life’s path.
“What the HELL’s going on in here?”
The lawsuit that first showed America that “freedom of religion” also meant “freedom FROM religion” made her name. And by the mid-1960s she was litigating Nativity scenes on government property and Papal visits to U.S. National Parks. Her American Atheists organization was drawing donations and her place in the culture secured for decades to come.
Co-writer/director Tommy O’Haver frames her life within events that ended it, her 1995 kidnapping by an ex-employee (Lucas) and a couple of minions, men who wanted the money she had been hiding in offshore accounts.
She doesn’t know this when she barks, “Jerry FALWELL put you up to this?” to her captors. She’s sure the cops will be onto the kidnappers in a flash.
“I don’t think ANYone will be looking for you, Madalyn!”
That’s what one of her aides discovers when he tries to call the police. “Publicity stunt.” It takes some convincing to interest an Austin, Texas newspaper reporter (Scott).
Much of the tale is told in flashbacks, her respectful and (somewhat) respectable appearances on talk shows, the cynical, lucrative “put on a show” debates with New Orleans’ “Chaplain of Bourbon Street” preacher Bob Harrington (Fonda), and the fateful day she hires a man she comes to find out served time in prison.
That’s almost a running thread here, her uncanny inability to see “trouble” in the men in her life — baby daddy, cheating ex-husband (father of her second son, Garth, played by Michael Chernis).
Skipping over her most public years in montage form seems to be a strategy to condense her life to one of fury and unpleasantness. And while Leo does well by the putdowns, tantrums and confrontations, it seems one-dimensional. Accurate? Not as much as one would hope.
What one can say is how excruciating the finale is, how the film seems to make her arguments unreasonable simply because SHE was unreasonable. That can’t be intentional (O’Haver’s first film was the gay romance “Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss”).
The O’Hair virtues depicted here are that she was brave, defiant and when the need arose, articulate. And if history has taught us nothing, it’s that she was ahead of her times and probably right most of the time.
One has to see through a pretty ugly movie to glean that, though. This is an ugly portrait, perhaps unfairly so.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, graphic violence, profanity
Cast: Melissa Leo, Josh Lucas, Juno Temple, Adam Scott, Vincent Kartheiser and Peter Fonda.
Credits: Directed by Tommy O’Haver, script by Tommy O’Haver and Irene Turner A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:32