By Melissa Antoinette Garza
NETFLIX has opted to celebrate Women’s History Month in one of the strangest ways possible. THE MOST HATED WOMAN IN AMERICA (2017) is a biopic about the life of famous atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair.
It’s quite difficult to even wrap my head around what I’ve just watched. To write a review is no easy task as the intended message the filmmakers wanted to relay was the near opposite of what was conveyed. That’s not to say it was a bad movie, but rather that it failed in what it was trying to do. Instead, the element of interest is found within the odd outlook of what writer/director Tommy O’Haver seemingly interprets as feminism and strength.
Full disclosure, I am a Christian in training. I don’t intend church. I considered myself agnostic for years and even dabbled in some other faiths for a while. In the last year and even more-so in the last few months, I have developed a relationship with God.
That said, I don’t hate or judge Atheists. My husband isn’t a Christian. My brother is somewhere in-between Atheist and Agnostic. My sister is a devotee to a specific church whose ideology I don’t embrace. My best friend wraps herself in the beauty of all that is nature and she’s the most loving, loyal and magnificent women I know. Regarding my own faith, I’m probably closest with my mother, which is odd as when I was younger, I poked fun at her belief system. If someone is kind and has good intentions, I welcome them with open arms. I’ve watched both the PENN & TELLER BULLSHIT episode about THE BIBLE and the Bill Nye debate with Ken Ham 20 times over. I’m a fan of James Randi and rock out to JUDAS PRIEST every chance I get.
It wasn’t until I was reading the Bible about a year ago that I went through my own journey. I’ve read the Bible for years. As a child, I read Cain and Abel constantly and because I was an odd child, I had a crush on Cain. For nearly twenty years, I only read the Bible to find contradictions, to raise questions and to bring up points of contention. I would admit that parables like The Prodigal Son were philosophical masterpieces, but was far from convinced it was anything but a smart man writing a smart story. The tale of Job was one of my major issues with the Bible. I couldn’t understand how a bet with Satan would propel God to make a servant of his lose absolutely everything. I read that tale again and again. I would bring it up to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, friends who were religious, Reverends, Pastors, and family alike. No one could really justify it for me. Then one day, the tale of Job changed for me. It was no longer a story about a man screwed over without justification. No, it was a tale about remaining faithful and hopeful in the face of tragedy. To put it simply, bad things will happen to good people. I don’t know why I didn’t see it like that before. I’ve lived like Job, but rather than remain faithful turned my back on God long ago; but within seconds the decades of anger and frustration over that tale vanished. Now, I don’t know if Job was real or if the story was just an allegory, but I do know that the emotion that washed over me when I grasped the true intent was something I had never experienced. It was an awakening of sorts.
That’s my story and people have many various reasons for the faith or lack thereof that they choose. I don’t judge. I don’t preach to people. When I get home at night, I do pray. I do put my life in the hands of the Lord recognizing that my actions and intentions are significant in my own path, but He is there to guide me when I listen.
So, why go into a long detail of my religious journey in a movie review. Simply put, THE MOST HATED WOMAN IN AMERICA doesn’t. We don’t see her backstory, her childhood or the philosophical awakening that brought her to the conclusion God doesn’t exist.
The film opens on August 27, 1995. Madalyn Murray O’Hair (Melissa Leo), and with her as always is Garth (Michael Chernus), and granddaughter Robin (Juno Temple) are kidnapped. Garth is Madalyn’s second son, but not the father of Robin. They have bags over their heads, but the mastermind soon reveals himself. Former employee of Madalyn, David Waters (Josh Lucas) alongside two of his buddies, Gary Carr (Rory Cochrane) and Danny Fry (Alex Frost) demand one million dollars from the three of them. Having only 600K in their personal bank account, Garth explains they must wait a week for him to get the rest transferred from an off-shore account. The group remains in the hotel room throughout the movie, while flashbacks reveal portions of Madalyn’s past.
In 1955, Madalyn lived with her parents and her one son Bill (Andy Walken). She becomes pregnant again and the guy runs off. The opening scene with her folks is a strange one. They are sitting at the table ready to eat and her father John (Ryan Cutrona) is saying grace. He asks Madalyn to not eat prior and she is instantly annoyed. Bear in mind, Madalyn doesn’t have a job, is middle-aged, mooching off her mom and dad, yet doesn’t show him the respect of honoring his belief.
When John finds out Madalyn is with child again, he understandably gets angry. Unjustifiably, he calls little Billy a ‘bastard,’ but instantly regrets it and tries to apologize. Madalyn rather than let her father make amends and set her son’s mind at ease, stops it and makes her son go eat in their room.
The issue I have is that Madalyn is an unredeemable character. I say character, because I truly don’t know enough about the woman to judge whether this is a fair depiction. Regardless, she didn’t deserve to be kidnapped, but she isn’t someone I would’ve liked to know. Though some of her actions were righteous, her intentions are always displayed as self-serving.
For example, she and her son attended a civil rights rally to stop segregation at a Texas restaurant. They were the only white people there. That’s a commendable action, but the movie reflects that her motive was to get on TV, get on her father’s nerves, and shove it up the community’s behind.
Later, Madalyn brings Bill (Devin Freeman) who is now in his teens to school late. She gets angry when she hears the Lord’s Prayer said in school and that Bill is not permitted to abstain. Now, this is a difficult issue. My stance is a child and or school should be able to conduct a morning devotion, but anyone should be permitted to abstain. I don’t see any issue with a voluntary prayer. For example, I am completely for a teacher saying, “Bow your head in silence. You can use this time to pray or give thanks or just wish to think about things.” I remember I had a 5th grade teacher that did just that every day after saying the Pledge of Allegiance and I felt good afterward. There were days that I prayed and then there were days that I just reflected on life. It’s not a bad thing.
That said, Madalyn took the case to the Supreme Court – because of course she did. In Murray vs. Curlett, Bible reading in school. Now here the film is a little muddled. It gives the impression that Madalyn stopped prayer in school, but that was done a year prior with the supreme court ruling of Engel vs. Vitale. I’m not sure if this was just not properly explained to the viewer or if Tommy-Boy’s research team weren’t as dedicated as they should be.
Now, while speaking Madalyn made some valid points. She spoke against the war in Vietnam and for helping one another. She emphasized that she wasn’t attempting to recruit people but rather ensure the constitution was upheld.
If her sentiments seemed legitimate, I would view her as a strong woman. Despite, disagreeing with much of what she says, I would admire her dedication to stand up for her belief system. I just didn’t get that message with the movie.
It was only after she was sent a $100 bill that she founded the American Atheists. Over the years, despite being a non-profit organization, she hid funds in off-shore accounts and embezzled millions.
If that wasn’t bad enough, she was awful with her children. Bill (Vincent Kartheiser) descended into alcohol after Madalyn ruined his marriage. She played the sympathy card and reminded him how much she needed him. She brought up the fact that as a child, he told her to be a nonconformist and she followed his instructions. As she lay in the hospital from nerve damage, milking every moment of it, Bill begged her to free him from her clutches. She refused.
Finally, Bill hit rock bottom and went to a 12-step program. It was there that he found God and got his life together. He became an advocate for prayer in school and went on TV promoting his new cause.
In the one scene where she see’s Bill on the TV, there was a moment of sympathy. Then, within a second she was back to being a crotchety old woman. Both Garth and Robin swear to never leave her.
When the three are kidnapped, the cops refuse to start an investigation. The three disappeared before as publicity stunts and as far as they were concerned there was no evidence of a crime. Madalyn’s friend Roy Collier (Brandon Mychal Smith) is the only one convinced something is wrong. He enlists the help of reporter Jack Ferguson (Adam Scott), who is dying for a real story. He isn’t convinced to take the case on until Roy finds Madalyn’s passport, giving credence to the three being kidnapped. Roy explains that he was kicked out of his house for being gay. In Texas, being black and gay wasn’t an easy thing but Madalyn took him in. Now, this is a good deed! If only they showed rather than told this story. If Madalyn’s intentions were unselfish in helping Roy, she would have earned some sympathy.
Despite everything, Madalyn, Garth, and Robin were victims of a heinous crime and everything that occurred during the kidnapping was undeserved, wrong, and lacked any realm of humanity.
That said, where was Madalyn’s humanity? Was she just a loudmouth, ungrateful, greedy wench who used the Civil Rights and Feminist movement to further her own agenda? She reminded me of so many women in my family and that I know personally who I cannot stand. She was a stereotypical shrew! Maybe she was really like that. I don’t know, but I intend to find out.
My question is why make this movie? Who is made for? If the film is supposed to represent Madalyn as a hero, it fails on every level. It shows atheism as nothing more than a money-making scheme. I wondered if this was a clever Christian ruse. Thomas O’Haver is a complete mystery to me. Maybe, he was an undercover Christian that used identity politics as a mechanism to trick NETFLIX into making this movie. That’s one theory.
The other is that he stole quite a bit of the story from William J Murray’s (Bill) book. WND.com interviewed Murray who mentioned quite a few similarities, major omissions and the fact that much of the information within the movie could only be found within his memoir MY LIFE WITHOUT GOD. Murray sent a letter asking whether any of his copyrighted material was utilized in the film, only to get a letter stating the company would not contact him. I highly suggest reading the entire article as it has quite a bit of significant details that the movie failed to mention or outright lied about. The most significant is regarding an attempted move to the Soviet Union. Read the full piece here:
This is the second article in a row that I’ve written where copyright infringement has come into play. If O’Haver stole from Murray’s book, I hope justice prevails and that Christians rally around Murray assisting with legal fees if need-be.
There are so many things that bother me with this movie. First, we have its blatant attempt to pander to women and feminists while failing miserably. Second, there are so many other women that could have been chosen for a biopic, especially during this month. Let’s have films made on Daisy Bates, Norma McCorvey, Anne Braden, Rose O’Neill, Helen Cook or an entire film on the African American woman suffrage movement, I could literally go on and on about strong, fierce, patriotic women who should have their own film, but do not.
Still, if one is going to make a biopic about a woman they should consult a living relative, especially if that person is going to be a character within the film. I’m disappointed NETFLIX is so seemingly blasé about putting their name on a movie that could have been stolen.
I hope that William J. Murray pairs up with David A.R. White and PURE FLIX to produce his life story and journey. PURE FLIX always makes quality Christian films that refrain from beating one over the head with hellfire and brimstone.
As for THE MOST HATED WOMAN IN AMERICA, it wasn’t the worst movie I’ve ever seen. It has some amazing actors in it. Adam Scott, Rory Cochrane and Vincent Kartheiser were fantastic. I will say that the attempt to make Kartheiser look older was laughable. It appeared he used the silver Halloween spray. I’d expect it in a lower budget flick, but here it stood out. Regardless, they as well as most of the other cast members were topnotch.
I must mention Peter Fonda’s performance as Reverend Harrington. He was on-the-nose fantastic. I’ve had a soft spot for Fonda since RACE WITH THE DEVIL (1975) and the vastly underrated FUTUREWORLD (1976). Here, in the five minutes of screen-time Fonda shows different facets to Harrington. He’s portrayed as a greedy believer. He allows Madalyn to destroy the Bible because he gets more cash AND he gets more followers. Fonda’s bravado and charisma makes it easy to see why someone would be inclined to follow his biblical teachings, but there’s also a sincere belief in him. In one scene, Harrington says “I’ll pray for your soul,” and Madalyn responds, “I’ll curse yours.” This pivotal moment is evidence of the main problem. Fonda made Harrington a 3-dimensional character that is riveting and poignant, while Madalyn remains the same old shrew.
As for Melissa Leo, it’s impossible to tell if she was good in this without knowing what direction she was given. Madalyn was portrayed as a one-dimensional, hateful human being. Even as she comforted Bill when his wife left him, it was so self-serving it made me sick.
The story itself is an interesting and sad one. I find Bill’s character uplifting. Kartheiser’s level of sincerity in the end was heartfelt and resonated well. Garth and Robin came across as brainwashed yet goodhearted. Chernus and Temple did a terrific job at connecting with the audience. They displayed awkward and anti-social behavior, which without doubt was due to being raised by a sociopath. There are a few weird moments that didn’t sit well with me. Garth and Robin shared glances and held hands in a manner that the camera focused on it a bit too long. As they were biologically related (uncle and niece) I certainly hope nothing went on. O’Haver either toyed with the idea or the editing of the movie needed some tuning.
The film is good enough for a watch. Had I known about the intellectual property that was allegedly stolen, I may have waited until I bought William Murray’s book. I do look forward to reading it. I’ve never spoken with Mr. Murray, but I truly enjoyed the interviews I’ve seen of him.
I look forward to reading his books. To purchase, you can buy via Amazon at:
MY LIFE WITHOUT GOD:
MY LIFE WITHOUT GOD THE REST OF THE STORY:
If nothing else, hopefully this biopic will encourage readers to look up William Murray as I did and purchase his life-story.
SCARED STIFF RATING: 6/10