SXSW 2017 Review: The Most Hated Woman in America is a Fascinating Tale.
Last year, I got to sit down and chat with Melissa Leo while she was doing press for Oliver Stone’s Snowden. At the Snowden press day, Leo spoke about some of her upcoming projects and the one she seemed the proudest of was The Most Hated Woman in America, which just had it’s World Premiere at SXSW 2017. The film stars Leo as Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the woman who helped push religion out of the classroom in Baltimore, Maryland in the 1960s. O’Hair made a name for herself very early on in her career and went on to become of one of the most well-known and hated atheist activists in America.
Throughout three decades, O’Hair fought for freedom of speech until the day that she vanished without a trace. Determined that it is just another one of her notorious publicity stunts, no one worried about O’Hair’s disappearance besides a co-worker named Roy (Brandon Mychal Smith). Roy gets in touch with a local reporter played by Adam Scott to open an investigation. It turns out that O’Hair was kidnapped, along with her son Garth (Michael Chernus) and her granddaughter Robin (Juno Temple) by David Waters.
Now, while it may seem like I gave away a lot of the plot, I assure you there is a lot more to the story than what I discussed above. The Most Hated Woman in America is a fascinating tale about a woman that I knew next to nothing about prior to seeing this film. Madalyn Murray O’ Hair may not have been the most ethical person on this planet, but she stood up for what she believed in and made a difference. The fact that this woman wasn’t afraid to take her son to protest against segregation as well as religion in the classroom says a lot about her as a person.
Irene Turner and Tommy O’Haver are the two writers behind bringing O’Hair’s story to the public, and they focus on a lot in a very short amount of time. For a film that takes place from the 1950s to the 1990s, the script tries to embrace as much of this woman’s story as possible. The film jumps around quite a bit, but there are always dates and located listed, so you know exactly what stage of O’Hair’s life that the scene is taking place. I think the film does suffer a bit by trying to cram in a bit too much in just 90-minutes. Each stage of O’Hair’s career is exciting, but there are certain areas such as her relationship with her kids that I felt needed a bit more focus.
For example, there is a fallout that occurs between Madalyn and her son Billy in the film. This moment should have been incredibly emotional, but sadly the way that the film is paced, it sort of gets glanced over. That doesn’t mean that the film isn’t enjoyable and entertaining to watch. I am just commenting on the fact that certain scenes could have used more development while some other scenes could have been cut entirely to craft a tighter edit of the film.
Melissa Leo instantly becomes Madalyn Murray O’ Hair and disappears in the role. Leo has always been an actress that has gotten a lot of praise over the years which she has earned, but she is so remarkable in this role. I think the way she carries herself is perfect and I loved the whole I don’t take crap from anyone attitude. I like the fact that Leo can take on strong female roles and does so with such ease. She is the heart and soul of this project and delivers nothing short of a tour-de-force performance.
The rest of the cast is all superb as well. There are some notable cast members including Adam Scott, Peter Fonda, and Juno Temple, all play an active role in O’Hair’s life. Unfortunately, because the film tackles so many stages of O’Hair’s life in such a short amount of time, it results in a lot of the actors not getting enough screen-time. There is no dead weight regarding characters, but there definitely isn’t enough time spent with each character to really get to know them and connect with them on a personal level.
Even with some of its shortcomings, I still highly recommend The Most Hated Woman in America because it is a fascinating character study with a terrific performance by Melissa Leo. This is the kind of film that I love watching because I felt like I actually learned something from it. I can only hope that with the film being readily available on Netflix starting on March 24, 2017, that more people will now hear and learn about Madalyn Murray O’ Hair’s story. She is a voice that we need more of today. She wasn’t afraid to speak her mind even when millions of people hated what she stood for.
Scott “Movie Man” Menzel’s rating for The Most Hated Woman in America is a 7 out of 10.