In 1964, Life magazine dubbed Madalyn Murray O’Hair “the most hated woman in America,” running a huge feature on the outspoken atheist. (Just to put her celebrity in context, the magazine devoted its cover to LBJ’s beagles, Her and Him, sitting on the White House lawn.) Tommy O’Haver’s Netflix original gleefully appropriates that label, reminding viewers of a controversial figure whom subsequent generations take for granted, and few bother to disparage today. It was she who fought to remove the stigma from disbelief, who founded American Atheists, and who won a landmark Supreme Court case banning mandatory Bible readings in public schools — all of which factors into a tabloid-style biopic that chooses to focus primarily on the sordid details of her demise.
Whether or not most believers will admit it, the conventional wisdom goes that one of the great comforts of religion is the way it promises something better after death. But the way actress Melissa Leo plays it — unhinged, as usual, but deliciously so — Madalyn was positively fearless: She ignored daily death threats, combatively told her critics to “go to hell,” and laughed when a zealot in a Jesus costume tried to assassinate her at a public appearance. When the moment of her death finally did arrive, the notorious disbeliever looked her killer in the eye and told him she was ready to face whatever void awaits atheists after they die.
Allowing ample room for embellishment, writer-director O’Haver (operating very much in the vein of his 2007 locked-in-the-basement potboiler “An American Crime”) focuses primarily on that sordid final chapter of Madalyn’s life, while seizing on the fact that few know, much less remember, the controversial character to reveal a pair of backstories that give the already-juicy story that much more sizzle. O’Haver’s premise is that the woman’s prickly, confrontational nature served to make enemies of those closest to her (sure enough, eldest son Bill Murray went on to chair the Religious Freedom Coalition), which in turn explains how she came to be kidnapped by a greedy, begrudging former ally.
Of all the big-shot content producers out there, none seems to be changing faster than Netflix, though this particular commission seems to fall right where you’d expect: slightly better than your average TV movie, while not as good as your typical theatrical release. It opens with needlessly jittery handheld tableaux of an empty living room, an abandoned breakfast, and an ironic portrait of what we’ll come to recognize as a deeply dysfunctional family (is there any other kind?). The house is empty, and Madalyn, her younger son Jon Garth Murray (Michael Chernus), and granddaughter Robin (Juno Temple) have disappeared.
As O’Haver shrewdly identifies, one of the many paradoxes of Madalyn’s life was that she despised organized religion (“Religion has caused more misery to all of mankind in every stage of human history than any other single idea,” she famously quipped), yet built a cult of donors and believers around herself. She criticized churches and televangelists as money-grubbing charlatans (including one played by Peter Fonda who cashes in on her attacks), but accumulated — and ultimately embezzled — huge sums herself.
When Madalyn goes missing, the cops hardly care, but one of her faithful followers (Brandon Mychal Smith) springs into action and contacts a reporter at the San Antonio paper (played by Adam Scott). While these two try to locate Madalyn, who’s being held at gunpoint by David Waters (Josh Lucas, less crazy than usual), O’Haver flashes back to scenes from her feisty 30-year career, explaining what she achieved and how she came to alienate her son Bill (“Mad Men’s” Vincent Kartheiser, lousy).
Kartheiser stands out as the worst of an ensemble of usually talented actors who don’t seem to know how to handle themselves in Leo’s shadow — and small wonder, since the actress gives one of those scenery-chewing performances that leaves her picking pieces of her co-stars out of her teeth. (It would make a great double bill with nun-centric “Novitiate,” in which she plays an ultra-strict Reverend Mother.) Much like Madalyn, Leo is the dominant presence in any given room, even buried beneath a series of wigs and several layers of prosthetics — convincing, albeit unflattering hair and makeup work, far better than the reverse-aging visual effects used in early scenes. She’s a big character with a salty vocabulary, which amusingly appropriates language from her conservative religious upbringing (“Hallelujah!” she proclaims, when Bill announces that his wife has filed for divorce), as well as zingers such as, “I wouldn’t spit in your ass if your guts were on fire.”
Though he clearly admires the woman, O’Haver doesn’t want to let her off easy, which makes for a more nuanced portrayal than the stock canonization another director might have chosen (it would have been just as easy to paint her as a devil). And though he supplies a poetic sense of reconciliation toward the end, he’s deliberately dishonest when she appears on “The Tonight Show” and tells Johnny Carson (in one of those “Forrest Gump”-ian trick jobs, where Leo magically appears in archival footage) that she wants her tombstone to read: “Woman. Grandmother. Mother.” Granted, Madalyn loved each of those roles — she was every bit as pioneering as a 1960s single mother as she was an atheist — but that wasn’t how she imagined her epitaph at all. The three words she really wanted: Woman, Atheist, Anarchist. But if one thing is certain, she ain’t looking down from heaven trying to set the record straight.
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