Leo rips up the screen as Mada­lyn Mur­ray O’Hair in ‘Most Hated Woman’

Austin American-Statesman - - COMICS & PUZZLES - By Charles Ealy Spe­cial to the Amer­i­can-Statesman

Melissa Leo de­liv­ers a pow­er­house per­for­mance as the Austin athe­ist leader Mada­lyn Mur­ray O’Hair in di­rec­tor Tommy O’Haver’s “The Most Hated Woman in Amer­ica.”

As O’Hair, Leo is foul­mouthed, in your face, un­apolo­getic and down­right nasty at times as she bat­tles most of the rest of the world in fight­ing for First Amend­ment rights. In case you’ve for­got­ten, O’Hair got the “most hated woman” de­scrip­tion af­ter she filed a law­suit against the Bal­ti­more school sys­tem, even­tu­ally forc­ing that district as well as oth­ers across the na­tion to stop Bi­ble read­ings.

The Supreme Court de­ci­sion is still be de­bated to­day, and O’Hair was at the cen­ter of the bat­tle in 1963.

O’Hair par­layed that fame into set­ting up an Austin non­profit called Amer­i­can Athe­ists. She was a reg­u­lar on TV talk shows and at one point toured the coun­try de­bat­ing a tel­e­van­ge­list, played in the film by Peter Fonda.

Leo throws her­self into the role, don­ning a fat suit for O’Hair in her later years. And she doesn’t hold back on the anger or blus­ter. It’s al­most shock­ing to see the early O’Hair, so out of place with her out­spo­ken­ness and so un­apolo­getic about her per­sonal cir­cum­stances.

The movie opens with O’Hair telling her par­ents that she’s go­ing to have yet an­other child out of wed­lock. She has Bill Mur­ray Jr., and a son named Jon Garth is on the way.

Her deeply re­li­gious par­ents are ap­palled, of course, but O’Hair doesn’t flinch. And when she ac­com­pa­nies Bill Jr. to school one day and hears a teacher lead­ing the stu­dents in the Lord’s Prayer, she starts yelling at the teacher and promis­ing to put a stop to what she sees as a vi­o­la­tion of church and state sep­a­ra­tion.

Nearly ev­ery man in O’Hair’s life be­trays her. The first be­tray­als, of course, are from the men who don’t step up to help fa­ther their sons. But O’Hair suf­fers an­other set­back when her old­est son, Bill, de­cides to be­come a Chris­tian and dis­as­so­ci­ate him­self from the fam­ily.

Then there’s David Wa­ters, played by Josh Lu­cas, whom O’Hair groomed to take over the fam­ily busi­ness. Wa­ters and O’Hair had a fall­ing out even­tu­ally, and Wa­ters came up with the scheme to kidnap O’Hair, her son Jon Garth and her grand­daugh­ter Robin and de­mand that they turn over as­sets held in a sup­pos­edly se­cret ac­count in New Zealand.

When the three dis­ap­pear, a fam­ily associate no­tices their house is empty and that the dogs have been left be­hind, unat­tended. So he’s nat­u­rally alarmed. But law en­force­ment of­fi­cials sim­ply sus­pect that O’Hair has taken off for New Zealand to en­joy some time away from home. Then their pass­ports are found, the fam­ily friend con­tacts a re­porter in San An­to­nio and, fi­nally, peo­ple be­gin to take mat­ters se­ri­ously.

Mean­while, the O’Hair fam­ily is still be­ing held cap­tive un­til a tragic event one night un­leashes a fury that will leave all of them dead.

Leo’s fi­nal scenes in the film are heart­break­ing, as she re­al­izes what is hap­pen­ing. And you al­most think that there will be some kind of redemp­tion, some kind of grace, if O’Hair would ever ac­cept such a con­cept. But Leo plays the scene note­per­fect. And you know the tragedy will not be soft­ened.

As Wa­ters, Lu­cas has the sec­ond-strong­est role. He cap­tures the quin­tes­sen­tial hand­some­ness and sleazi­ness that’s nec­es­sary. And Fonda is a hoot as a tel­e­van­ge­list who chal­lenges O’Hair to ac­com­pany him on a road show. It wasn’t O’Hair’s finest hour, eth­i­cally, but she did what she had to do, as Leo shows so well.

CON­TRIB­UTED BY BETH DUBBER/NET­FLIX

Peter Fonda and Melissa Leo in “The Most Hated Woman In Amer­ica.”

MATT WINKELMEYER/GETTY IMAGES

Ac­tress Melissa Leo stars in ‘The Most Hated Woman in Amer­ica,’ which pre­miered at South by South­west and is avail­able on Net­flix on Fri­day.

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