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Blasphemy and devotion in Netflix's 'The Most Hated Woman in America.'

click to enlarge 'THE MOST HATED WOMAN': Melissa Leo owns the role of Madalyn Murray O'Hair, whose lawsuit ended official prayer in public schools and is the subject of Netflix's biopic.
  • 'THE MOST HATED WOMAN': Melissa Leo owns the role of Madalyn Murray O'Hair, whose lawsuit ended official prayer in public schools and is the subject of Netflix's biopic.

In the Hindu epic "Ramayana" can be found the story of Guha, the Hunter King, who became enraged when some Shiva worshippers installed a statue of their god in his forest. Every morning, the priests brought flowers and food to their idol, and every evening, Guha gave the statue a good kick. When it rained, the priests would not venture into the woods, but Guha would wade through the flood and give the idol a kick. And when finally Yama, the God of Death, came for Guha, Shiva intervened and restored the Hunter King to life, as he had shown more devotion to that idol than had Shiva's own priests.

Sometimes, there is not much daylight between the blasphemer and the believer. Few people better exemplify this than Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the subject of the Netflix original movie "The Most Hated Woman in America." Founder of American Atheists and a lawyer whose court case against the Baltimore school system resulted in the Supreme Court's striking down school-sponsored Bible readings, Murray O'Hair relished in her defiance of convention and public opinion, though she was often given to the same weaknesses as the preachers she derided.

The movie begins with the 1995 kidnapping of Madalyn (Oscar winner Melissa Leo), her son Garth (Michael Chernus) and granddaughter Robin (Juno Temple). The police in Austin, Texas, aren't too interested in investigating the disappearance of this notorious atheist, especially since her estranged son Bill (Vincent Kartheiser) refuses to fill out a missing persons report, believing the family simply jaunted off to foreign parts without telling anybody. The only one truly worried is Madalyn's associate, Roy (Brandon Mychal Smith), who gets local reporter Jack Ferguson (Adam Scott) on the case.

As this story moves forward, we flash back through Madalyn's life, starting with the 1950s, when she is a single mother living with her parents, a trained lawyer who cannot get a job other than secretary in this man's world. After her successful court case, she finds being in the public eye lucrative and founds American Atheists, but her fame and her overwhelming personality leave her son Bill struggling to create an identity separate from her, and he eventually commits the ultimate betrayal by becoming a conservative Christian. As we come closer to the present, we see the stage slowly being set for that moment when Madalyn and her family are held at gunpoint in a dingy hotel room, wondering if they will come out alive.

We know how this story ends — after all, those three bodies were famously uncovered in 2001 — but by shifting between past and present so capably, the movie creates tension around the questions of who and why. Clocking in at just over 90 minutes, this is a fairly bare-bones film, and its use of news footage and television appearances would feel like cheap exposition had not Madalyn Murray O'Hair herself been such a public figure. However, what saves this from being just another biopic is Melissa Leo's performance. She is no impersonator. She owns this role — and her character's contradictions: the nonconformist who demands obedience, the friend of outcasts who can erupt into homophobic slurs when threatened, the militant atheist who partners with a preacher to raise some cash for themselves. Even the somewhat unconvincing make-up job for young Madalyn can't detract from Leo's stunning work throughout.

With recent debates on freethinking often centered around the mostly 1male "New Atheists," it's important to remember the woman who paved the way decades earlier — and without the veneer of academic respectability. "The Most Hated Woman in America" recovers some important American history while never flinching from the flaws of its protagonist, all in a tightly crafted package featuring one of the best performances of recent memory.

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