“The Most Hated Woman in America”
A movie based on the life of Madalyn Murray O’Hair needs no embellishment to make it burst from the screen. In fact the filmmakers actually reduced some of the statistical facts to make the story more believable.
The Most Hated Woman in America had its world premiere at SXSW 2017 in advance of its streaming debut. Free Press Houston spoke to director Tommy O’Haver, and actors Melissa Leo (O’Hair), Josh Lucas (David Waters), and Michael Chernus (O’Hair’s son Jon Garth Murray).
“I knew about her because my friends were activists particularly of this bent. Meaning that they believed the government was overstepping its boundaries in so many ways. I had heard of her that way but I didn’t know the strange extraordinary details of the story,” says Lucas.
“I don’t ever claim to know too much about anything in the world so I had never heard of her until Tommy sent the script to me. In the many years I had the script I was wishing Tommy would find the money to do it,” says Leo.
Like so many film projects TMHWIA took several years from its inception to its getting financed. “It was giddy-up-and-go over night after years of waiting,” says Leo.
O’Hair was involved in the Supreme Court case that banned Bible reading from schools (Murray v. Curlett, 1963). Note that the previous year had seen in Supreme Court ban “officially sponsored prayer” in public schools (Engel v. Vitale). O’Hair went on to head the American Atheist Church, in which her son played an important role. The film follows O’Hair through the years along the way giving the Academy Award winning Leo a chance to play the role over four different decades. (In addition to an Oscar Leo also won a Golden Globe and a SAG award for her supporting role in The Fighter in 2010.)
Waters was hired by the O’Hairs and he soon found out about how the family was siphoning money into offshore accounts. Eventually fired, Waters devised a scheme to kidnap O’Hair, Garth and her granddaughter Robin (played in the film by Juno Temple). Events went bad and Waters and his associates (one portrayed as a brutish thug by Rory Cochrane) killed their hostages and dismembered the bodies.
Director O’Haver notes: “It’s extremely difficult to set up a movie about a murdered atheist.
“There’s a certain amount of creative liberties taken here because it’s not a documentary we had to compress facts including the investigation but they were actually held hostage in an apartment for six weeks. They were hanging out by the pool together,” says O’Haver. In the movie the kidnapping is depicted as being a couple of weeks long.
“You don’t want to cloud the issue, you want to keep the events moving,” says O’Haver. “There were drafts where we stayed closer to the reality but it was confusing.
“This was not Stockholm Syndrome. This was Madalyn and David had a history and they thought they were going to eventually be set free,” says O’Haver.
“There are two different stories about how things ended. The two people in that room were Gary Karr (Cochrane) and David Waters and when they were caught they each told a different story,” says O’Haver.
Waters and Karr had the money, around four-hundred-thousand dollars, converted to gold coins, thinking that would be hard to trace.
“While they were disposing of the bodies they stashed the money in a storage unit,” says Chernus. “There had been a rash of storage thefts in the area and all those gold coins were stolen and David never saw a dime.”
Waters died in prison in 2003.
“He was a disastrously complex figure from really early on as they both were. I think they this is an interesting element as to how they found each other. There was a real tension there from them both being really damaged. He looked up to her being smarter that he was and she manipulated that,” says Lucas. “Complex nuances of a real relationship followed and yet he saw a flaw and took it to the bitter end. It’s always troubling to play a character like this.”
Leo adds: “It’s really frightening being a woman in the United States of America and realizing what can happen. A woman takes on a little initiative and it’s not like anybody before her didn’t set a little aside for her family. Corrupt? Well you can see it that way. She’s just doing what she saw going on around her. She stood up for something and I shudder to think about what this country would be like today without her influence.”
“The Most Hated Woman in America” is currently streaming on Netflix.