Melissa Leo has played a string of hard-nosed characters throughout her career, from Kay Howard in TV’s “Homicide: Life on the Streets” to Alice Ward in “The Fighter,” for which she won a supporting actress Oscar. She’s also played one of Austin’s most famous residents, Lady Bird Johnson, in the TV series “All the Way.”
But in “The Most Hated Woman in America” she takes on one of the most controversial characters in U.S. history: Austin’s Madalyn Murray O’Hair, the atheist leader who took a legal battle all the way to the Supreme Court to end Bible reading in public schools in 1963.
“I’m very, very protective of the women I play,” Leo says in an interview during South by Southwest, where the Netflix movie premiered. “It’s a very nice thing having this movie premiere in Texas. I think there’s more awareness here of Madalyn than anywhere else in the country.”
And she launches a spirited defense of O’Hair, even while acknowledging some of her failings. “I think she was incredibly intelligent at a time when the world had no room for intelligence in women, women who could make a grown man cry,” she says. “I wanted to play Madalyn through (director/writer) Tommy O’Haver’s eyes, and he adores her. And you can’t beat that with a stick when you’re playing a character. If the guy who’s leading you through it adores the character, then you know you’re in great hands.”
But since she was called the most hated woman in America by Life magazine in 1964, what’s to adore?
“I think he adores her because she was unabashedly who she was,” Leo says of her director. “And he appreciates that in people. He delights in that, to be unabashedly who you are, whoever you might be. And she was that.”
“Unabashed” is one way to put it. But Leo takes it beyond that, ripping through a script that has her cursing like a sailor and challenging people’s beliefs with impunity.
The movie opens with O’Hair, her youngest son and her granddaughter sitting on a bed in a motel with black hoods over their heads. They’re obviously prisoners, and O’Hair is barking commands, trying to get help in untying her hands behind her back.
It’s 1995, and the O’Hairs have been kidnapped by David Waters (Josh Lucas), a former employee of American Atheists in Austin. Waters and O’Hair had a huge falling out, and Waters knows that O’Hair has hundreds of thousands of dollars stashed in an offshore bank account in New Zealand. He wants her to get the money and convert it to gold coins that can’t be traced, and then he will supposedly set her and her family free.
He says he’ll do so because he doesn’t think O’Hair will press charges, mainly because she’s been siphoning money from American Atheists and wouldn’t want to be exposed.
But a friend and employee of O’Hair discovers her Austin home is unlocked and that her dogs have been left to fend for themselves. So he sounds the alarm that something is amiss, and no one, including the Austin police, seem to care. She’s probably just gone on vacation or something, they say.
“That’s a very poignant part of the story,” Leo says. “No one was concerned for her safety or well-being.”
The movie then goes back in time, to 1960s Baltimore, before O’Hair moves to Austin. She’s living with her parents, already has had a son out of wedlock, and is pregnant with another. And when she discovers that her older son’s school has compulsory Bible readings, she goes into a rage that leads to the filing of Murray v. Curlett, the case that ended such public school readings.
Along the way, it becomes clear that nearly every man in O’Hair’s life has done her wrong, with the exception of her second son, who stayed with her until they were murdered by Waters and his accomplices. Her oldest, Bill Jr., has perhaps been her biggest disappointment: He has become a Christian.
The physically slight Leo, of course, had to undergo a transformation to play the older O’Hair, whose girth expanded substantially with age.
“I had no hesitancy in putting on one fat suit after another,” Leo says. “In fact, I had no hesitancy in calling it a fat suit. The company that made it didn’t call it a fat suit. But I told them it was a fat suit, and that’s OK. It’s not disrespectful to the fat suit.”
Leo adds: “Madalyn was a very heavy woman, and putting on the fat suit was a device to show her aging. … She was a very heavy woman. … I don’t bring a lot of vanity to my work. Madalyn had no vanity, so how could I have vanity playing her?”
Leo acknowledges that O’Hair had some questionable ethics at times, particularly when she goes on a debating tour with Bob Harrington, the so-called chaplain of Bourbon Street, in order to make extra money.
“I think that Madalyn would say that wasn’t her finest hour,” Leo says. “But it was a way to make money. … She had to have a way to earn a living. She was an opportunist. And who ever got money who didn’t want more money? Ever!”
That, of course, was also her downfall. “Greed was the cause of her death. Her own greed, and then David Waters’ greed, because he knew she had the money and he wanted it,” she says.
Leo thinks O’Hair was a product of her times and that she did what she did — so outrageously — in part to get attention, and in part because she truly believed in the separation of church and state.
“I think if Madalyn were put in the same position today, that perhaps she might not argue so vehemently to remove Christian prayer from public schools, but to offer a more realistic idea: that a period of reflection for schoolchildren would be good, and that it would be according to their family’s beliefs,” Leo says. “Muslim children could get their rugs out for the call to prayer. And you would then be learning about one another in school and help make U.S. citizens out of children. But she fought the fight that was needed. Remember, at that time, the U.S. government had put ‘In God we trust’ on our dollar bills and added ‘under God’ to ‘one nation indivisible.’ She could see what was coming.”
In the end, Leo says, O’Hair tried to establish a home for atheists in the United States. “There were atheists in this country who needed a place to call home, and perhaps, even one day, a political voice,” she says. “And that was the serious work of her life.”
Leo, of course, is well aware that many people in America still think O’Hair did far more harm than good. That’s not Leo’s concern. She’s simply trying to play an American who fought her way to prominence — and then suffered a tragic end.
HOW TO WATCH
“The Most Hated Woman in America” premieres on Netflix on Friday.
Read a review from its SXSW premiere, D6