Posted by: maboulette | March 23, 2017

The Murder of Atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair

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Madalyn Murray O’Hair appeared in Life magazine, her notoriety warranting a headline branding her “The Most Hated Woman in America.” Five decades later, America seems to have moved on. Murray O’Hair, in spite of her notoriety and celebrity status during the culture wars, is no longer a household name—something a new Netflix film about the controversial activist and, ultimately murder victim hopes to remedy.


Oscar-winner Melissa Leo stars as Murray O’Hair in the story so wild—and yet, so true—that it’s astounding that it hasn’t been turned into a film before.


In 1960, in the midst of a career as a social worker and civil rights activist, Murray O’Hair filed a landmark lawsuit against the Baltimore City Public School System on behalf of her older son, William, arguing that it was unconstitutional to force him to take part in Bible readings while attending public school. The lawsuit eventually reached the Supreme Court in 1963, with an 8-1 ruling in her favor.


She would later move to Austin, Texas, where her on-screen portrayer, Leo, is sitting down with The Daily Beast after the film’s SXSW festival premiere.


It was in Texas that she founded the American Atheists organization and became the outspoken public face of its mission to work for the true separation of church and state, even if it meant vilifying believers for her cause.


It was also in Texas that Murray O’Hair, her son Jon, and her granddaughter Robin were kidnapped and brutally murdered by a angry former American Atheists employee, after co-workers, family members, and authorities refused to believe qualms that foul play was involved in the family’s sudden disappearance.


“It’s really interesting that you could do something that would have such a reverberating effect and yet not be known, disappear,” Leo says about Murray O’Hair’s Supreme Court crusade. “In fact, in her own lifetime disappear, which is how she ends up dead in the end.”


In recent years Leo has been on her own smaller crusade, of sorts: the one to get The Most Hated Woman in America made.


Writer-director Tommy O’Haver had his script finished two years before even sending it to Leo, whose Hollywood pull had grown considerably following her breakout turn in the 2008 indie Frozen River.


In the last decade, Leo has been one of the industry’s most prolific actors with over 60 credits in the time frame, including her Oscar-winning role in The Fighter, an Emmy-winning turn in Louie, and memorable performances in The Big Short, Mildred Pierce, All the Way, Treme, Broad City, Snowden, Flight, and more. 


Leo helped O’Haver shepherd the film to co-producer Elizabeth Banks. It would be five more years until Netflix finally funded its limited-budget, 18-day shoot. 

The actress admits that prior to receiving O’Haver’s script, she hadn’t heard of Murray O’Hair. In fact, in talking about the project over the years, she’s found a clear delineation: those who lived in Texas and remember the investigation into Murray O’Hair’s sordid kidnapping and murder back in 1995, and, essentially the rest of us.


O’Hair when pleading her case in public forums, be it on Phil Donahue or Johnny Carson’s talk shows, or in a televised debate with Preacher Bob Harrington, she attacked the religious, ridiculed their beliefs, and provoked with a mischievous glee. At one point in the film, Leo’s Murray O’Hair claimed that the Bible was written by “faggots,” saying that, “Jesus was as queer as a $3 bill.” 

“If she had been terribly polite and quiet about it, I don’t know that she would’ve been heard,” Leo says. “So then she’s abrasive, perhaps. Loud, perhaps. Foul-mouthed, for sure. Does that help her cause? Not really! But it gets her heard. 


The David vs. Goliath fight of the single mom with no means taking on the Supreme Court. Her larger-than-life personality and way of speaking and then, ghastly as it is, the dramatic and violent way that she died—kidnapping, mystery, ransom, and grisly murder. 

NetFlix begins airing this film on March 24th 


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