Austin's Most Famous Atheist
The life and death of Madalyn Murray O'Hair, The Most Hated Woman in America
It was one of the grisliest crimes in Texas history and remains as bizarrely improbable a whodunit 22 years after the fact. A family of three goes missing from their Austin home and, at first, nobody seems to care all that much. They had vanished before, it turns out, and they were never your typical next-door neighbors to begin with, unless you counted Madalyn Murray O'Hair, the infamous founder of American Atheists and the woman who got the Supreme Court to ban organized prayer in public schools in 1963 as the foul-mouthed lady next door.
Director Tommy O'Haver's new film about the crime – The Most Hated Woman in America – plays out like an Austin-weird neo-noir, drawing voluminously from actual details of the 1995 O'Hair case while adding some dramatic turns of its own.
The Austin Chronicle spoke to O'Haver about his movie, Melissa Leo's performance as the cantankerous atheist, and O'Hair's place in cultural history by phone prior to the film's SXSW screening and Netflix debut (March 24).
Austin Chronicle: What drew you and your longtime writing partner Irene Turner to the story of arguably the world’s most infamous atheist? I ask because even here in Austin, the whole improbable series of events feels forgotten, or hushed up, even though it wasn’t that long ago.
Tommy O’Haver: The truth of the matter is that I didn't really know that much about it until [producers] Max Handelman and Elizabeth Banks approached [Irene and me] after they had just seen my film An American Crime at Sundance. They had the rights to a book on the O'Hair murders and although the book adaptation didn't work out, we ended up writing our script using various sources. At the time, though, I was, like, "I can't believe I've never heard about this." It's not only a great true-crime tale, but also just an amazing character to develop, to create our own version of quote unquote Madalyn Murray O'Hair.
AC: Speaking of which, did you have Melissa Leo in mind from the get-go to play Madalyn? Because she really nails a role which could’ve easily slipped into campy horror in someone else’s hands.
TO: Yeah, I did. I had seen her in The Fighter and I thought she'd be incredible in this role. I knew that she could transform herself as Madalyn.
AC: And you got Peter Fonda in to play the shady Reverend Harrington. That’s a coup.
TO: We sent him the script and he just loved that character. We only had him for two or three days of shooting.
AC: So after having done all the research, written and shot the film, what are your feelings about the real Madalyn Murray O’Hair? Considering our current political climate, I can only imagine what sort of reaction she’d cause today.
TO: She'd be screaming her head off, I'm sure. Remember the [Kentucky County Clerk] Kim Davis thing a couple of years ago?
AC: She refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses and went to jail.
TO: Right, because it was against her religion. And I don't think that Madalyn would appreciate someone like Betsy DeVos being in a position of power. We haven't had this level of social protest in this country since the Sixties and Seventies and so I think Madalyn Murray O'Hair would be right at home in this environment.
In many ways I think that she was the beginning of the culture wars, you know? She was obviously manipulating the media and she took real pride in winding people up by just saying absurd things to make people angry. That was a big part of her schtick.
AC: She’d probably have taken to Twitter as much if not more than Trump.
TO: Not many people know this, but the first time she was on [The Phil Donahue Show] was actually the very first episode. Unfortunately, it doesn't exist anymore because there was a fire and a lot of the old Donahue tape library was destroyed. Because she was so controversial, people in the audience started yelling and commenting out of turn and Donahue just ran into the audience with the microphone to get their questions. That was the very first time anybody had ever done anything like that. And now [engaging with audience in that way] has become a staple of daytime television and talk shows.