Guy Branum on Why The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag Is More Than a ‘Goofy Little Comedy’

Penelope Ann Miller in The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag. Photo: Archive Photos/Getty Images

Looking for some quality comedy entertainment to check out? Who better to turn to for under-the-radar comedy recommendations than comedians? In our recurring series Underratedwe chat with writers and performers from the comedy world about an unsung comedy moment of their choosing that they think deserves more praise.

Guy Branum came to national prominence on Chelsea Lately’s nightly round table. He has written for G4, Fashion Police, and The Mindy Project. Inspired by the great shiny-floor TV of yore, Branum created truTV’s Talk Show the Game Show, where he makes celebrities compete to see who can be the most charming talk-show guest. On Talk Show the Game Show, one’s final score can be dinged for excessive name-dropping, and The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag would definitely risk it. The 1992 nü-screwball crime caper features Penelope Ann Miller, Julianne Moore, Cathy Moriarty, Alfre Woodard, Catherine Keener, and an uncredited Stanley Tucci. Oh, and Meatloaf is in one scene for some reason.

The film is about Betty Lou Perkins, who gets fed up with being ignored by her cop husband and confesses to a murder she didn’t commit. She gets a jail makeover and becomes entangled in a blackmail scheme and the Cajun mafia. But more importantly, Betty Lou shows her truly awful schmuck husband (in his first scene he demands she tell him she loves him, then hangs up without saying it back — that’s how garbage he is) that there’s more to her than reading and obsequience. Betty Lou gets the guy and an adventure, and she raises thousands of dollars for her local library.

Branum’s new book My Life As a Goddess is all about survival through story. Not in the literal sense, but more a template for how to hold onto your humanity in a world that wants you gone. Growing up closeted in the wastes of Northern California farm country, Branum clung to stories of femme resilience and glory. He used culture as a map out of his little town and to a career in television, taking strength along the way from the likes of Ursula the Sea Witch, Babette from the Danish drama Babette’s Feast, and Penelope Ann Miller. My Life As a Goddess comes out today.

In your new book, you say that gay men’s voices “are full of beauty, culture, cooperation, music, opinions about Alfre Woodard, and sex.” What are your opinions about Alfre Woodard?
Alfre Woodard is an innate talent that we have never known what to do with. Alfre Woodard still only has one Academy Award nomination, and that’s for Cross Creek in 1983 — a movie that no one remembers. And she’s somebody that … just because of the way that we write movies, we don’t carve a space for her as a black woman. We have so few significant roles for black women to be quirky. The thing about Alfre Woodard is that she’s always doing something so specific; she’s always making such an interesting choice. And nowhere is that more true than in The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag. You know that character is scared of everything she’s saying. You have a real sense that she’s only saying a third of what’s going through her mind, and it’s such a magnificently textured character. I love so many parts of the movie, but Ann Orkin as a weird partner to Betty Lou Perkins is one of the things that I love most.

I love the woman who plays Reba, Cathy Moriarty. I personally know her best from Casper.
She was in Raging Bull. She was in the magnificent but deeply transphobic Soapdish. It is a movie that was written for now in so many ways. Betty Lou Perkins essentially starts the movie reading Lean In. She’s trying to understand how she can get more out of her life: How can she be assertive? And it happens the moment that she gets put in jail. Cathy Moriarty, who is this jaded chain-smoking prostitute, decides to take her under her fake-fur wing and teach her how to be a ballbuster. It’s this magnificent moment of sisterhood. The message is a little bit like, “If women could just get past race and class and all of these things, maybe it would be a little bit harder to dismiss them.”

This movie and your book are about dismissed people coming into their own power and their own certitude.
Absolutely. The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag is very much about that and goes into how narrative plays into that. Betty Lou is always reading. Her dog is named after Scarlett O’Hara. The movie opens up with a shot of Bette Davis coming down the steps shooting at people. This is a film that talks about how narratives have set Betty Lou Perkins up to be a non-person. And then everything that her husband is going through is a step-by-step trope of crime movies of that era. Did you see those videos Natalie Walker did recently, of her audition monologues?

Yeah yeah yeah!
In the way that Natalie Walker is exploring the limited tropes of The Woman Who Is Married to the White Guy in Civil Rights Movie, this is about that girlfriend at home in the crime movie who’s feeling ignored because her husband is spending all his time solving this crime. And we’re never supposed to care about her story. One of the reasons critics hated this movie so much is because they didn’t care about that story.

The movie does care about her story. But for some reason, it still very much wants the guy to be part of it, too.
One thing we have been doing on my podcast, Pop Rocket, is we’ve been trying to come up with an equivalent to the Bechdel test that is basically “What is the least amount of male participation you can have in a women-centered movie and still have dudes want to watch it?” But at the end of the day, what this woman wants is a life and a marriage. She wants it all. And I think that there’s something so cool about the fact that by immersing herself in her husband’s work world, she manages to get his attention back but also expand her life in so many ways. Betty Lou’s drive from the start is “Why doesn’t he pay attention to me?” And this movie is a comedy, so by the end of it she gets that attention. But she gets so much more, and that’s what’s so wonderful about it.

She is one of those classic bookworm characters at the start of the movie — one of those people who hides in books to the point where she is literally a librarian. Why do you think that is such a powerful archetype?
In the tritest of senses, I think that “librarian” as shorthand for “cloistered woman who’s scared of taking chances” is a little bit hack. But it really is about that person who has a vital life inside and not much of a life outside — which I think is very queer. Queer people’s stories, for a significant chunk of our lives, have to be so internal. A lot of these Pygmalion stories usually involve some dashing man who tells them to let their hair down and take the glasses off. But I like that in The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag, it comes from within her. I like that you feel her internal life and you feel her rage build until she’s at that moment in the bathroom in the store and she shoots a mirror, because she just wants to know what power feels like.

Betty Lou is unique in that her story isn’t about a man teaching her how to stop reading, which seems to be what happens to a lot of librarian characters in movies. She gets to keep reading if she wants to.  
So frequently, films cluck their tongue at a woman and tell her what she doesn’t get, because of what she’s chosen. And the vast majority of the time, it’s a woman having to give up her external professional desires to maintain her relationships. And there is something that may seem a little light and Touchstone-in-the-late-’80s/early-’90s about Betty Lou Perkins getting it all, but I love Betty Lou Perkins getting it all.

Can we talk a little bit more about seeing this movie as a naive teenager vs. seeing it now as an experienced writer? What changed, having such a big gap between viewings?
Well, watching it the first time, I was watching it in the wake of all these Touchstone comedies that I really enjoyed. Someone at Touchstone clearly went “Kindergarten Cop worked. Why don’t we get that dame to do something pretty similar?” But watching it as an adult, my reaction was “Who wrote this?!” Centering on a woman’s story, having women occupy so much of the movie, and also not having those women just be doing the things that men would do? I found the screenwriter on Facebook and had to decide whether I was going to friend her and tell her how great her movie was. I decided it was creepy. But the point I’m trying to make is that it took a powerful visionary to make this goofy little comedy. No one appreciated the work that she was doing.

It’s almost a Cassandra moment because the movie is about somebody trying to explain herself and her inner life, and she’s met with a flat dismissal. And that’s what happened to the movie.
I kind of felt stupid about suggesting this movie for [Underrated], because where are people going to watch it? Other people aren’t going to buy a DVD of it. And in a streaming world where you can watch anything you want at any time, you can’t get this movie, because nobody cares about this movie. You’re so right — this movie is Betty Lou Perkins. We need to structure some kind of murder around it. We need some sort of John Hinckley/Jodie Foster thing, but around The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag.

The DVD can be in the back pocket of someone who attempts an assassination, and then it will serve as their manifesto that explains why they did it.
I mean, that would be amazing. But I’m not encouraging anyone being murdered.

Absolutely not. Petty acts of vandalism? We’ll figure it out.
Isn’t this Betty Lou’s problem — that she’s never able to make a ruckus big enough? It really does take murder for her to be able to get attention. This is what’s holding feminism back.

Was there any work that shook you or sent you going in such a cataclysmic way in the same way as the murder in Betty Lou?
That’s such an interesting question, and my answer will probably be astoundingly stupid. But I remember so distinctly reading From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler for the first time and just being like “Who the fuck is this bitch?” Marches away from her home and hides out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art?! The sophistication of Claudia Kincaid as a character, to an 8-year-old me, gave me a hunger for art. It was about her adventure, and her adventure not taking a male-normative direction, but it was also this crazy connection with another person. By the end of the book she knows this rich woman well enough to understand her files. And I think that sort of art-based connection really appealed to me.

Yeah, the idea that you can reach across generations and understand someone through Michelangelo — another person who is even farther removed than the person you’re connecting with.
Yes. And From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler starts from a place of Claudia not feeling respected or understood. She needs to go somewhere else, where she will be more in charge of herself. That book told me you go to art.

Gay male humor is often derided as being too reference-heavy. But when you think of the references as lifelines, as signs, as ways to try and connect with another person through the work of art, calling it shallow at that point is really missing the point.
Calling it shallow is ridiculous. It fundamentally comes down to the fact that culture was not built for us. It was only built to exclude and possibly kill us. It was only through reading into things, through a more complex relationship with culture, that we were able to do anything. One thing I talk about in the book is that we do need to get better at being able to have things not coded — to not only be experiencing the world through female proxies. Basically, that we need to be able accept gay male stand-up comedy, because that’s my goddamn business. But I will always love camp and complexity and dynamic relationships with art.

Guy Branum Wants You to Watch The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag