“The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag” celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, as it first hit theaters on August 21, 1992.
Penelope Ann Miller, who plays the title role, recently returned to Mississippi to star in the thriller “Murder at Hollow Creek,” which wrapped filming in Clinton in March and now awaits a release date.
“Betty Lou” was shot primarily in Oxford. There were a few shots done in Greenwood, mostly of the bridge by where the protagonist Betty Lou finds the titular gun she stows away in her handbag, as well as some establishing shots of New Orleans.
There are several shots of the historic courthouse and Oxford square throughout the film. That makes its location unmistakable, though for reasons unknown the filmmakers chose to transform Oxford into a fictional Arkansas town rather than let the historic college town play itself.
As Oxford has seen a lot of renewal and development in recent years, many locations seen in the film no longer exist. Some scenes were shot at Smitty’s, a popular mom-and-pop café at the time. The building, built in 1880, was later the popular burger and beer joint 208 South Lamar and the Mexican restaurant La Paz (among others) before it was demolished due to structural concerns in 2020.
One location that still stands and figures prominently in the film is the Ole Miss Motel, located at 1517 University Avenue. Undoubtedly a familiar sight to anyone who has ever spent time in Oxford, the motel is where the murder of the shady car salesman Amos that sets the film’s plot in motion takes place.
He’s not the film’s only Oscar connection, though. The cast is stacked with stars like 2015 Best Actress winner Julianne Moore, who plays Betty Lou’s sister. There’s also 2002 Best Short Film, Live Action Oscar winner Ray McKinnon, onetime Oscar nominee and multiple Emmy winner Alfre Woodard and onetime Oscar nominee Cathy Moriarty. And, in another-blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role, two-time Oscar nominee Catherine Keener appears in a short scene, with her partner played by late rocker Meat Loaf.
The film’s villains are played by two familiar character actors. There’s the main antagonist played by William Forsythe, who came back to Mississippi not long after his role in 1991’s “Stone Cold,” which was partially shot in Pascagoula and Bay St. Louis. And then there’s career “that guy” Xander Berkeley as the henchman, who turned up in everything from “A Few Good Men” to “Terminator 2” before he too returned to Mississippi for 1996’s “Barb Wire,” shot in Pascagoula.
The film also features a couple cameos of gone-but-not-forgotten local Oxford luminaries. “Geronimo Rex” novelist Barry Hannah, who died in 2010, has a speaking role as a court clerk. And Barton Segal, a longtime film supporter who helped run the iconic Hoka Theater, has a brief cameo as himself. Segal passed away in November, and the Oxford Film Festival recently named its audience award in his honor.
You can also see Red West, of Elvis Presley’s “Memphis Mafia” entourage infamy, in a small role as a judge. And Tulsa blues musician Steve Pryor, who tragically died in a motorcycle accident in 2016, can be seen performing Bob Seger’s appropriate “Betty Lou’s Gettin’ Out Tonight” in the film’s bar scene.
The film was directed by Allan Moyle, a Canadian director who is best known for his music-centric films like “Pump Up the Volume” and “Empire Records.” Two of the film’s producers, Scott Kroopf and Robert W. Cort, also produced the “Bill and Ted” series.
Overall, “Betty Lou” was a bit of a box office disappointment, landing at no. 135 overall for its year of release with $3.7 million. It was overshadowed by other August releases like the year’s to-be Best Picture winner “Unforgiven” and the hit potboiler “Single White Female.”
Though not without its flaws, “The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag” is a fun watch for anyone with an interest in a snapshot of a quainter, pre-boom Oxford, or anyone who enjoys a good hour-and-a-half of “Hey! Look who that is!” movie-watching.
“The Gun in Betty Lou’s Handbag” is rated PG-13 for violence, and for some sexuality and language. The film is available on blu-ray and DVD.