The last time we saw socialite Betty Broderick, as played by Meredith Baxter in CBS' A Woman Scorned, she was standing over her ex-husband, Dan, and his second wife, pumping three bullets from a .38 into their sleeping bodies. The movie, which aired last March, ended there. But the debate over Broderick's culpability was far from over.
Fifteen months earlier, Broderick's first real-life trial had ended in a hung jury, with two jurors (and many Americans) swayed by Betty's arguments that Dan had so tormented her, even while paying her $16,000 a month in alimony, that she was justified in striking back. Then in December 1991, a second jury sent her to prison, with a sentence of 32 years to life. Scorned, however, portrayed Broderick in a sympathetic light, reviving public argument over the case as 39 million watched Baxter's Emmy-nominated performance, making Scorned the second-highest-rated TV movie of the season. The next day, an Oprah Winfrey Show featuring a satellite interview with inmate Broderick from her California jail cell gave Oprah its second-best ratings in its six years.
Ratings, of course, usually mean one thing in Hollywood: sequel in this case, Her Final Fury: Betty Broderick, the Last Chapter, airing Nov. 1 on CBS. And this time it's the TV movie that seems to have changed its mind.
In the original, Baxter, in character, talked of selflessly working a number of jobs to put her husband through school (Dan was a prominent lawyer and doctor in San Diego), of caring for their four children, and of his affair with a woman 13 years her junior who eventually replaced her as his wife. Baxter herself was staunchly in Betty's corner, claiming an ''understanding'' of the rage that motivated her retaliation.
But that was then. Just as the new movie, which covers the two trials, paints Broderick as a crazed, calculating manipulator, Baxter now says, ''I realized with a lot of chagrin that my (first) take on her was wrong. I think women who have been in brutal relationships might have figured what Betty did took guts. But she was no example of a truly abused woman.''
Filming in a makeshift prison on the Culver City set of Her Final Fury, Baxter, 45, wears heavy padding to boost her size 6 figure to Betty's purported prison size, 16. ''I heard,'' Baxter quips, ''that Betty's only reaction to the first movie was she was glad that Roseanne (Arnold) didn't play her. Well, she hasn't seen how I look. This movie is in no way favorable to her.'' Moments earlier, Baxter had finished a scene in which Broderick, looking like a female Henry VIII, gorges on potato chips as she watches herself on TV charming one more interviewer into believing she's more victim than slayer.
Kenneth Kaufman, the executive producer on both films, claims the movies aren't meant to judge Broderick and that the apparent change in attitude toward her simply reflects the duality of her personality. ''She was this wonderful housewife and great mother,'' he says, ''but there were problems you didn't see. The worm turns.''
The cast and crew, however, have always taken sides. On the first production, they split along gender lines, with most male crew members and Baxter's costar, Stephen Collins, who played Broderick's ex (he's not in the sequel), backing doomed Dan. An outraged Collins would angrily debate Baxter and anyone else who called Betty a victim. ''She got $16,000 a month,'' Collins said then, ''and she called herself abused. Please. She's insane.''
Today Baxter, who was divorced from actor David Birney in 1989 after 15 years of marriage, says sheepishly, ''Maybe Stephen was more right than I was willing to admit.'' When approached about the sequel, she says, she ''started reading transcripts of the second trial, and I saw a totally different picture. I still think Dan had to be more of a bastard than we ever portrayed. But I saw the disparity in what Betty said and what actually happened. Honestly, now I think she has a personality disorder.''
Judith Ivey (Designing Women), who plays the prosecutor who nails Broderick, says she too was captivated by Betty at first. ''I saw her on Oprah, and she was so compelling, fascinating. I thought, 'Why would I want to play the woman who prosecutes her?' And the director (Dick Lowry) told me, simply, 'Because this is the truth.' The way I see it now, this woman snowballed America.'' (Broderick could not be reached for comment.)
Baxter promises there won't be a three-quel, no matter how well the follow- up fares. ''Don't expect Betty on Parole or Betty: The Wonder Years from me!'' she says, laughing. ''The prosecutor ended the trial with the words, 'It's time for the press and everyone else to do with this woman what she so richly deserves ignore her.' And that's exactly what I'm going to do from now on.''
That is, after she has her friends tune in on Sunday to watch her Betty get TV justice.