Hot dang! Space creatures may be landing in movie theaters everywhere this summer, but they don't raise half the ruckus Dolly Parton does as Miss Mona, the madam in the $20 million film version of Broadway's raunchy musical The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Bouncing around in steeple high heels, mountainous blond wigs and 14 cleavage-straining costumes, Dolly, 36, generates enough live-wire energy to help an E.T. phone home. Parton's film debut in 1980's 9 to 5 was clearly just a warm-up for this zaftig after-hours diversion. "I make a better whore than a secretary," sasses Dolly. Two weeks ago she showed up at the Whorehouse premiere in Austin, Texas with co-star Burt Reynolds, ignoring the gibes of critics like columnist Liz Smith, who booed the movie's "Playboy loutishness" and "obvious sleaze." Later Dolly told fans, "Hell, I liked it all, and if you don't, I don't want to hear about it."
Turning a deaf ear to criticism is understandable, given what Parton terms the "nightmare" of making Whorehouse. Before the cameras even rolled last fall, the show's good ole boy writer, Texas journalist Larry L. King, called Parton's casting "too obvious. She looks like she might run a whorehouse or work in one." In King's recently published The Whorehouse Papers (Viking), he further blames Dolly for pushing to add her own songs to the Carol Hall score and for suggesting love scenes for herself and the 46-year-old Reynolds, playing a sheriff who was 62 in the Broadway musical and something less than a sex symbol.
"Burt wanted Smokey and the Bandit Go to a Whorehouse," King crabbed—and added that Burt and Dolly would wear wigs since they were "both bald." (Burt has accepted King's challenge to a fistfight, but so far their swinging has been confined to print.)
"I didn't hurt nobody on purpose," says Parton, who nonetheless admits, "There was a lot of blood on this project. When it started, it was the most painful thing I'd ever done." To protect her own songs, Parton insists she had "to cuss and fight." She wrote 29, filmed four, but only two (Sneakin' Around, a duet with Burt, and her single, I Will Always Love You) are in the film. "People think of me as all smiles," adds Parton, "but I can get aggravated. When I got somethin' to say, I'll say it." She insisted on softening her character to avoid offending the folks back home. "I wanted Miss Mona to have reasons to be like she was," says Dolly. "Burt and me kinda ad-libbed things about Jesus, about how He was good to Mary Magdalene."
Parton has admitted that, shucks, even she and buddy Burt had "sensitive times" that "brought tears to his or my eyes." But she is understanding. "Burt was just comin' out of a lot of heartache with Sally Field," she explains. "They had evidently loved each other a great deal." She admits Reynolds lost his temper on the set, "but so did I, and probably more times than he did. Because he's the big star he is, he'd get hacked down quicker. People don't take me that serious."
People, of course, do. Under that wig sits one of showbiz's shrewdest heads. Parton took in $1.5 million plus a percentage on Whorehouse, gets top dollar ($350,000 per week) in Vegas, and has just released her 28th LP, Heartbreak Express, in addition to the Whorehouse sound track and single.
Still, it's Dolly's humor that sees her through. How does she look without the wigs and makeup? "Like shit," she roars. She reports that during filming, "Burt was working with a double hernia and had to pick me up. When they told me Burt wanted to know how much I weighed, I said I'd rupture him completely before I'd tell." Admitting to 5' in height, Dolly is secretive but not sensitive about her weight. "If I can get my dress on, my weight is under control," she has cracked. "My fat never made me less money."
Co-star Reynolds says it never made her less sexy either. "The chemistry between us is special," Burt raved. But it's no love match, chirps Dolly. "We're too good friends to want to screw it up havin' an affair. If he marries and has children, I want to be friends with his wife without her feelin' we'd ever been lovers." Fantasies are another matter. "As a woman," she says, "I like to think he imagined how great it might have been." Though Burt would playfully continue kissing Dolly on the set after the director yelled "Cut," Dolly insists, "We didn't have enough of that to spoil our friendship. Besides," she adds pointedly, "I'm a married woman."
It's a 16-year phantom marriage that sometimes astonishes even Hollywood. Dolly was 18 and fresh from the hills when she met "tall, skinny and handsome" Carl Dean, now 39, in a Nashville Laundromat. The reclusive Dean refuses to be part of his wife's career; he prefers tending their 200-acre farm, Tara, outside Nashville, or traveling to buy trucks and tractors for resale. He saw 9 to 5 at a local theater, and Dolly thinks he'll view Whorehouse the same way. "He likes his freedom," she explains. "If I call him, that's fine, he ain't expectin' it. He doesn't like me home for long because it interferes with his tradin'. So we never really have any hold on each other. And yet we have the ultimate hold."
While talk flies about their open marriage, Dolly firmly denies she and Carl will ever divorce. "He was the man God intended for me to have," she says. "We'll just always be together." She swears Carl gets a kick out of the gossip. "He's always saying, 'Well, whose baby are you havin' this week?' To him it's all a joke. There ain't a man in this world could ever live up to my husband. That's one of the things that keeps me from going too far." Dolly says that sexual fantasies add spice to the marriage. "Every now and then when I'm with my husband I'll think, 'Yeah, I'll make love with Burt tonight'—as long as it ain't Burt. My old man don't know about it, but I'm sure he wouldn't mind. I'm sure he makes love to many people," she hoots, "while I'm the one doin' all the work."
Parton says she and Carl spend more time together than is generally known, but the new, two-bedroom apartment she's just rented in L.A. doesn't suggest a lot of time back home. Children are unlikely under the circumstances. "My husband never really wanted them," says Dolly. "We enjoy bein' each other's kids. I might get pregnant at 50, who knows?" Dolly feels she's always had kids, since five of her 11 brothers and sisters lived with her for some time. "My people are the things I love most," she insists.
Sisters Stella, 32, Frieda, 25, baby Rachel (of the 9 to 5 TV series), 22, and brothers Floyd (Frieda's twin) and Randy, 29, are all performers now. There's no competition, says Dolly, because of their Pentecostal upbringing. She worries more about her parents and non-showbiz siblings. "People keep threatenin' to kidnap them," she says. Then there are the distant "outside relatives" who "want to make money off my fame, and I hate to do anythin' about it because it's family. I get so emotional."
Recently Dolly started seeing her problems as a daytime soap opera. The therapeutic result is Beulah Faye, a TV series and possible movie that Dolly wants to base on the Parton clan. But first there's a 31-city concert tour beginning next week, the filming of her first solo TV special, and a line of Dolly Parton clothes (including a 9-to-5ers' label for working women) and cosmetics (Everything Beautiful), both due next summer. "I'm making lots of money for the government," she laughs.
For herself, she's making another kind of hay. "Every seven years I sit down and make a whole new plan," she explains. The latest one was prompted by a short hospital stay last March for "female problems" and emotional problems as well. "Nothing serious, but I had a chance to think about all those reasons I might have gotten sick to start with," she says. The "heartache" of Whorehouse has left her in no hurry to return to movies unless she is "pretty much in control." Her new strategy includes more time with family and less worry about keeping up the Dolly image. "I don't care how ugly I get as long as I'm healthy," she grins. "I figure my best years are goin' to be between 50 and 100."
(This story was written by Peter Travers and reported by Lois Armstrong in L.A.)
- Lois Armstrong.