Scot Haller
July 09, 1984 12:00 PM

Someone’s in the kitchen with Dolly, and as usual, Dolly has something to say. “Aren’t I looking good?” she squeals to the housekeeper. That high-pitched Tennessee twang conjures up images of the Smoky Mountains. But these are the Beverly Hills, and this kitchen is just one room of many in her manager’s Benedict Canyon spread. Putting her arm around the housekeeper, Dolly continues, “She’s seen me fat and every which way. Now I love coming up here to hear Sally say, ‘You’re gittin’ so skin-nee!’ ” This afternoon is devoted to promotional business, but Parton’s clowning is continuous and contagious. “Where’s Norm?” she asks. Her Hawaiian bodyguard has retreated to the second floor exercise room for a workout. “Do you need me, Dolly?” he calls down. “Well, I do, Norm,” she jokes, “but I didn’t want to say so in front of everybody. I can dream, can’t I?”

She may look like a corn-pone caricature, but as Dolly Parton, 38, has proven, the joke’s on the other folks. “I don’t kiss nobody’s butt,” she declares in typically unfancy English. And sure enough, she don’t. Without losing her audience or her audacity, Dolly has segued from sequin-spangled country singer to sequin-spangled pop sensation to sequin-spangled movie star. As Hollywood’s most unlikely hyphenate, she has cast off the curse of the crossover artist. Her first film, 9 to 5, brought her acclaim as a screen performer and an Oscar nomination as a songwriter. The box office of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas established her as a star player. And her standing has not been shaken by the mixed critical reaction to Rhinestone, the new comedy in which she plays a club headliner who sets out to turn New York cabbie Sylvester Stallone into a country singer. Even the New York Times observed, “The best thing in Rhinestone is Dolly Parton, who seems able to survive just about any movie unscathed.”

Hollywood concurs: Universal is now negotiating a multimillion-dollar deal with Parton’s production company. Dolly views the current hubbub with her characteristic combination of blond ambition and countrified common sense. She notes, “They think, ‘Well, Dolly’s done two movies and they were both successful. If Rhinestone is a hit, she can write her own ticket.’ I’m flattered to a degree, but I’m not taken in by all that. What they don’t know is that Dolly always did write her own ticket—in her own way.” Even Sylvester Stallone found her professional savvy beguiling. “She is the most career-oriented person I’ve ever seen,” he says.

Although it was “a blessed project” for Parton, Rhinestone was something else for 20th Century Fox. Less than a month into the filming, Don Zimmerman, a film editor and Stallone pal making his directorial debut, left the project. Three and a half weeks of footage was forfeited, locations were lost. Bob (Porky’s) Clark was brought in as Zimmerman’s replacement. And when Rhinestone was finally finished, Fox’s market research reportedly uncovered a potentially fatal flaw: Stallone’s fans didn’t care to see him with Dolly, and Parton’s fans felt the same way about Stallone.

For Dolly, it don’t mean a thing. Beleaguered by physical problems and emotional stress, she had ceased her professional life for 18 months before starting Rhinestone. In her last concert tour during the summer of 1982, the crowds were faced by a different Dolly: hoarse, overweight, unhealthy and unhappy. Nobody was more stunned than the mistress of high spirits herself. The difficulties crescendoed soon after the making of Whorehouse, which itself involved “a lot of bickering, which I can’t stand.” Parton was in the process of terminating some longtime and long-treasured business associations—”people,” she says now, “that had no business in my business.”

At the same time, there was illness in her family back home. As the self-appointed family anchor, Dolly handled those problems and hid her own from her parents and her husband, Carl Dean, who lives on their 65-acre estate near Nashville. “I thought,” Dolly says, putting on a crybaby voice, ” ‘I don’t have no family, I don’t have no parents, I don’t have anybody to run to.’ ” For Parton, “when you start dealing with heartache, then you start getting your body out of whack.” She developed “female problems; I’d been sort of weak in certain areas.” There was hemorrhaging, then intestinal complications. After nearly collapsing onstage in Indianapolis, she underwent surgery in New York in September 1982. “I did not, thank the Lord, have to have a hysterectomy,” she says. “I did have some partial things done.”

Like her fans, her family saw a different side of Dolly. She recalls, “When I finally said, ‘Look, I’m sick, I need you,’ they couldn’t get there fast enough. They’d never seen me down. They were scared to death to see me sick.” Admitting her troubles was the most trouble. “That was a real hard one for me—when you’ve always been the rock and then you turn to sand.”

These predicaments only worsened Dolly’s weight problem. To understand that side of Dolly, you have to understand about Velveeta cheese. “I love Velveeta cheese,” she purrs. “In fact, I had a piece this morning, but I had been really good for a long time.” In her high-calorie heyday, Parton would never have just one Big Mac or Doodleburger. “I am just a hog,” she says. To lose weight, “I’ve done everything every fat person ever has. I’ve tried every diet,” including the bogus Dolly Parton diet she’d found in one supermarket tabloid. “It had nothing to do with me,” she laughs. “But I thought I might as well see if I can lose weight on my own diet.”

She didn’t. And during her illness, the medication, inactivity and depression added 30 pounds, which she has since dropped, to her five-foot frame. “Nothing really did help me until I finally just sat down and said, ‘Can’t nobody do it but you.’ ” What finally worked was something foreign to Dolly onstage or off: moderation. “If I get a Velveeta craving, then I go eat it. I don’t eat big hunks and wads anymore. If I want pizza or McDonald’s, then I order that, but I don’t eat two or three of them,” she says. Dolly has turned herself around. “I just had to wade through that muddy water,” she says. “I’ll never harden my heart, but I’ve toughened the muscles around it.”

Dolly is fooling around with the boys in the band. In an L.A. music studio, she is overseeing an early evening music rehearsal for her Tonight Show appearance two days later. On a couch in back sit her ladies-in-waiting: childhood chum Judy Ogle, who is now her assistant, and Shirlee Strahm, a close friend who works as her costumer. They are good ol’ girls and a good audience: They toe-tap through each number and applaud at the end. The run-through of Tennessee Homesick Blues has gone fine. But there is some doodling with Drinkin’ stein, which Dolly wrote but had never sung publicly.

“What key is it in?” asks one musician.

“It never had a key because Sly sang it in the movie,” says Mike Post, who adapted Rhinestone’s musical score.

“Well, it’s my song, so you’d better find a key,” says Dolly.

Parton can tell you in one word what she wanted most out of Rhinestone: control. After the snarl of Whorehouse, she decided she’d never do another movie unless she could control the music. Granted that condition for Rhinestone, she wrote 20 songs in three and a half weeks, heading back home for inspiration. She says, “I thought, since these are country songs, I should go to Nashville and in and around Kentucky. I went home and took my camper and my girlfriend Judy Ogle, who’s always with me. We’d just go out and sit on the riverbank and just park and check into the little dinky motels, which I love to do anyway.” When finished, she told the production team, “Look, these are the songs and this is exactly what we need. Now if anybody wants anything different, don’t come to me.”

She also outlined her conditions to Stallone. “I had heard a lot of stories about him, that he was impossible,” she says. At their first meeting last August, she emphasized her stipulation for musical control “just in case he might be thinking his brother Frank [a singer-songwriter] could work with me.”

On the set, ego conflicts were expected by everyone, including Stallone. “The chances of it working out were pretty remote,” he admits. But the unhappy moments were “less than most,” says director Clark. Dolly knows why: “Sly and I got our s—straight upfront.”

What did cause trouble was an occasional collision of cultures. For the Nashville location shoot, Dolly found her co-star a luxurious home in the country. “That was my first mess-up,” she says. “I was thinking he would enjoy the peace and quiet because I enjoy the peace and quiet.” Stir crazy, Stallone soon moved into a downtown Marriott that offered the comforts of a disco and nightclub. When Parton threw a party for family, friends and the movie crew at her place, Sly says, “I showed up and there were a lot of cowboy hats with snakes on them. I said, ‘Ohmigod, I must be in the wrong joke, farmer.’ ”

At another meeting at Dolly’s house, Stallone opened the refrigerator to find Velveeta and Wonder Bread and “things in there that had no connection with life as we know it. And she’d eat these things,” he says with amazement. “I said, ‘Seriously, you can’t be alive. Either that or you’re totally preserved because they are all preservatives.’ ” Despite his penchant for shaping up his colleagues, Stallone didn’t prescribe an exercise program for his co-star. Dolly remembers him saying ” ‘I’d like to see anybody tell her what to do.’ ” Unlike Mae West and some other of her platinum predecessors, Parton is not a prisoner of her persona. Sure, she has turned wig-wearing into a folk art, but “the personality is for real,” insists Dolly. “I don’t have to put on makeup to feel like Dolly. I am Dolly. I wasn’t born in a wig and high heels.” Stallone observes, “If she were flat-chested, goofy and had brunette hair, she would still be who she is.”

As befits a mountain girl who left her home for a Nashville singing career the day after she graduated from high school, Dolly has more drive than wigs. “The work ethic is very strong in those mountains,” says Clark. But for Parton, the purity of her ethics matter even more than the Puritan ethic. “You can come to me and you can offer me $20 million. If it don’t feel right, I don’t give a damn,” she says. “That comes from that down-home Tennessee feeling of knowing what’s right and what’s real. There ain’t nobody fools me. You might try all day long, but you never will. I may even let you think that you have for a time, but you won’t.”

The Parton sass has sparked her reputation as, euphemistically speaking, a tough negotiator. “When she turns on the heat, she can tell it like it is,” says Stallone. “She’s no one to be trifled with.” Dolly attributes her reputation to self-awareness, not self-aggrandizement. “People say I’m ruthless, that I can even be cruel,” she notes. “See, that’s not true. I just ain’t going to take no s—off of nobody. I know who I am. Hollywood ain’t gonna give me no trouble. If they come to me and offer me big money, it’s because they know who I am. They’re not fools. But what’s even better, I ain’t either.”

Even as she sounds off like Hollywood’s Honest Abe, Dolly carries an air of mystery. So much so that some people have speculated that Carl Dean, her long-distance husband of 18 years, doesn’t even exist. At the Los Angeles premiere of Rhinestone, Dolly’s escort was her bodyguard. Despite separations and independence, her marriage is unusual, not open, Parton insists. “We’re not trash,” she says. “If I can’t be with him and somebody else can make him happy, fine. If he can’t be with me and somebody else can make me happy, fine. I’ve been more jealous of other people and other relationships that I’ve had than I’ve ever been with Carl.”

The elusive Carl has traveled to the couple’s Hawaiian retreat, which Dolly bought on the island of Oahu last February. Even there he proved hard to pin down. “I go to Hawaii and I miss him by a day,” says Stallone, who never met Carl. Dolly’s husband never got to meet Burt Reynolds either. Once in a grocery store, however, he did encounter a tabloid headline: “Dolly Agrees to Have Burt’s Baby.” Says Dolly with glee, “Carl got hysterical. We have this little dog. And one day I had him in my arms. Carl got the camera and said, ‘Here’s a picture of Dolly and Burt’s baby.’ ”

This is a Nathanael West afternoon in Hollyweird. Under the gray sky, in front of the Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard, Stallone and Parton are witnessing a hallowed and camp heritage: Their stars are being unveiled on the sidewalk. Behind the police barricade sway several hundred fans. One holds up a photo of himself dressed like Dolly Parton.

The sidewalk makes strange alliances. Stallone’s star, No. 1780, places his name next to that of violinist Yehudi Menuhin. Dolly’s star resides beside Raymond Massey’s. After the ceremony, the officials try to whisk the celebrities away. Only Dolly isn’t finished. She strides back to the microphone for another round of “God bless you.”

The crowd isn’t fooled by the departures. Behind the theater, the mob reconvenes in the parking lot that shelters two long, black limos. As the stretches wrangle out onto the side street, one teenaged fan, who minutes ago was cheering for Dolly and Sly, makes a wish upon these stars. “I wish it was Menudo,” she tells her mother.

Those cheating hearts don’t disturb Dolly. A week later, curled up in a New York hotel suite on the day before Rhinestone opens, she discounts the phantom of fame—in her case anyway. “It won’t all go away,” she says. “As long as I’m on my feet, I’ll make something work.” She is talking about the future beyond Rhinestone, beyond the Christmas album and TV special with Kenny Rogers, beyond the script she is writing to reunite herself with Fonda and Lily Tomlin. “I really get a kick out of thinking what I’m going to be like when I’m old,” she grins. “I will be such a character.” In fact, Parton has already set her agenda for the afterlife. “The first thing, if there is a heaven or hell outside of this, the first thing I’m gonna ask God, if there is one, I’m gonna go right up to Him and I’m gonna say, ‘I just want to know what you had in mind when you invented Dolly Parton. Do you think that was easy? How could you let a person run around like that? Why did you let me make such a fool of myself all of those years. But I did enjoy it.’ ”

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