For movie fans whose knowledge of country music is limited to Robert Altman’s tortured treatise Nashville, welcome to the wondrous world of Dolly Parton. Beneath the frou-frou, the wig and the cartoon figure breathes a woman of surpassing self-knowledge and self-realization. No less wise a showbiz colleague than Linda Ronstadt says that Dolly is simply the most un-neurotic person she has ever met. “A long time ago,” Parton herself reports matter-of-factly, “I wrote down all the things I wanted out of life and what I had to do to get them.”
Now, at 35, Dolly has those things. From the poverty she sang of in My Tennessee Mountain Home she has become a Las Vegas headliner (estimated salary: $350,000 a week) and has crossed over to film with far greater ease than such other songsters as Deborah Harry, Paul Simon and Willie Nelson. Dolly’s vehicle is 9 to 5, a zany office comedy that teams her with Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin as office workers who indulge in revenge fantasies against their chauvinist pig of a boss. Dolly gets to rope and hog-tie the varmint while humiliating him with role-reversal come-ons: “Hey, hot stuff,” she drawls, “grab a pad and pencil and bring your buns in here.” The critics were, as usual, softer on Dolly than she is on herself. “There were places I thought I was real good,” she concedes, “but there also were places I was real average and places where I was yuck.” She’s “pretty proud” of the flick, though. “It’s not one of the greatest, but it’s real entertainin’.”
Before 9 to 5, Dolly had rejected literally dozens of scripts. “They wasn’t good enough,” she says, “and this one was tailor-made.” Far from being intimidated by working with old pros like Fonda and Tomlin, Dolly thought of them, rather, as protection. “If the movie flops,” she reasoned, “all the blame won’t be on my shoulders.” Thus there were no ego problems on the set. “I’d always loved Lily,” Dolly gushes, “but I wondered about me and Jane. A lot of the political stuff she talks about I don’t necessarily agree with.” (Of course the canny Parton goes no more public with her politics than her marriage.) As developer of the project, Fonda had wanted Dolly for the role ever since she saw her picture on an album cover. “Boy,” Fonda recalls thinking, “does she ever look like everybody’s idea of a secretary.” Once they met, it was sisterhood at first sight. “Jane comes across hard at times, but she’s so much sweeter and softer. She’s almost like a little girl,” reports Parton. “We got along just great.”
During the filming the three women cooked spaghetti, gossiped and got silly drunk one night on champagne. Laughs Dolly: “It felt good at our age to act like high school girls.” With that kind of camaraderie, Dolly found her acting debut no sweat. Her only complaints were the long waits on the set (“I can’t stand to be idle”) and a bedroom scene with Jeffrey Douglas Thomas, who was cast as her husband. “It was real awkward because the guy is married to one of my very best girlfriends,” she frets. “But we did okay with it. Now maybe I won’t be that embarrassed with Burt Reynolds.”
If a gentle roll in the sack offended Dolly’s fierce country morality, how does she feel about co-starring this summer with Reynolds in the film version of Broadway’s bawdy The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas? Dolly claims she was nonplussed a year ago when she was first offered the part of the madam. “I could just imagine what my family, my religion and my fans would say.” But seeing the stage musical finally softened her view. “The character’s not trash,” Dolly defends, “just caught in this situation. She’s probably like I would have been had things been different.” A rumored $2 million fee was dangled before her, and once again the insurance was great—Burt is now the U.S.’s top box office draw. As early as 1975 Reynolds tried to lure Dolly to co-star in his W.W. and the Dixie Dancekings, and he’s been after her ever since. “She’s sweet and pure as the driven snow mounds,” leers Burt, “and I can’t wait to begin work.”
Changes are being made in the screenplay to accommodate both stars. Burt’s sheriff will be 35, not 62. Dolly will add some of her own songs to the score. And though the show had no love scenes between them, the movie won’t make the same omission. Whorehouse co-author Larry L. King was reportedly livid about early script revisions. “One of the Universal guys told me that all they really wanted was a vehicle for Parton and Reynolds to bleep themselves to death onscreen,” King complained. It is true that Dolly has joked about “not wanting to miss a chance with Burt,” but she’d sooner deny her Great Smoky Mountains heritage than go graphic. “When I say love scenes,” Dolly protests, “I’m talkin’ about holding, hugging, kissing and things that make sense. I could never do a nude scene. I’m not selling sex. The magic of the whole thing,” she observes of her self-packaging, “is that I am one way and look another.” Besides, she adds, “I feel I have more to show than my looks. If I gain 20 pounds or lose them, so what? The important thing is that I’m happy within myself.”
Parton credits her family and faith for her force of character. The fourth of 12 children of poor farmer parents in Sevierville, Tenn., Dolly was raised in the Church of God. Now she says her relationship with the Lord is more “personal” than organized. “But I quote the Bible real good,” she boasts proudly. And instead of psychiatry, Parton turns to fasting, not to diet but for spiritual reasons. “I’ll either fast seven, 14 or 21 days,” she explains, citing the unusual number of sevens in the Bible as her reason. “I don’t drink nothing but water and I don’t ever say when I’m on a fast—Scripture says you’re not supposed to.” Dolly insists she has never made a major decision without fasting and praying first.
Such behavior makes Dolly an enigma to all but her family and the friends she’s known for years. Closest is Judy Ogle, a pal since seventh grade. Unmarried, Judy has devoted her life to traveling with Dolly and probably spends more time with her than the singer’s husband of 14 years, Carl Dean, 37. Carl met her at a Laundromat 48 hours after Parton arrived in Nashville straight from high school graduation. Dean is so publicity-shy that it has been asserted that he doesn’t exist. “That’s a crock of shit,” snaps Dolly, who points out that Carl was with her in L.A. for most of the two-month shooting of 9 to 5 and more recently at their Manhattan apartment and even on an incognito (she often travels wig-less) trip to Cape Cod. Dolly does admit that Carl much prefers staying home on their 200-acre, Tara-like estate outside Nashville, where he runs an asphalt-paving business. Both encourage separate vacations if the mood strikes. “He’s not jealous and I’m not either,” says Dolly, who once declared that even if Carl had an affair it probably wouldn’t wreck their marriage. “Carl is the one man in my life,” she stresses. “I would love to grow old with him. If he should die first, I may never marry again. My love is that deep.”
Carl was the strong shoulder she leaned on during the career turning point in 1977 when she fired her backup group, the Travelin’ Family Band, to bring in more sophisticated pros. Then in 1979 her former manager and singing partner, Porter Wagoner, sued for $3 million for breach of contract, claiming Parton had failed to pay him his fair share of her earnings since their split in 1974. She insists that the management agreement had been torn up previously. The conflict was traumatic for Dolly, leaving her physically ill for a year, but she denies any wrongdoing. “It’s true I had to step over a few people because they was unwilling to budge or to move,” she says, “but I never walked on anybody to get where I’m at. It wouldn’t have been worth it to me.” The lawsuit has been settled out of court and, as part of it, there’s a newly released Porter & Dolly album on the country charts with vocals Dolly says are “10 or 12 years old.” In another gesture of reconciliation, Dolly invited Porter to the Nashville premiere of 9 to 5. He didn’t show.
Far from forgetting her roots, Parton plans to do more rodeo and state fair appearances. As she puts it: “I miss the real, live people that wash up the supper dishes and come to a show, instead of somebody that just spent a week gambling and running around in Las Vegas.” Parton, who already has a payroll of 60, plans to start her own management company and build a recording studio in Nashville. “I’d like to give back some of what I took.”
Mostly she yearns to get back to her true passion: song writing. Her 9 to 5 and Odd Jobs LP contains four Parton originals, including the bulleted movie theme song. Besides music, she’s talking about writing books, poems, short stories, even movie scripts (“I was surprised what poor writing there is in Hollywood”). She has in mind some works for children—but says she will not have any of her own.
Parton has already drafted a stage musical, Wildflowers. “It’s based on my life story, sort of,” Dolly confesses. “I couldn’t do the real thing without hanging myself and a lot of other people.” She says that without regrets. “I wouldn’t change one thing about my life,” Dolly declares. But what if she never makes it to full-fledged Hollywood superstardom? “Dumb question,” sasses her new buddy Burt Reynolds. “Dolly Parton was made to be a movie star.”