Dolly Parton’s Film Career Examined: From ‘Best Little Whorehouse’ to ‘9 to 5′

In the summer of 1982, movie fans were treated to an iconic release schedule. From the awe of E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial to the shock of Poltergeist, fans had a diverse slate of options at the box office. An Officer and a Gentleman and Tootsie made the case of Oscar while Blade Runner is still debated and Fast Times at Ridgemont High defined an era. The year is also important because it gave American audiences their first looks at media icons in the making: Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan the Barbarian, Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo in First Blood, and Dolly Parton as Mona Stangley in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

Not many fans can identify “Mona Stangley,” but the world knows “Dolly.” As with action stars, Parton set an audience expectation and delivered against it. Those expectations expanded over time from music to film to a theme park and numerous other ventures, but the turning point can be traced to 1982 and a risky choice for a country-pop singer.

When Parton’s film career is discussed, media first goes to 9 to 5, and for good reason: it was a massive critical and commercial success in 1980, so much so that we likely take for granted how much that film shifted the perception and value of women in the workplace. Produced by Jane Fonda’s production company, IPC Films, 9 to 5 was the first film with a female-lead cast to cross $100 million at the US box office. Adjusted for inflation, that’s a haul of more than $345 million today. Parton’s title track earned an Oscar nomination and two Grammy awards on its way to becoming a radio classic.

The next film that gets mentioned is Steel Magnolias, a reliable tear-jerker that is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Though iconic today, the film was a moderate success in 1989 with $95 million in box office totals. Adjusted for inflation, a $184 million haul is big money, but nowhere near the success of 9 to 5.

In total, Parton has only had significant roles in five films. The other two are Rhinestone, a 1984 comedy co-written by Sylvester Stallone that is universally panned, and Straight Talk, a romantic comedy from 1992 that attempted but failed to build on Parton’s success in Steel Magnolias. So why don’t we hear more about what is arguably Parton’s biggest and most successful acting role?

From the beginning, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas was a winner with audiences. The film is rooted in the real-life reporting of Marvin Zindler, who pursued the closing of the Chicken Ranch brothel in LaGrange, Texas in 1973 due to its connections to organized crime.

The world learned of Zindler’s reporting thanks to a long-form article in Playboy written by Larry L. King, who then developed the story into a musical. The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas debuted on Broadway at the 46th Street Theater in June 1978 and ran for more than 1,500 performances, picking up two Tony Award nominations along the way for Best Musical and Best Book of a Musical.

With that pedigree, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas found its way to Hollywood. Director Colin Higgins, who also directed 9 to 5, was hired to helm the film. The combination of Burt Reynolds, who was returning to comedy after his directorial and starring role in 1981’s Sharky’s Machine, and Parton in a musical comedy was great counter-programming to the spectacle of special effects, sci-fi, and horror films that dotted the release schedule. The result: A $69 million hit and the 9th highest grossing film of 1982. Adjusted for inflation, that’s more than $214 million (and well ahead of Steel Magnolias).

Critics were divided and Zindler was very public about his disdain for script changes that created a romance between the sheriff and the madame. Still the film received industry recognition. Charles Durning was nominated for his role as the governor of Texas and the Golden Globes nominated the film for Best Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy) and Best Actress in a Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy) for Parton.

The issue for the film may simply be the perception of its title and audience sensitivities. The word “whorehouse” was a source of conflict for some markets, and Parton herself was quoted in interviews referring to the film as The Best Little Cathouse in Texas. With an “R” rating, it’s also possible that the film’s content is not congruent with Parton’s family-friendly branding today.

Viewing The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas more than 35 years after its original release, it’s easy to see why Parton was the real star of the movie. Reynolds as a comedic actor strikes a consistent and amiable appeal that reminds us why he was a movie star, but the role is by no means a stretch for the man who played Bandit. With supporting roles from Reynolds’ pals Dom DeLuise and Jim Nabors, it’s Parton who gets to shine as the musical lead. She needed the boost.

In 1982, Parton was 36 years old and, apart from her hit with 9 to 5, was not a chart-topper in the country music category. Her last No.1 album had been five years earlier with Here You Come Again in 1977. While Parton’s music in the late 1970s was described as having a pop focus, Here You Come Again marked a milestone for Parton: It was her 20th album, her first to be Platinum certified, and it picked up a Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance, Female. Unfortunately, the albums that followed — Heartbreaker (1979), Great Balls of Fire (1979), and Dolly, Dolly, Dolly (1980) — were critical and commercial disappointments.

Parton would continue to struggle crossing into the pop with five more albums that failed to achieve chart-topping success in the pop and country charts. It wasn’t until 1989 and the release of White Limozeen, produced by Ricky Skaggs, that finally and firmly returned Parton to the country format.

Although Parton may have had her biggest solo success with 9 to 5, it was the role of Mona Stangley that gave Parton the opportunity to sing country music on screen. Even without Reynolds and the plot and the history, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas is still a musical at its core. Like George Strait in 1992’s Pure Country, the opportunity to Parton perform in a different medium than a music video or TV appearance is its own reward.

For one scene, Parton performed two stanzas from “I Will Always Love You,” originally released in 1974 after she ended her professional affiliation with Porter Waggoner. She re-recorded the song and it was released in conjunction with the film’s soundtrack. By October 1982, “I Will Always Love You” achieved an honor previously only matched by Chubby Checker with “The Twist” in 1960 and 1962: Parton scored a No.1 hit on the same song. Ironically, 10 years later, as Straight Talk was quickly fading from theaters in 1992, Whitney Houston’s rendition of the song associated with her starring role in The Bodyguard would become one of the biggest hits of the 1990s with more than 20 million copies sold.

The other song that appears in the film is Hard Candy Christmas. This one may slip past most viewers, but it’s reminder of Parton’s roots in the mountains of Tennessee: Filled candies were more expensive and therefore more rare than solid, hard candies. Having a Hard Candy Christmas means there is no filled candy, so there’s disappointment amidst the outward appearance of joy.

It’s within these scenes, full of soft light and carefully colored make-up and hair set just so, that we see the first glimpses of the country music icon Parton would become. It wasn’t the evolution of an artist, but the birth of a brand of entertainment. The spotlights would grow brighter, the glam and styling would become their own productions, and the image of an icon would become locked. It is today because of what it was then: a voice and the life that lives in each of her songs. In the role of songwriter and singer, Dolly Parton is timeless.

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