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Dolly Parton: Gee, she's really nice

Dolly Parton

Update, 2008: This 1980 interview is all quite true, but it entirely misses something. It must have happened at a different time, and I can't track down the piece. Here's what I remember. I had a one-on-one interview with Parton in a hotel suite. As we spoke, I found myself enveloped by her presence. This had nothing to do with sex appeal. Far from it. It was as if I were being mesmerized by a benevolent power. I left the room in a cloud of good feeling. Next day, Siskel and I were sitting next to each other on an airplane. "This will sound crazy," he said, "but when I was interviewing Dolly Parton, I almost felt like she had healing powers."

DALLAS - Dolly Parton, wearing a skin-tight silver dress, was shaking hands as if she were running for office. This was not protocol for the situation. A group of journalists had assembled in Dallas for the world premiere of "Nine to Five," the new movie starring Dolly, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. The movie was going to screen that evening, and then Dolly and the others were supposed to appear the following morning for the interviews and the TV tapings and the promotions.

But here she was, 14 hours early, Dolly Parton, posing for snapshots with the hotel manager and signing autographs for the busboy. Protocol suggests that the stars stay out of sight, maintaining a certain aura of mystery, until it's time for the interviews. There is no aura of mystery, however, about Dolly Parton. What you see is what you get.

She seemed astonishingly unaffected. It was a bizarre contrast. She looks like a totally artificial creation, with the amazing blond wig and the 6-inch skyscraper heels and the bosom that makes her, no doubt, the unchallenged record holder and defending champion at Frederick's of Hollywood. Then she walks up to you and says, "Hi! I'm Dolly Parton!" The introduction is as unnecessary as if, say, John Wayne had walked up and said, "Hi! I'm John Wayne!" What is the proper response? "Yes, of course you are"?

Dolly Parton spent about half an hour shaking everybody's hand and leaving behind a wake of people telling each other, "Gee, she's really nice," as if, well, as if somehow she shouldn't have been. There is a way in which we behave in public, in situations with a lot of strangers that implies a level of polite, subtle hostility. We are reserved. We check out the room for traps and hazards. We are uncomfortable, confronted with a hundred unfamiliar faces. What Dolly did was to come in with her brash, unaffected personality and sweep away all that paranoia in a rush of good will. It left everybody standing around afterward feeling a little goofy.

And in that spirit we all marched into the theater and saw "Nine to Five," and discovered that Dolly Parton was really, very good in it. Without actually reviewing the film, which doesn't open in Chicago until Dec. 19, I'll go further than that: Dolly Parton has a unique comic presence, she seems to be having a lot of fun on the screen, and if she finds the right roles and the right direction she can be so successful in the movies that her singing career will seem like an afterthought. Whatever it is that stars have and others don't have, Dolly has.

The routine the next morning was one that has become standard for movie press premieres. A half dozen or so tables were set up in the hotel's disco, with six or eight journalists around each table, and with enormous urns of coffee at the ready. The stars of the movie went from table to table, facing the same questions time and again, trying to be fresh.

I was assigned to the table where Dolly Parton arrived absolutely last, after Jane, after Lily, after Dabney Coleman (who plays the male chauvinist boss who is kidnapped by the three women), after, indeed, even the producer and the director of the movie. Dolly, meanwhile, had been at all those other tables. And yet she arrived with such energy and freshness that, a little amazed, we asked her the secret of her energy. Now a question like that is a setup for most stars. They launch immediately into their regimes: vitamins, vegetarianism, acupuncture; they sound like back issues of Prevention.

Not Dolly. "I just depend on a lot of prayer and meditation," she said. "I believe that without God I am nobody, but that with God, I can do anything."

Silence. It is sometimes a little embarrassing to be confronted by a statement of such contented simplicity. How can you look for angles? Somebody at the table came through with a usually reliable (if somewhat dumb) question: "Dolly, when are you gonna do your life story?

"Write it? Or act in it? I'm writin' it now. But I don't wanna print it yet, not till it's all lived. The real truth would curl your hair. When I'm older, I'll be like all those old haggard ladies that write their life stories, about all the men they slept with, and all . . . not that they shouldn't. But they're right to wait so long, 'cause if you start too soon tellin' about who all you slept with, you're gonna run into a lot of guys that don't want to take a chance on makin' your next book."

She has a wonderful delivery, I found myself thinking. She speaks in that cornball Southern accent, but with perfect clarity and timing, so that she isn't just answering a question, she's presenting a character, she's onstage. A fascinating phenomenon took place among the journalists at the table. Only moments ago, they were asking routine questions. Now they'd been enlisted as part of the act. They were falling into the rhythm of the performance, feeding her straight lines.

Q. "Who could play you, Dolly?"

A. "Hmmmm. I dunno. Maybe if Sissy Spacek made enough money off of playin' Loretta Lynn, she could get herself a boob job."

Q. "What would you call it."

A. "Now that one I got a serious response to. I want to . . . seriously, now . . . write a musical about my life, to be called 'Wild Flowers.' It'll be a musical about sex, violence, religion, attitudes, a lot of really fun things. Of course, I already wrote my life story in a lot of songs, too."

Q. "Do you get bothered by constant references to your bust size?"

A. "Well, it is sorta obvious, ain't it? No, I don't. It don't bother me so much unless people dwell on it. Get tacky and all. It's part of the act. If someone gets really carried away, well, I sort of pity him. Cause it's his problem, not mine. Other than that, I'm a good sport. I know some of the best Dolly Parton jokes. I made 'em up myself."

Dolly throws herself into these replies with such energy, the table's almost too small for her. And she looks like a caricature of the basic dumb blond character who has inhabited American movies in one incarnation or another since Jean Harlow. The makeup, the eyelashes, the hair, her breasts almost bursting through the tight-fitting blouse with the monogrammed "D" over the pocket (whether her initial or her bust size, no one dares to ask).

And yet she says she doesn't think of herself as sexy. "Me? Not a bit. A lot of people get all turned off by the wig, the heels, the fingernails, the whole artificial bit. I do dress kinda pretty but old-fashioned. I think maybe I dress this way partly because of the image, you know, and partly because when I was a little girl growing up in a big old poor family, this was the way that the rich folks' wives dressed, when we'd see them drivin' through in their big old cars.

"As for the 'real me.' Well, under this wig, my own hair is about the same length and color, and I wear it about the same. But sometimes I'll dress up in a baggy old shirt and go out with my husband in a camper or something, just havin' ourselves a good time, and nobody recognizes me."

Someone at the table said he thought Dolly had been terrific in "Nine to Five."

"Really? Nobody told me that all morning. You're the first one. They're so cagey. Well, of course, movie actin' is all new to me. The first day, I had the whole script memorized. I didn't know they shot it a little bitty piece at a time. And, my weight, of course, got to be a problem, because I'll be skinny, and then I'll go hog wild over something and put on 5 or 10 pounds, and with them all shooting the scenes out of order and all, I could walk in a door in the movie weighing one thing, and walk out of the same door weighing 10 pounds more."

Q. (This one was amazingly long in coming.). "What about serious acting roles?"

A. "Serious? Well, first I have to see if people think I can act. Then, I've signed up for one more movie, and I'll see how that goes before I commit to anything else. 'Cause my singin' comes first. My next movie's gonna be 'The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,' with Burt Reynolds and me starring. They have to rewrite it a little for Burt and me, 'cause I said I wouldn't do it unless I got to kiss him. Then, after that, if the 'Whorehouse' does OK, I'll try something else. It's not important to me that a character be glamorous for me to play her. I'll take off, the wig to play somebody. But only if I see I'm gonna be good at it. I wouldn't want to be ugly and a bad actress!"

Some people in the country music world, she acknowledged, already feel a little betrayed because Dolly has moved her recording career into more mainstream pop music, and started to act in the movies. "But if the real truth be told, I wasn't doin' all that hot as a strictly country singer. My best country record only sold 200,000 copies. I didn't have enough money for the band and the arrangements and the costumes and all. I had to move into wider fields."

It's quite a wider field, someone said, for you to be in the same movie with Jane Fonda, considering that you have somewhat different political opinions.

"Well, different and not different, depending on the issue. We agree on a lot of things, and then there are some things we just don't see eye-to-eye on. Before I came on the movie, I made sure I wouldn't have to perform at no benefits for causes I didn't agree with. But Jane and I, we took to each other. I was amazed to meet her and find out, you know what? She's really shy. A shy person, with a real playful, childlike side to her. As opinionated as she is, she's just like a little girl, so naive in a lot of ways, always having some trick pulled on her. I used to kid her all the time. I'd be saying something, and she'd be listening seriously, and then I'd come along with somethin' to just knock her out."

A publicist came along to take Dolly away from the crowd, and she said she wanted to show us something. Holding up her glistening red fingernails, she clicked them together, keeping time, singing the title song from "Nine to Five" and giggling.

"My nails are my rhythm section, when I'm writing a song all alone," she explained. "Some day, I may cut an album, just me and my nails."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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