Her film 9 to 5 is a feminist classic. But she won’t label herself one – and she doesn’t see eye to eye with her former co-stars
24 Feb 2019
When Dolly Parton was 19, instead of the frankly unbelievable 73 she is now, she and a girlfriend travelled from Tennessee to New York City. But, because this was her first proper trip to the city, it was one of the rare times in her life when she didn’t have a clear sense of where she was or where she wanted to go. And so they ended up in what she describes today as “a bad area”. “I think we were on 52nd Street and, because I looked like a tramp – a country girl, all overdone and tacky – this man thought I was a prostitute,” she recalls today, her signature blond bouffant bouncing with her giggles. But 19-year-old Parton, even when lost in the big city, was unflappable. When the man wouldn’t leave her alone she whipped out a little pistol her father had given her in case of emergencies: “If you touch me one more time, you’ve had it!” she shouted.
The man disappeared into midtown Manhattan, but the encounter was later immortalised in Parton’s first, and probably most enduring movie, the 1980 feminist classic 9 to 5. It is used in the scene that establishes Parton’s character, when she takes a gun out of her purse, points it at her sexist boss, Mr Hart (Dabney Coleman), and tells him if he doesn’t stop harassing her she will turn him “from a rooster to a hen with one shot”.
It is also, like all anecdotes Parton tells about herself, calculated to fit her superbly crafted and universally adored image. The story makes her sound homespun, but worldly; sexy, but self-mocking; sassy, but safe. Whatever your gender or political persuasion, you are going to enjoy a story about Parton pulling a gun on a catcaller, and Parton knows that – which is why she tells it with such relish. You don’t sell more than 100m albums without knowing how to play to all the seats in the house.
I meet Parton in a London hotel on a Saturday morning. Even though she spent all of yesterday doing back-to-back TV interviews, and has another day of them lined up today, the septuagenarian is as perky as a daisy, as brightly coloured as a Matisse. The writer of solid-gold classics such as Jolene and I Will Always Love You is dressed in a very characteristic outfit of skintight striped trousers, which show off her pocket-sized bottom-half proportions, a clinging ribbed polo neck, which shows off her differently proportioned top half, fingerless silver leather gloves, gigantic rings, even more gigantic earrings and high heels.
“I don’t know one thing or another about fashion, but people know I’m gonna dress the way I dress, and it suits me,” she says. And she is right, which is why she has dressed pretty much exactly the same way for half a century. Even aside from her clothes, with her perfectly smooth skin and Barbie-like figure, she also looks identical to when I last met her, eight years ago, in Nashville (and the same definitely cannot be said of me). Nonetheless, after Parton is told about our previous encounter, she insists without a pause: “I thought your face looked familiar!” In no way can this be true, but Parton without good southern manners is as unimaginable as her suddenly deciding to go brunette.
The reason we are meeting today is that the 9 to 5 musical, based on the film, which Parton wrote the songs for, is opening in London. There has also been talk of Parton, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin reuniting to make a sequel to the original movie, and when Parton confirms this is true I am not ashamed to admit that I squeal.
Some have argued that 9 to 5, with its story of three women taking vicious revenge on their male boss, is too cartoonish to be taken seriously. I can only assume these people were never sexually harassed themselves because what the movie lacks in intricate feminist arguments, it more than makes up for in being a supremely satisfying howl of rage against sexism, an over-the-top response to an over-the-top situation. It is all the more pleasing coming from Parton, who may look like a lurid male fantasy, but has always shown more mettle than meekness. She is, after all, the woman who stood up to the notoriously fearsome Colonel Tom Parker, Elvis Presley’s manager, and refused to sign away half the publishing rights to I Will Always Love You when Presley wanted to record the song in the 70s. This proved to be a pretty canny move 20 years later, when Whitney Houston covered the song and made Parton millions.
Reviving 9 to 5 now is a no-brainer because of the mood of the moment. Fonda has gone as far to say that workplace harassment is worse today than it was in 1980, but Parton is surely closer to the truth when she says: “I’m pretty sure it’s always been bad. It’s just that with the #MeToo movement women are bolder to speak out against it.”
Parton has to tread a careful line here because, while she may be adored by women happy to call themselves feminists, her core fanbase of southern Republicans has a rather more sceptical approach to the cause. They’re all for a woman standing up for herself on a sketchy New York street – and with a gun, even better! – but any sloganeering or talk of structural sexism would be frowned on. So, although she is sweetly keen to fly the flag for a movie she made almost 40 years ago, all discussions of the movie’s message are tempered with platitudes that will soothe any nervous male egos.
Surely, I say, she must have experienced sexual harassment in her career. “I have, but I have always been able to manoeuvre because I come from a family of six brothers, so I understand men and I’ve known more good men than bad men. It’s a man’s world, and it’s not their fault any more than it is just life and … we have allowed it to happen. I think people now see that we’re here, and women are very important, and they need us, just as we need the men. But if someone was getting real aggressive with me, I’d scream or throw something at them. But, of course, I’ve been hit on – I’ve probably hit on some people myself!”
Despite the fact that she has starred in two of the greatest women’s movies ever (9 to 5 and Steel Magnolias), when I ask if she is a feminist she wrinkles her nose: “I don’t think … I mean, I must be if being a feminist means I’m all for women, yes. But I don’t feel I have to march, hold up a sign or label myself. I think the way I have conducted my life and my business and myself speaks for itself. I don’t think of it as being feminist. It’s not a label I have to put on myself. I’m just all for gals,” she says.
It’s not exactly a surprise that a 73-year-old woman from Tennessee would shy away from the f-word, but it does make me wonder why she agreed to be in such an overtly feminist movie to begin with. “Well, I didn’t think about it in those terms, to be honest with you. I was thinking more in terms of business than subject matter. Jane was a big star and so was Lily, so I thought: ‘This is great. If it’s a big movie, I can share the glory, and if it’s a flop it will be on them,’ and Jane said: ‘Well, Dolly will give us [audiences in] the south,’” she says.
Parton’s 9 to 5 co-stars have always been more than happy to shout about feminism, and they very nearly caused her to topple off her careful tightrope when the three of them appeared together at the 2017 Emmy awards. “Back in 1980, when we made that movie, we refused to be controlled by a sexist, egotistical, lying hypocritical bigot …” Fonda began. “… And it’s true in 2017 we still refuse to be controlled by a sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot,” Tomlin finished. Parton’s eyes widened in what looked very much like alarm at this obvious shot at Donald Trump, and she quickly changed the subject with a joke about her breasts and “a shoutout to Dabney Coleman out there”. I tell her she didn’t look very happy up on stage that night, and she jumps in before I even finish.
“Well, I don’t like being part of … I don’t like to be known by the company I keep, so to speak. I want to be my own individual self. If I’ve got something to say, I’ll say it, but I don’t want to be dragged into it,” she says.
So she was surprised by what they said? “It was a little …” she begins, then stops herself. “Well, it was not a surprise, knowing Lily and Jane. I just did not want everybody to think that whatever they think is what I think. I don’t really like getting up on TV and saying political things. I don’t even want to make a deal out of it, but I want people to know I’m my own individual self. Even though [Fonda, Tomlin and I] may agree on a whole lot of things – and they may have more agreement [between] themselves because they’ve been together for longer – I still have my own thoughts and my own way of doing things. It’s not a matter of being disrespectful, it’s just, OK, that’s what they said, I’m not getting involved in it,” she says.
Is that a personal preference or for the sake of her career?
“It’s for both. I’ve got as many Republican friends as I’ve got Democrat friends and I just don’t like voicing my opinion on things. I’ve seen things before, like the Dixie Chicks. You can ruin a career for speaking out,” she says, referring to the backlash that group suffered after they spoke out in 2003 against the Iraq invasion. “I respect my audience too much for that, I respect myself too much for that. Of course I have my own opinions, but that don’t mean I got to throw them out there because you’re going to piss off half the people.”
And even when she doesn’t say anything she can still piss people off. After the Emmys, Parton’s Facebook page was filled with messages from her fans, furious that she had been (an admittedly silent) part of Fonda and Tomlin’s anti-Trump protest. Reactions were similarly virulent the year before when Parton seemed to endorse Hillary Clinton, with the supremely cautious quote: “I personally think a woman would do a great job [as president]. I think Hillary’s very qualified. So, if she gets it, I’ll certainly be behind her.” Parton later had to issue a statement saying she endorsed neither Trump nor Clinton, and chucked in an inevitable breast joke to lighten the mood. (“I might as well run myself because they could always use more boobs in the race.”) So who can blame her for preferring to avoid controversy? I tell her that I remember seeing her on Oprah in the 90s, during the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, when Parton said she couldn’t disapprove of the president because he reminded her of her brothers.
“Yeah! I know those men. In every man I see someone in my family,” she says brightly.
So does she see her brothers in Trump?
“I ain’t talking about Trump!” she shoots back sharply. Some subjects are too controversial for even Parton to neutralise.
Parton was born and raised in a one-room cabin in the Great Smoky mountains in East Tennessee. Her extraordinary rise from the depths of deep-south poverty to the pinnacle of celebrity is so well known it is close to being a myth, thanks in no small part to Parton’s own songs about her life, such as Tennessee Homesick Blues and Coat of Many Colors. She is enormously skilled at appearing to share details about her personal life without actually divulging very much. She makes frequent reference to her husband, Carl Dean, but no one has seen her with him for decades. Her physical appearance has always seemed to me like a metaphor for her actual person: she gives a lot of good – and distracting – front, but the reality is definitely obscured.
“It’s not like there’s some big mystery, I just know you can’t just … I’m just private, put it that way,” she says. “Even though I’m public, there’s still a very private side. But that’s what keeps me sane, and I guess it’s what keeps people intrigued – they think they’re going to find out something more. But you’re only going to know as much as I’m going to tell you.”
One of the things many people have tried to find out is if Parton is gay. The rumours stem from her closeness to her childhood friend, Judy Ogle, who often accompanies her on tours instead of her husband. Parton’s uncharacteristically political stance on gay rights, such as speaking out in defence of gay marriage, have also fuelled rumours, all of which Parton has always laughingly denied. Last time we spoke, she said simply, when I asked about Ogle: “Very few people know what it’s like to have a very best friend and keep that best friend all your life.”
Tomlin came out in 2013 at the age of 74, having waited until her mother died to confirm the long-swirling rumours. Did Parton know Tomlin was gay when they made 9 to 5?
“Lily? Of course! All of us knew Lily was gay for years, I didn’t know she wasn’t actually out. But I know that her mother was a southern woman and a lot of people don’t accept it, and a lot of people have suffered their whole lives because they can’t be who they are, and I understand that, too.”
Parton doesn’t blink when I follow this by asking if Ogle is with her on this trip.
“Ogle is usually with me, but she broke her hip, so she’s not on this trip. But yes, usually she travels with me. So for now I’m on my own,” she says.
Parton became famous in an era when it was taken for granted that celebrities would conceal, as opposed to today when they are expected to reveal all. Never would Parton post a photo of herself on social media without full makeup, as Fonda did last year. (“I thought it was cute, but no, never!”)
Parton’s work ethic is extraordinary, but the real proof of her stamina is her public persona, which she maintains as indefatigably as her makeup. The night before we meet, a friend at the BBC texted me to say she happened to meet Parton in a corridor, and she got “the full Dolly Parton experience”: southern aphorisms, boob jokes, sunny friendliness. Does she never get tired of having to be “Dolly Parton” for everybody?
“No, I enjoy what I do,” she says firmly. “I enjoy being loved – I love that. I always ask God to let me shine a light and uplift mankind because that is my purpose. I look fake, but my world is real to me.”
9 to 5 the Musical is now on at the Savoy theatre, London