The original song Dolly Parton co-wrote and sang for the Netflix film “Dumplin’” is called “Girl in the Movies,” about a teen who dreams of being on the silver screen. It’s not autobiographical: Growing up, the country-pop superstar never envisioned herself as a movie star… and she never really saw herself as one in the decades since, either, despite some significant evidence to the contrary in the 1980s.
“I didn’t long to be a movie star. I just wanted to be a star,” she says. “I always figured it would have to do with my music. I kind of became one in a little sort of a way, with ‘9 to 5’ and ‘(The Best Little) Whorehouse (in Texas)’ and ‘Steel Magnolias.’ And now we’re getting ready to do a sequel to ‘9 to 5’ after 40 years. But I’m not a real good actress. I just kind of play myself in one way or another. If I was willing to tear down enough to do something like a Norma Rae or something like that — if I was willing to wear flat shoes and flat hair and no makeup, no nails — maybe I could’ve acted, but I would be so uncomfortable, I probably wouldn’t do too good. So I just feel more comfortable doing things that I relate to.”
“Dumplin’” is an odd duck, then: It’s kind of a Dolly Parton vehicle with Parton nowhere in sight. It’s based on a YA novel by Julie Murphy about a plus-sized would-be beauty pageant queen in Texas who happens to be obsessed with you-know-who. Parton was flattered when she learned of and eventually read the book a few years ago, and doubly flattered when Jennifer Aniston took it on as an acting and producing gig. She even drank it the exaltation enough to agree to lend an album’s worth of material to the movie that consists of half new tracks, half re-recorded classics, with performers from Miranda Lambert to Mavis Staples to Sia joining her. She just wasn’t flattered enough to accept an offer to be in the movie. Parton might also be the first star in Hollywood history to turn down an honorary title.
“They said, ‘Oh, you can be one of the producers. I said, no, I can’t!” she recalls. “That’s so self-serving. I’d feel stupid, like that was egotistical, like, ‘Oh yeah, I think I’m great, too.’ I said, ‘I can only be involved in the music. I’m not going to volunteer nothing. I’m just going to do what you ask me to do.’ And that’s what I did. Besides licensing some of the original music, they asked if I would write a theme song and I said ‘Well, of course.’ And they said, ‘Would you be willing to write it with Linda Perry?’ She’s from I guess a group called 4 Non Blondes years ago; I wasn’t that familiar, I didn’t know her, I never met her. and if she could produce it, and I said well, sure, I would be a team player. So I met her and we just hit it off and we started writing all these other songs for the movie, and then then we just made a whole little album.”
Parton can certainly play hard to get — ask the Stagecoach Festival bookers who go after her year after year to headline, in vain. So why was she such an easy mark for the “Dumplin’” producers? “Because this has to do with my writing, and I take my songwriting more serious than anything else,” she says. “A lot of people don’t know that about me. if I had to give up everything else, if somebody said you can only do one thing for the rest of your life — you can act, you can sing, you can perform, or you can write songs — I’d write the songs and go home.”
“Girl in the Movies” “really kind of sums up (the protagonist’s) little attitude, her little personality, her sweetness and what she wanted out of life — the big picture. I used that ‘big picture’ type thing as the movie screen picture of life, kind of,” she says. Should she get an Oscar nomination, it’d be her third, after “Travelin’ Through” from 2005’s “Transamerica” and the title song of 1980’s “9 to 5,” which you’d say was robbed if it’d lost to anything less iconic than “Fame.” “It would be great if we could get nominated and win one, one of these days,” she says, “but even just to get nominated, I could sing on the Oscars again. You like being part of the big stuff. I don’t work for awards, but it’s always really nice when you get into the big field. You feel more important, like the big people are recognizing you,” she says, suddenly sounding a lot more like the starry-eyed girl in her song than one of entertainment’s most recognizable entrepreneurs.
“9 to 5” never got her an Academy Award, but it’s a gift that keeps on giving. Although the stage adaptation she wrote the song score for — and which had Megan Hilty assuming her movie role — wasn’t a big success on Broadway in 2009, “now, because of this whole Me Too movement after all these years, it’s opening at the Savoy on the West End in London in February and is selling out all the shows. It’s alive again and I can’t believe it.”
And there’s that aborning sequel. “Lily (Tomlin), Jane (Fonda) and I always made a joke that we better get after it if we’re doing a sequel. or it’ll be ninety-five instead of 9 to 5. And sure enough, it almost is with us! Fox bought it and Pat Resnick and Rashida Jones are writing the screenplay. They’ve found a clever way to make it work, to where there’s three new young girls in the Consolidated company we worked with years ago, and they’re thinking, ‘Who were those three women that made such a difference all those years ago? We need to find them,’ so they go search us out. We’re all successful women in different parts of the country, doing our own thing, and then we kind of team up with three new people, which should relate with these problems that you still have in the workplace. But hopefully it’ll be funny. My character’s not going to be that political, because I always say, I’m not being political, y’all — I’ll leave that to Jane and Lily.”
Will there be a new song? With Parton as her own best song plugger, of course there’ll be a new song. “We’ll probably use the old one in a different way, and there should be a new song that I can write over the end credits. I did talk to them about it, because part of my original deal was that I’d be in that movie if I could write the theme song. I’ll probably make a similar deal this time,” she laughs.