LET ME BEGIN WITH A CONFESSION: From age eleven, when my overly permissive parents first allowed me to see the movie, until my early twenties, when I first visited Dallas—Fort Worth, virtually my entire understanding of contemporary Texas was based on The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, the bawdy musical comedy starring Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton. This is probably not something I should be publicly admitting. But I spent most of my adolescence in New York City watching movies instead of TV, hence my obliviousness to the (slightly) more accurate vision of the state being offered up in those days by the prime-time soap Dallas. Besides, the Texas of Whorehouse struck me as a pretty fabulous place, a freewheeling fantasyland that I willed myself into believing was real. The towns were all charmingly sleepy and dusty; the lawmen kept order with a mixture of testosterone and good-heartedness; the prostitutes were as wholesome and motherly as my sixth-grade math teacher. All that, and people periodically broke into country-western song-and-dance numbers. What was not to love?
Alas, most critics felt otherwise. Produced for a then-considerable $26 million, Whorehouse—which opened in the United States in July 1982—managed to find box-office success (it grossed almost $70 million) and even earned Charles Durning an Oscar nomination for his supporting role as the shady governor. But the reviews were blistering (the New York Times wrote, “This film lacks even the inadvertently buoyant awfulness that makes some bad movies fun”), and the picture’s reputation has never quite recovered. These days it tends to be regarded as one of those curiosities you stumble upon on late-night cable TV, gawk at for a minute or two, and then skip right past. The DVD version, finally released in 2003, is so unremarkable—and the image transfer so flat and muddy—that it might as well have never been issued at all.
Okay, I’ll admit it’s not exactly Singin’ in the Rain. And granted, the sequence in which Burt Reynolds sings and dances half-naked remains a blight on American cinema history that will likely never be erased. But Whorehouse’s twenty-fifth anniversary this summer should not be allowed to pass without at least a modest reconsideration. For one thing, this movie’s kitsch-tastic blend of burlesque, slapstick, and unabashed celebration of the prodigious Parton bosom seems all the more enjoyably whacked-out in an era where Pirates of the Caribbean qualifies as offbeat filmmaking. Much more notably, Whorehouse actually does manage to tap into certain truths about life in Texas: the politics, the religious influences, even the widespread affinity for aggressively teased hair and severely plunging necklines. Besides, can you name another movie musical that features song lyrics as immortal and instructive as “Pimps are something you don’t need/To get your daily business done”? I didn’t think so.
Based on a 1978 stage show (which in turn was based on a 1974 Playboy article by Larry L. King about a real-life crusade to close a brothel in La Grange), Whorehouse unfolds in the fictional town of Gilbert, where the Chicken Ranch has been engaged in the business of pleasure for more than a century. Its current proprietor is Miss Mona (Parton), who carries on a casual affair with Sheriff Ed Earl Dodd (Reynolds), who keeps an eye on the place and Mona out of legal trouble. Until, that is, a television “consumer advocate” named Melvin P. Thorpe (Dom DeLuise, wearing a wig that seems to have been purchased at a Benedictine monk’s garage sale) decides to broadcast an exposé on the Chicken Ranch and stoke the ire of religious conservatives across the state.
Watching this in 2007, it’s hard to believe that Whorehouse ever got made; can you imagine two of the biggest actors of today—say, Reese Witherspoon and Leonardo DiCaprio—starring in something so singularly focused on sex and so nonjudgmental and casual about prostitution? The movie, directed by Colin Higgins, features a certifiably deranged prologue, as narrator Jim Nabors recounts the history of the Chicken Ranch, including the curious detail that the prostitutes always check their johns for the clap before getting down to business. In the scenes that follow, things only turn weirder and more frenzied (watch for Dodd’s first encounter with Thorpe, who spends part of the scene trying to squeeze into a girdle). By the time the members of the Texas A&M football team are singing and twirling through the air in their jockstraps, the audience seems to have entered an alternate universe where just about anything can, and will, happen.
But underlying all the camp pleasure is something unexpected: a movie that grasps the unique social divisions within the state, divisions that have probably only become more pronounced over the past 25 years. Take the character of Thorpe, a New Jerseyan who moved to Houston because he thought it was a burgeoning media market where he’d be able to make a splash. It’s little wonder that he’s the villain of the piece: In Texas, all nonnatives tend to be viewed with carpetbagger suspicion until death. And speaking of Houston, the skyline is photographed as if it’s engulfed in orange flames, a kind of hell on earth—a sly reminder of the way small-town Texans sometimes regard their big-city compatriots. Even more accurate is the film’s take on the Texas political landscape, from the state senator (Robert Mandan) who denies ever having visited the Chicken Ranch a day after being photographed there with his pants down to the proudly libertarian Miss Mona, who carries a gun, wants the government to stay out of her affairs, and believes that there’s nothing dirty about a simple business exchange between two consenting adults.
If that’s not enough to sell you on The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, well, consider the gentle wisdom and pathos of the final scenes. As the story unfolds, Thorpe proves triumphant in getting the Chicken Ranch shut down. We watch as Parton sings two of her most heart-piercing songs, “Hard Candy Christmas” and “I Will Always Love You,” both about the importance of moving forward in the face of disappointment. And we come to realize that this seemingly silly movie is actually a kind of elegy. It understood that change was afoot in Texas in the late seventies and early eighties, both in the realm of entertainment (where movies like Urban Cowboy and shows like Dallas were supplanting the iconic Texas imagery of Red River and Giant in viewers’ consciousness) and in real life (where the likes of Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robertson, and Jim Bakker were becoming increasingly influential political figures). Miss Mona’s progressive way of thinking—indeed, the entire view of Texas as one big frontier town that refuses to be tamed—was simply no longer tenable in the modern world.
As it turns out, my eleven-year-old perceptions may not have been so far off. Either that, or The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas—which foresaw a Texas where megachurches bump up against strip clubs on the highways and where elected officials prefer “to dance a little sidestep” in lieu of giving constituents a straight answer—might just have been a quarter-century ahead of its time.